The twisted minds at Grasshopper Manufacture are back at it again with their latest eccentric downloadable title that invokes the old school gameplay of games like Castlevania and Ghost ‘N Goblins. Black Knight Sword is overflowing with an abundant amount of style and weirdness but a few bumps along the way can deter players from truly appreciating Suda 51 and company’s take on the world of storybook fantasy.
Black Knight Sword‘s adventure takes place on a Marionette Theater stage in front of a virtual audience that reacts to your exploits by applauding your achievements and groaning at your defeats. Accompanied by a humorous (and sometimes morbid) narrator, your tale begins with a suicide, but your body reanimates and fuses with a menacing suit of armor powered by a “sword spirit” named Black Hellebore. Embodied with Black Hellebore’s powers, the Black Knight will travel across five levels full of surreal, grotesque abomination like two-headed obese men flinging eggs, overgrown flowers that spew free-falling projectiles, or freakish spring-mounted horse heads during his quest to rid the world of the evil White Princess. The variety of enemies is minimal but eavh emits a sound that is disheartening to hear, thanks in part to Akira Yamaoka’s (famed Silent Hill composer) extraordinary talent for producing uncanny and peculiar effects.
The fundamental story never explains why your character takes up his sword and dons his namesake armor. It’s a tad disappointing to be left in the dark on his backstory, but the inclusion of end level boss’s vignettes provide an interesting synopsis of their villainous ways. The sketched, classic ‘Brothers Grimm’ visual aesthetic embodies the game with a sinister feel as set pieces are set on a 2.5D plane with animated “background” creatures represented by cutouts on sticks. The paper-like backgrounds also constantly change throughout your adventure, and it’s entertaining to witness how dramatically each one transforms as you make your way to the end boss. Although the settings and characters are grimy-like and dark, Suda 51’s trademark quirkiness is prevalent – you will come across microwaves that act as item boxes and hidden “Cat Head Grass” collectibles which are potted plants with darling feline heads protruding out of them.
Black Knight Sword gameplay consist of platforming and hack-n-slash segments, his sword functions more like a spear. Rather than swinging it around in a sword-like fashion, Black Knight uses his sword to jab his foes. These rapid thrust can be aimed in any direction, but he is incapable of moving and attacking at the same time. Black Knight does learn a more traditional sword swipe ability later on, as new moves are added to his reserve after each boss fight, but the charge-up nature of some of his attacks make them impractical for constant use. A puzzle mechanic is also introduced with your “sword spirit” being used to activate switch blocks and temporarily stun your enemies. As a platformer, Black Knight Sword is about as basic as they come, with the typical small platforms over bottomless pits and timing sections making up the bulk of each stage.
Stabbing select microwaves and enemies will earn you currency in the form of hearts that can be redeemed at shops ran by a multiple mouth, flying eyeball creature. This inane-voiced monster sells health refills, extra lives, and various temporary and permanent modifications, such as limited-durability armor, extra health slots or an increase in your sword’s attack power. Managing hearts and spending them on the right upgrades is integral in successfully surviving Black Knight Sword‘s surprisingly stiff “Normal” difficulty. Even on Normal, I found myself getting aggravated by multiple deaths but similar to the daunting difficulty of Dark Souls, the fault of any given failure is rightly placed on the player as your enemies inhibit a peculiar behavior.
The controls of Black Knight can be temperamental at times with evading an enemies attack or performing a double-jump being somewhat unresponsive. Every attack must be properly calculated as your health is extremely limited. Once Black Knight’s lives have been spent, which happens rather quickly, you are presented with two options: restart, or quit to the main menu. Restarting places you back at the very beginning of the level and removes any accumulated hearts, magic attacks and/or power-ups you’ve acquired before your untimely death. Alternatively, you can can quit to the main menu, reload your most recent save and start back at the nearest checkpoint with everything you’ve worked so hard to achieve. It’s obvious which choice is clearly superior, but throw in the lack of an auto-save function and you’ve got the makings of a strenuous experience.
Black Knight Sword invokes beauty and creativity in some areas and infuriating fury in others. Playing through on the Easy difficulty not only removes the frustrating deaths, but it makes your quest so simple that you will lose interest quickly. Stages are littered with power-ups that grant maximum health and a few stabs from your sword easily disposes the bosses. Completing Easy mode unlocks an Easy Mode +, which is the middle ground between Easy and Normal. This explains the substantial gap between difficulties, but once you’ve completed the journey there is no real reason to playthrough again. Besides an interesting sequence in the third level and an awesome final boss battle, Black Knight Sword follows a mundane journey composed of repetitive boss battles and agonizing defeats.
Overall Black Knight Sword is a memorable game because of its art style and profoundly creepy atmosphere. It’s unforgiving difficulty, nearly nonexistent plot, and awkward controls are certain to frustrate some people but those who are fans of Grasshopper Manufacture and Suda 51 will look past these shortcomings and enjoy the ride.
Editor’s Note: Black Knight Sword was reviewed using an Xbox 360 copy of the game. If further investigation reveals any differences between the 360 edition and the PS3 edition of the game, this review will be updated to reflect those differences.