America - Front
America - Back
By Evan Norris 28th Nov 2022 | 2,001 views
If you had to distill the design philosophy of modern video games into a single word, it might be "mashup". Long gone are the days where you could easily compartmentalize games into broad buckets like strategy, shooter, or sports. Now you're more likely to find a rogue-like life simulation or a battle royale platformer. Into this landscape arrives The Knight Witch, which boasts a grab bag of mechanics and gameplay notions that don't typically live side-by-side. Part twin-stick "bullet hell" shoot-'em-up, part Metroidvania, and part deck-builder, it's emblematic of the current push toward sampling, fusing, and, ideally, creating a whole that's greater than the sum of its component parts.
Set 14 years after an apocalyptic battle that scorched the earth and broke the sky, The Knight Witch follows a gentle, kind woman named Rayne who lives in the peaceful subterranean realm of Dungeonidas, the only habitable place left on the planet. On the anniversary of that battle, in which the people's champions (the Knight Witches) defeated the Daigadai Empire, the idyllic beauty of Dungeonidas is interrupted by swarms of robotic golems — unseen by anyone since that fateful day and assumed to be destroyed. When it becomes clear the four famous Knight Witches are missing in action, the government calls on Rayne, who trained alongside them 14 years ago, to save the day.
The story in The Knight Witch has a lot going for it. First, Rayne is a very sympathetic heroine, with a fun and happy personality. Spending time with her is a joy. Second, many of the characters who surround her are compelling in their own ways. Rayne's husband, Akai, is an honorable man and loving partner. Indeed, the relationship between the two is one of the healthiest ever seen in a video game — a guileless partnership built around mutual trust and respect. The other Knight Witches are fascinating in the ways 14 years of celebrity and peace have changed them.
That brings us to the third thing that elevates The Knight Witch story: its outstanding work with theme. Underneath the surface-level story of a realm under attack from invading golems are several powerful themes that touch on hero worship, political propaganda, environmental collapse, and the unreliability of history written entirely by the victors.
While the game does a great job weaving themes throughout its storyline, it struggles a bit with pacing. What begins as a leisurely adventure with a slow drip of information ends in a hurried manner, with too many revelations, twists, and villains showing up in close proximity. That said, even the "villains" of the game are treated with humanity. Ultimately, The Knight Witch spins a tale with plenty of subtleties; characters don't fall neatly into black-and-white categories of good and bad, and even the most hurtful actions come with some form of justification.
This nuanced narrative approach extends into gameplay during several press conference sections that arrive after each successful mission. Here Rayne is instructed to stretch or obscure the truth to keep the citizens of Dungeonidas happy and to strengthen "The Link", the metaphysical bond between the population and the Knight Witches that serves as the source of their superhuman powers. These sections are appealing in theory, but don't really add much value to the game. If you choose to tell the truth, and nothing but the truth, you'll end up with a clean conscience but far less Link — a fair trade-off, right? However, you can simply deposit collected shards into a machine after the fact to raise the Link yourself, which takes all the peril out of speaking candidly. In general, the morality system in the game is a bit under-cooked.
Conversely, the shoot-'em-up mechanics, around which the bulk of the game is based, are cooked splendidly. The Knight Witch is many things, but at its core it's a twin-stick shooter, and a darn good one at that. Essentially, Rayne flies around the halls, chambers, rooms, and mazes of Dungeonidas shooting anything that moves. The left stick steers the fifth Knight Witch in any two-dimensional side-scrolling direction, and the right stick aims her blaster around her in 360 degrees. Moving around in the air gives the sensation of freedom and weightlessness, and the tight controls guarantee precision. In terms of momentary gameplay, The Knight Witch is pretty great.
The combat situations are similarly strong, although a bit unforgiving at times. Perhaps the game's greatest strength in this area is the sheer diversity of enemy types. Each biome has its own set of monsters with distinct attack patterns and bullet types. There are airborne golems that fire spread-shot blasts; water-based creatures that attack with snaking depth charges, fixed turrets, and many more. The circumstances under which you fight these foes change as well. Much of Mirror Lake is spent underwater in a submarine where firing is limited to the X-axis. Later on, in Forge Fields, background towers will lock on to you and fire, unless you're behind something solid. It's an interesting challenge.
The downside to all this is that sometimes the game can become a little too challenging. The Knight Witch describes itself as a "bullet hell" shooter for a reason. There are moments where the screen is dense with deadly bullets and swarming enemies, especially during "ambush" rooms. If you fail any of these multi-wave survival segments — and you will — it's back to the last save point. Overall, there's a fair bit of trial and error in The Knight Witch, brought on by a few difficulty spikes.
The good news is that there are ways to prepare for and soften the difficulty of the game, particularly in the second half when more paths and power-ups become available. As you earn more Link, you'll level up and increase your offensive capabilities and spell slots. If you explore off the beaten path you'll find upgrades to health or magic, plus powerful spell cards and shard deposits.
This is where the game's Metroidvania approach factors in. As you explore the domains of Dungeonidas, you'll come into contact with gated-off areas. Once you earn more abilities, you can return to these sites to find the treasure or imprisoned NPC beyond. While the Metroidvania formula is good per se, it doesn't fully mesh with the remainder of The Knight Witch. The game is set up rather linearly, with a mission-based structure. With one late-game exception, the different biomes aren't connected to each other; rather they're linked via teleportation device only to the central city. This hub-and-spoke layout works well, but doesn't provide the organic interconnectedness you want from the sub-genre.
The lack of connection points and shortcuts also makes backtracking a bit of a chore. If you're deep in one territory, you'll have to retreat to the warp entry point to travel to another territory, and then push forward from there. Toward the end of the game, you can gain the ability to use the warp system from any save point, but you can never warp between save points, which would save a lot of time. Moreover, the game's map isn't ideal when it comes to tracking rooms with left-behind secrets. The good news: if you explore and unlock enough in Dungeonidas, a helpful NPC (who acts as a stand-in for the game's developers) will grant you the ability to see secrets on the map.
Some of those secrets represent magic cards, essential to building a robust deck of spells for combat encounters. You see, while Rayne can put up a fight with her blaster alone, she needs to deploy spells against the enemy to survive. From each save point, she can pull cards from her deck and set them as active. Out in the wild, they'll appear randomly in her three spell slots. Players must mix and match cards for the best build and always be wary of the mana cost for each card. Cards are not consumed after use, but rather return to their active slot and appear again, always at random. Some spells, like Death Spiral, are powerful "memento" spells, earned after defeating a boss. Now, not every card is essential, or even useful. In one fourth-wall breaking conversation, a funny NPC even acknowledges that "some of the cards we offered in return were really bad..." Still, the customization options are a treat.
So too is the game's value proposition. This is a substantial adventure, when all the optional content and backtracking is factored in. I finished The Knight Witch just under the 18-hour mark, with approximately 95% of the game completed.
There's a lot to do and accomplish in The Knight Witch, but there's also a lot to see, including the gorgeously-realized underground world of Dungeonidas. Artists Enrique Corts, Mar Hernández, and Jeff Mahadi have worked wonders here, turning in some truly opulent hand-drawn art that keeps you coming back for more. The attention to detail is impressive. While the game's soundtrack can't compete with the extraordinary visuals, it's dependable in its own way. The theme song for Mirror Lake is a highlight.
Technically, The Knight Witch performs well, apart from a couple of minor issues. When things get a little too busy on screen, the game will slow down slightly. In addition, when moving from one biome to another, expect long load times — around 50 seconds each. Finally, there is one major technical concern unnoticed during my playthrough but reported by publisher Team17, specific to the console versions of the game. Apparently the game runs at a speed considerably faster than the PC version. As a result, according to the press release, "the gameplay experience has been significantly affected and does not reflect the original version that the developers created." In my 18 hours with the game, I didn't observe anything unusual, so I can write with confidence the game is eminently playable on Switch as is. Patches will arrive soon for all console versions, including those on PlayStation and Xbox systems, which are now delayed to December 2.
The Knight Witch, like so many modern games, embraces the mashup. By combining bullet hell shoot-'em-up gameplay, Metroidvania-style exploration, and tactical deck building, developer Super Awesome Hyper Dimensional Mega Team has crafted something original and unique. There's nothing on the eShop quite like it, in fact. Due to a few issues with its component parts, including difficulty spikes and laborious backtracking, the game never quite rises to greatness. Still, there's a lot to admire here, including superior moment-to-moment gameplay, amazing art, and a nuanced story rich in metaphor.