Wielding the Black Knight’s sword at PAX East
Digital Reality and Grasshopper Manufacture have already shown the world that a developer in Hungary can work together with a studio in Japan to deliver a fantastic shoot ’em up with Sine Mora. Now they’re fast on their way to proving it was no fluke as the duo enter what Digital Reality Director of Publishing Balázs Horváth says are the final few months of development work on Black Knight Sword before it launches this summer. It likely won’t be the last time they team up, either. When asked if the two would work together on a game again in the future, Horváth smiled and said only: “Yes.”
As for Black Knight Sword, it’s something very different from their last collaborative work. The studios have left the bright blue skies behind and turned their attention to a dark and dreary fantasy setting. It’s the result of Grasshopper’s unique approach to story conceptualization being funneled through the creative minds over at Digital Reality. What that amounts to is an opening sequence with a man — a man hanging by his neck. His suicide attempt doesn’t quite come to fruition, however. Instead he ends up grabbing the hilt of a mysterious sword that transforms this sad and mysterious soul into the equally mysterious Black Knight.
It’s a moniker that immediately invokes fond memories of a duel in a forest that ended with the aforementioned knight shy a few limbs thanks to “flesh wounds.” The connection is no coincidence. While I was hacking away at a flying three-headed chicken that was peppering the screen with projectiles an onlooker remarked that he saw a lot of Monty Python in the title. Horváth quickly confirmed the comedy troupe was an inspiration.
The entire experience is framed by a stage and drawn curtains and features backgrounds that change quickly and frequently to alter the appearance of stages without requiring players to leave the area they’re currently in. It’s a neat gimmick that doesn’t change the atmosphere significantly — the demo stage maintains a constant Gothic vibe that recalls the early Castlevania games from the ’80s throughout — but tweaks the look enough to keep things interesting. In one particular instance the background started pouring out water that caused the room to fill with it and allowed the player to float to the top.
Gameplay is heavy on double-jumping and tapping X to slash foes to bits. Take enough swipes at an enemy and they’ll blow apart in a mess of blood with a handful of hearts, which essentially serve as a form of XP, being left behind in their wake. In addition to picking them up after felling baddies, players can also acquire hearts by smashing open — wait for it — microwave ovens and grabbing them as they spew forth. Periodically you’re given access to a power-up screen that permits the hearts to be sacrificed to a disturbing wheel full of mouths that gobble them up. At that point a lone eyeball at the center blasts the Black Knight with a laser beam that somehow heals him or makes him stronger. Don’t ask how that works; it just does.
Power-up the Knight’s armor abilities was the most satisfying way to better prepare him since the upgrades are immediately visible, and they look good. But don’t get to used to the sweet new duds, at least, not unless you plan on not taking any damage ever, that is. Armor falls off of the player-character a few pieces at a time when damage is taken. It’s a nice little visual touch that’s reminiscent of Capcom’s Ghost ‘n Goblins series.
Not taking any damage at all is a tall order when you’re in the thick of it. Certain enemies like wolves will charge rapidly forward and tear the Black Knight up in a hurry if their attacks aren’t evaded. Others are more insidious, sitting just off the screen shooting fireballs that can sneakily damage the Knight and alter the route of what would have otherwise been a perfectly executed double-jump. Combat isn’t particularly complex (hit X for sword swipes or press Y to use magic), but it feels good, especially paired with the solid platforming elements of Black Knight Sword. Digital Reality says they’ll deliver five levels of that enjoyable platforming and action mix.
Developing a game on two different continents can have its challenges, as Horváth reluctantly admitted. Yet they’ve already pulled it off once with great aplomb and they’re well on their way to doing it again. The director of publishing couldn’t say enough good things about the experience of working with Grasshopper, and a huge smile crept across his face each time I questioned him about the partnership. Their secret to success isn’t a complicated one, Horváth summed it up succinctly: “We both know what makes a good game.”
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