Knights Contract: Review

Look at this guy, he is such hunk!

Knights Contract is the second obscure release by Game Republic. Like Majin and the Forsaken Kingdom, it is another very Japanese title about a lumbering tank of a character following around a nimble, skilled but frail second character.

Despite following the same path that Majin trod in terms of character outlines, there is enough difference to distance the two games.

The setting of the story is a stylised Dark Ages where the Black Death ravages the Earth. Instead of just killing humans, however, the disease turns them into slavering undead. This infection seems to be controlled by six witches, sentenced to death a hundred years ago at the orders of the Inquisition. The executioner responsible for their deaths, played by you, has been cursed to walk the globe forever. That is, until the seventh Witch appears and tells your character:

“Heinrich, get your shit together. I have some bitches to smoke.”

Okay, I may have embellished a little, but the sentiment is definitely correct. Heinrich, the dolorously slow beefcake, is bound by a contract to help the only Witch who hasn’t lost her marbles, Gretchen.

Heinrich is essentially immortal, which means that he has no health bar. In contrast, Gretchen is susceptible to every type of attack, but wields more magical power than her bodyguard. Next to his bulky, scythe-wielding mass, she offers all of the magical skills that are key to defeating most of the standard enemy types and the hulking bosses at the end of most levels, as well as a more general sense of physical vulnerability that keeps you with one eye on her health for fear of being greeted with a Game Over screen.

Enemy impalement in Knights Contract

A woman with her chest and stomach bursting outwards, having been impaled on a spike protruding from the ground. Freud would have had a field day.

There is a surprising amount of depth to this relationship, both in terms of the story and the combat. Each enemy has vulnerabilities to certain types of attack, so stringing together a bunch of slashes with Heinrich, following through with a bunch of unearthly hammers from Gretchen’s outstretched hand in order to crush an enemy’s shell and constrict them, before dealing a death blow with Heinrich can result in the pair emptying an entire room full of Black Death Dead. On the other hand, if you screw it up it can also mean the team’s imminent death, and as these weaknesses aren’t always immediately obvious it can make you feel clumsy. This is most obvious when you cleave your way through a horde only to realise that they’re taking your strikes in their stride, and some have moved around you and honed in on Gretchen.

It should be frustrating but instead it works well, thanks to the dynamic the game establishes with the player early on. This is not a game about endless combo attacks, nor is it a game where every creature is potential fodder for grandstanding. Instead, it’s about a symbiotic relationship between the two characters and how every enemy wants them both dead, resulting in them changing up their tactics. To survive, the player must do this, too.

spikes, spikes, spikes

Interestingly (and only explained in one of the loading screens) there is a way to chain Gretchen's witchcraft finishing moves. I never figured out how to do this consistently, but when you manage it you'll know as everyone dies. Painfully.

It’s this intimacy between the two characters that hit me the hardest. For example: in the first level you’re introduced to a boss who delights in repeatedly sending Gretchen flying off of a platform. This results in Gretchen shouting out to Heinrich to help her and the screen turning purple. The urgency enforced at this point – to ensure that the two characters are next to each other – is important to the understanding and enjoyment of the game.

While the forced cut scenes tend to drag on a bit, the real drama between the two characters actually happens during gameplay, nurtured by the game mechanics, where barely a word is exchanged. Part of this ties in to the fact that, although Heinrich is immortal, he can still be eviscerated. When Gretchen starts losing health there exists the ability to have her jump into his arms and, while locked in embrace, the pair will heal each other (obviously, neither can attack during this).

Heinrich and Gretchen from Knights Contract

I was told that this shot was the best composed out of all of those I took on the bridge...

This codependency outside of the combat creates a closeness between them that is born out of necessity, rather than affection or lust. As I spent increasing amounts of time watching the two dash away from peril and be comforted by each other’s company, the game created a story in my head that most certainly imparted more gravitas than the intended narrative.

This narrative reminded me of a more macho, beefcake version of Ico or a better-realised, more combat-focused Enslaved. Neither of these comparisons do Knights Contract or Game Republic any favours, though, as neither of the two games exactly sold like gang-busters. Unfortunately, compounding the negative side of such comparisons is the simple fact that Knights Contract is even more of a niche product than either of those two titles, lacking the atmospheric vision of Ico and the production values and presentation of Enslaved (sorry, having Nolan North and Jennifer Hale just isn’t enough).

Not to mention that it has some boss fights which will alienate all but the most patient…

Heinrich turning into a demon in Knights Contract

With Heinrich being immortal yet not indestructible, there are moments in the game where he will be torn asunder and it will be down to you to reconstitute him by spamming a button or summon Gretchen over to sacrifice health to put him back together – providing she has enough health to do so. This wouldn’t be such a big deal if the bosses (primarily those that appear at the midway points) weren’t the type that can one-hit disable Heinrich and/or send Gretchen to her immediate death.

I can fully understand how such challenges might infuriate some players but, at least to me, it seems the development team wanted to introduce some old-school game design. Aside from one utterly belligerent fire boss, learning the pattern of bosses and experimenting with your characters’ abilities will get you through every time.

Just don’t expect to enjoy those quick time events…

A save point in Knights Contract

Don't worry, this is not a QTE

With Majin it was clear who Game Republic were aiming to entice. The central character was lovable, and the puzzles, combat and stealth were slow, deliberate and never too threatening.

Knights Contract stars a scarred, ugly dude, a combat system that immediately begs familiarity and a control system that demands it (advice to anyone planning on playing this: switch the control system so that lock-on button is on the same side as the button used to call up Gretchen’s abilities. It will make your life a lot easier). This game seems to have been made purely as something that the developers wanted to do, rather than as a cynical attempt to appeal to a particular target audience.

This mystifying nature of the game – and the utterly condemning review from Destructoid – is what attracted me to it. And if any of this sounds appealing to you, then I strongly recommend you give it a scythe whirl.

Oh, and you should all play Majin and the Forsaken Kingdom while you’re at it.