There is a good game here...somewhere.
Knights Contract is a third person hack and slash, and the last game by Game Republic, the now closed Japanese studio responsible for the likes of Folklore and Majin & the Forsaken Kingdom. Now if you played either of those games and felt they showed potential, but were frustratingly hamstrung by design flaws, then you’ll know exactly what goes on in Knights Contract. For everyone else though, the game is just a complete mess.
The story of Knights Contract centres on the immortal Heinrich and the witch Gretchen. Both of whom are forced to team up to defeat Gretchen’s resurrected and now vengeful witch sisters who are terrorising humanity. The most interesting aspect of the set up is that Heinrich executed Gretchen and the other witches one hundred years ago, and it was she who cursed him with immortality.
Now the story had some potential in its two leads for a bit of tension, but hoary old JRPG-style clichés come in and ruin proceedings, and it is not a good sign when the villains are the guys (mainly girls, actually) you want to see more of, if only for their silly, over-the-top villainy. The various witches you fight are well designed and unlike Gretchen and Heinrich, actually seem to be enjoying themselves, which is probably the right fit for the game, as po-faced worthiness tends not work unless the dialogue is elegant, which it certainly isn’t here. The character development is not all that great, but both Heinrich and Gretchen are likable enough by the time the credits roll. However, their dialogue is just incredibly clunky and clichéd, where exposition is almost always substituted in for actual drama.
The gameplay in Knights Contract however, is certainly a little more ambitious than its narrative. The central idea is that you are immortal and must keep your, admittedly powerful, AI companion safe as you fight (in more ways than one) the game’s twenty chapters. Knights Contract plays very much like Darksiders in terms of its pure combat, but with the addition of Gretchen’s magic attacks. Although you do not control Gretchen directly, you do control her attacks and can use the right trigger to swap between Heinrich’s normal physical attacks and Gretchen’s various witch powers. By using a combination of both, you can create a number of powerful combos.
The thing to say about the AI companion mechanic is that it never really feels like an escort mission, and I was surprised by how little I was frustrated by it. In my time with the game, the AI rarely got itself killed (most deaths came from me being flung off a platform) and I never had to keep my eye on it all that much. The ability to carry Gretchen and recover health is a nice touch and can be very useful when things get a little difficult. However you will find that most of your frustrations will come from other places and it is in these other aspects where Knights Contract truly falls down.
For starters, there are numerous technical problems. Navigating simple menus is slow and arduous, and you can see each frame as the various bars and screens slowly shuffle into view. The frame rate drops all the time in battles, but luckily it never becomes too bothersome unless things are particularly hectic. Screen tearing goes on in cut-scenes pretty much every few seconds and it all becomes rather head scratching when you consider how poor the graphics are. Artistically the game is nice, but the execution is something of a joke. The lighting is such that characters become caked in a weird slimy texture in a lot of instances, and the detail in many environmental textures will pop in and out of view as you pass by. The camera is also pure garbage; like showing you a boss, not where she’s throwing her fireballs, or not showing you the edge of the platform where you are standing, trying not to fall off. There is a lock-on system as well, but I suspect you’ll rarely use it simply because the camera angles it gives you are so awful.
There are a number of positives to be found. The fundamental combat is actually quite fun and the way you mix up your own physical attacks with Gretchen’s magic can be really satisfying, especially as you upgrade them to deal more damage and increase their range. Finishers are easy to pull off and the sense of power you feel when carving up hoards of monsters is probably the high-point in the game. The boss battles can also be good fun, if you are not missing QTEs or fighting the camera, that is.
The aesthetics are also quite striking, despite the lacklustre graphics; the plague-ridden, medieval visuals could have made for a rather atmospheric and good looking game, if made by a more competent developer, while the music is an impressive blast of dramatic orchestral pieces. It should also be noted that despite the use of QTEs, the scenes in which they are used are well shot and generally quite exciting.
In the end though, it is disappointing that a developer who so clearly had imagination and some neat ideas, never managed to refine them and make good on the promise they held. Knights Contract is almost as definitive a Game Republic game as you could imagine in that respect; interesting aesthetics and ideas buried under an unforgivable avalanche of technical issues and shoddy execution.