About three-quarters of the way through Knights Contract, I noticed the architecture. For reasons too bizzare to bother spoiling, a long stretch of the game takes on an Inception-style anything-goes approach to the architecture of the player's surroundings, and it's lovely. It's all stone pillars and bridges reaching in all directions under a maize-colored sky, very much worth stopping for a second and looking around.
It's not really all that much better than anything in a hundred other games out there, but by that point, it was a surprise to see something in this game that isn't aggressively awful.
The reason I had noticed the architecture at all, honestly, is because I'd stopped moving. I was tired. Over the course of that chapter, the game's heroine -- a witch named Gretchen -- grows weary of her journey. She says things like "what a bother" and "let's get this over with," sentiments uncomfortably close to ones I wsa feeling at that very moment. For too much of its considerable play time, Knights Contract feels like a chore.
The player takes on the role of Heinrich, an executioner cursed with immortality by the aforementioned witch as revenge for the execution of herself and her "sisters", a handful of other witches. It seems she wanted to give him the chance to atone for his sins, given his hesitation to carry out her execution, a spectacle arranged by a fellow named Faust. As Goethe slowly turns in his grave, we catch up with Heinrich 100 or so years later when a version of the black death that apparently turns people to zombies is ravaging the world. Slicing and dicing the suddenly bloodthirsty masses, Heinrich is searching for someone or something that can reverse the immortality curse.
Of course, he finds the same innocent (and now resurrected in the body of a supermodel) witch that he executed a hundred years before. She holds the key to reversing the curse. First, though, she needs Heinrich to take down the man who gave the order for her execution, who now threatens the world as they know it thanks to his desire for infinite power, wisdom, and life. In the process, Heinrich needs to execute all of the other witches a second time, as they also have been resurrected and are being manipulated by Faust to destroy the "renegade" Gretchen.
Knights Contract feels unfinished at best and lazy at worst.
What follows is an escort mission, one similar enough to the one that Enslaved offered just a few months ago to inspire flashbacks. Heinrich may be immortal, but Gretchen can die, and if she does, it's back to the last checkpoint.
To be sure, Gretchen will die. She has lots of nifty spells at her disposal, spells that only get niftier as the game goes along, but nifty spells are not nearly enough to mitigate an escortee that is all too willing to run right into the most dangerous spot in a battle and then ... just ... stand there. She'll cast the odd attack spell every five seconds or so, but mostly, she'll stand there getting killed as quickly as she can. As long as Heinrich stays in one piece, it's not all that difficult to bat away aggressors, but when he takes too much damage, he quite literally falls apart. You then jam on a single button for a good six or seven seconds to put him back together, T-1000 style. Too often, it takes much less time than that for Gretchen to be impaled on a very large sword.
This issue is compounded at boss battles, most of which a) take a solid ten minutes or so, b) feature a multitude of instant death conditions, and c) all culminate in unforgiving five-step quick time events, for which failure results in the boss getting a third (or in one late, infuriating case, all) of its life back. The bosses are impressive, sure, but you don't spend any time looking at them, because you're too busy picking Gretchen up and trying desperately to make sure she doesn't get killed, which she usually does anyway.
While the cooperative AI draws most of the ire, plenty of other parts of the game inspire eye rolls. The story itself is not bad, but the dialogue is overwrought and undercooked. The voice actors do their best with what they're given -- and hey, Nolan North and Jennifer Hale are along for the ride! -- but they talk and they talk about things that simply do not need to be talked about, all for the sake of exposition. Many chapters involve walking back and forth across a labyrinthine map, the terrain of which never changes. And of course, there's the utterly unnecessary "special attack" that finds Gretchen going Doctor Manhattan and turning into a naked blue giant, all so that she can do a naked karate kick or a naked hand-crush or a naked, uh, mermaid thing that kills everybody.
From the awful AI to the jittery camera to the hazardous-to-controllers difficulty spikes, right down to the grammatically-challenged title, Knights Contract feels unfinished at best and lazy at worst. Judging from this and the similar recent release Majin and the Forsaken Kingdom, Game Republic seems to have a thing for stretched-out escort missions-as-games. But if it's going to convince us that that particular trope is truly a worthy of a full game, it's going to have to do much better than this.
This review is based on the 360 retail version of Knights Contract provided by Namco Bandai. Mike Schiller is a Buffalo-area software engineer and wannabe game journalist who is currently writing for PopMatters and the Raleigh News & Observer. His three kids think it's neat that one of his "jobs" involves playing lots of video games.