Review: Undead Knights (Sony PSP)

Undead Knights
Genre: Action
Developer: Tecmo
Publisher: Tecmo
Release Date: 09/22/09

Let’s get this out of the way up-front: the idea, alone, of Dynasty Warriors with zombies is, to be honest, pretty awesome, and I don’t know why more people don’t do something like that. Give me an army of zombies to either decimate or direct, a blade of some type to rend things asunder, and some spiffy special effects and I’d be pretty happy with that on its own. Well, someone at Tecmo apparently stumbled onto the idea, because Undead Knights is basically a somewhat more involved version of that. Combining elements of Dynasty Warriors and Overlord, Undead Knights is a surprisingly interesting PSP exclusive title that tries to combine hacking everything to bits with troop direction and management, and in many respects it succeeds. Overall, it’s generally an interesting and amusing PSP exclusive that can mostly justify itself to fans of the aforementioned games and fans of the console alike. Whether or not the game is ultimately for you, however, is probably going to depend on what you’re looking for from it, as it’s generally a solid game in all respects, but what it does and how it chooses to do things may not be for everyone, sadly.

So the story here is one of revenge, as you’re starting off the game dead. It seems that the king of the land married a pretty and vicious young woman who pretty much took over the ruling duties of the land, and the House of Blood, one of the supporting houses in the kingdom, objected to the queen essentially taking over the kingdom. Well, the king, at the behest of his young wife, has the entire House of Blood wiped out as they are in transit to the castle to make a marriage announcement, which is certainly one way to quell unrest. In case we weren’t really ready to declare the king the bad guy in this tale, it should be noted that in addition to wiping out the two brothers, Romulus and Remus, who are in charge of the house, he also killed the young lady to which Remus was to announce his engagement, which just happened to be Sylvia, the king’s daughter. Yep. Now, in the real world this would pretty much be the end of the tale, but in this case, something brings Romulus, Remus and Sylvia back from the dead for the purposes of exacting their revenge on the king and pretty much everyone else in the kingdom, because apparently EVERYONE in the kingdom was involved in this plot. The story is one of those sorts of stories where the concepts are very medieval and the execution is very modern, as the concepts and plot elements are very “Forsooth, yon castle!” while the dialogue is very “I’m going to ruin your shit”. There’s a very fine line a plot of this sort has to tread to really work, but Undead Knights mostly pulls it off, partly because the presentation overall matches this strange tone and makes it work by force, and partly because the plot pops up infrequently, and as such doesn’t really annoy the player either way. The plot overall is a little corny at times, but frankly the concept works, and the dialogue, while occasionally cheesy, is often the GOOD kind of cheesy, which actually makes it WELCOME in most cases.

Undead Knights mostly looks pretty damn good, though it’s not the best looking game on the PSP by any means. The major characters look impressive and stylish, and the main characters and bosses are animated well and generally pleasant to see in action. The environments are mostly stylistically fitting and set the tone of the experience well, though they’re not anything spectacular. The biggest issue with the visuals is that, aside from the giant enemies and the plot-important characters, most of the rest of the units in the game are fairly repetitive. The zombies and troops look good at first, but they repeat so frequently that they become tiresome after a while, especially the zombies, which don’t really change in appearance throughout the game. Aurally, Undead Knights is straight-up good times all around, however. The voice acting is fitting, between the appropriately pissed-off sounding main characters and the various enemies they have to face down delivering their lines in a convincing fashion. The standard sound effects are effective and fit the tone and atmosphere of the game well, and destroying armies of troops comes complete with all sorts of satisfying destructive effects. The real winner here is the music, though. The background tunes consist mostly of grinding heavy guitar-based tracks that are completely appropriate for rending asunder the various enemy forces you’ll face, and it gives the whole experience this feeling of being a Manowar or Iced Earth album cover come to life. If you don’t know why that’s awesome, I can’t help you.

Undead Knights will be simple enough for action game fans and Dynasty Warriors lovers to pick up and play, though it has enough of its own novelties to make it more than just another derivative experience. You’re given two attacks, weak and strong, which you can chain together for combos and such. The X button allows you to jump, and double-tapping it allows for dodging and rolling to avoid attacks. The analog stick moves your character around, and the D-pad moves the camera as needed, though you can also tap the L trigger to snap the camera in place behind you. The three characters you’re given all fit into the expected stereotypes: Romulus is the average character, Remus is the fast-but-weak character, and Sylvia is the strong-but-slow character, so playing as each one requires its own strategies and planning. Each character also has access to the Infernal Wrath Meter, which grows as you turn enemies into undead, among other ways. Once it fills, you can press Triangle and Circle to unleash your Infernal Wrath, which, as you’d expect, is a massive damage combo that destroys enemies with little effort. It also has the bonus of allowing you invulnerability while you’re performing it, as well as turning any enemies killed by it into zombies outright, thus making it useful for levelling the playing field in a hurry. You’ll encounter all sorts of enemies, big and small alike, as you play, and you’ll basically spend your time hacking them apart through the various and sundry stages, and if this were all there was to the game, it’d really be an amusing, if unimpressive, action game for most folks.

Enter the zombie mechanic. See, your main characters, though reasonably hardy, aren’t capable of routing the enemy forces on their own, so they are given the ability to summon zombie minions to do their dirty work for them. Whenever an enemy of reasonable size is in range, you can press Circle to grab onto them and convert them into a zombie, which is called “Zombie Impact”. By default this takes a few seconds, and more powerful enemies can potentially take even longer, which might allow them to break free of your grasp. However, if you weaken the enemy first until they blink red, this reduces the time it takes for them to turn and can even allow you to instantly convert the enemy, called a “Critical Zombie Impact”, which makes converting enemies faster and can impart additional benefits, such as healing. Once you have some zombies, they serve a number of functions. Left on their own, they can tie up enemy forces and even up the odds a bit, but you can also focus them on specific enemies by holding the R trigger and pointing at someone. This makes your zombies run at the target and begin trying to rip it apart, which is usually accompanied by some grisly sound effects and blood splattering effects, and if they kill the enemy you get extra souls for this, which you can consider to be your score for all intents and purposes.

You can also direct them at environmental obstacles, such as archer towers and blockades, which will cause the zombies to try and tear these obstacles down, even at the cost of their own lives if needed. The game will also occasionally ask that you use your zombies for some more creative puzzle solving, such as making an undead bridge across a gap or tearing down a siege weapon, which will require you to target them at the obstacle, then spam a button as indicated to motivate them into successfully completing the task. Your zombies have other functions as well; you can toss them at smaller enemies to stun then or larger enemies to weaken those enemies before your attacks, hold them up as shields to deflect ranged attacks, and other fun stuff, depending on your needs and upgrades. You can have ten zombies in play at a time, so you’ll have to manage your zombies a bit to keep them around, though in many cases low-level grunts are always around for you to turn, and in rare cases you can turn gigantic enemies into zombies to multiply your stopping power.

The game also allows you to upgrade your characters by earning points during missions. At the end of each mission your performance is scored based on how well you performed, both in earning of souls and time elapsed, and you are given a letter grade which determines your Dark Energy reward. You can then dump this Dark Energy into upgrades for your characters, be they additional combos, increased attack damage, boosts to your skills, or what have you. Upgrades come in two flavors: permanent and temporary. Permanent upgrades, as you’d expect, are permanent, but cost a good bit more to apply to the characters and can take a while to earn. Temporary upgrades can be purchased much quicker and are cheaper, but they only last one scenario and also reduce your letter grade one level, since they are quite powerful, and should only be used when you’re desperate. You can also go back to earlier stages and earn more Dark Energy if you’re interested in grinding your way to victory, though you probably won’t have to do this very often if you focus on one character and learn the mechanics of the game.

The game takes about six to eight hours to blow through, but between upgrading your characters as far as you can and the multiple difficulty levels available (one of which is locked until you beat the game) you’ll have plenty of reason to come back to the game if you’re interested. Upgrading all of the characters to their maximum capabilities alone will take several hours, based on how expensive the skills are and how many there are to unlock, and the ability to go back to any stage you’ve completed and play it over on whatever difficulty you choose allows you to really get to the meat and potatoes of the game, that is, the “killing everything you see” parts. Undead Knights also offers multiplayer gameplay in three different modes. Survival Race, as you’d think, is you racing to the end of a section against a friend, trying to survive waves of enemies all the while, before fighting each other to the death. King Battle tasks both players with killing a boss, and whoever does so faster is the winner. Undead Battle amounts to you fighting an opponent with your zombies, by throwing them at each other, oddly enough. Undead Battle can be played against one friend, while King Battle and Survival Race can be played by up to four players, so you’ve got a few options depending on how many friends you have and what you’re looking to do with the game, which is generally good and gives the game added longevity outside of the campaign mode.

Now, unless you’re a big fan of the sort of hack-and-slash gameplay something like Dynasty Warriors provides, you might get a bit bored with Undead Knights, as it’s essentially the same thing, only with zombies. It’s a fun and enjoyable experience, and has enough depth to keep it going strong for a while if you’re a fan of this sort of gameplay, but someone who finds these sorts of games derivative and boring won’t spend much time with this, so that bears explaining up-front. The zombie mechanic also feels underdeveloped, and while it’s amusing and gives the game a little more weight than it would have without it, it just seems like it could have had more weight added to it. Your zombies are basically quite generic and don’t feature many design variations, and while zombifying larger enemies can be amusing, it doesn’t happen often enough in the game to break up the monotony. Using the zombies to accomplish tasks also often amounts to “break this” or “open that”, and there’s no real opportunity to get more creative with them. On one hand, the game never gets as annoying about its puzzle solving as Overlord did, but on the other, it never becomes terribly involving, either, making the whole puzzle solving aspect feel tacked on. Finally, the multiplayer, though amusing, is kind of weak, especially considering a co-op mode would have not only made sense, but would have been more fun than any of the versus modes the game gives you. Even some kind of mode where you and a friend team up to slaughter enemies in levels that aren’t part of the main story would have been pretty cool, but no such option exists here, and this smacks of wasted opportunity.

Undead Knights is still one of the better PSP games released this year, as what it does is mostly fun and entertaining, but it smacks of potential that’s ultimately unrealized in many respects. The story is amusing and enjoyable to see brought to life, and the visual and aural elements of the game are generally nice all around. The game is simple enough to play, and the zombie creation and direction elements are inoffensive and add some life to the experience. There’s plenty to do with the game for one player, if they like what the game does, and there are some multiplayer modes available if you have some friends who own the game and don’t mind beating the snot out of them. However, the zombie mechanic isn’t as fleshed out as it could be, between repetitive zombie models, a lack of things to do with the zombies, and a lack of any challenging puzzles to be solved by using them. Further, the game is fairly repetitive and will chase off players who don’t find much fun in Dynasty Warriors or comparable titles, and the multiplayer modes are limited and don’t really sell the experience as well as they should. If you’re a fan of hacking large forces of enemies apart for a few hours and like the idea of fielding an army of undead to do your bidding, Undead Knights will satisfy that urge readily, but it’s not for everyone, and smacks of missed chances that, hopefully, a serious sequel would address.

The Scores:
Story: GOOD
Graphics: GOOD
Control/Gameplay: GOOD
Replayability: ABOVE AVERAGE
Balance: GOOD
Originality: MEDIOCRE
Addictiveness: ABOVE AVERAGE
Miscellaneous: ABOVE AVERAGE


Short Attention Span Summary:
Undead Knights is a fun, if basic, PSP title that cross-breeds the hack-and-slash action of Dynasty Warriors with a dumbed-down version of Overlord’s troop management to good benefit, though it often feels like it had the potential to be more than it actually is. The story is serious enough to keep you interested and cheesy enough to keep you amused, the visuals are mostly good and the audio is generally fantastic. The game is easy to learn and play, and hacking through enemies is both satisfying and enjoyable. The zombie making mechanic is simple enough to understand and can often mean the difference between success and death, and there are some interesting applications for your zombies that make them more than just disposable soldiers. Between the ability to upgrade your characters, the option to revisit stages and play through them on multiple difficulty levels, and some interesting multiplayer modes, there’s a lot to see and do with the game if it tickles your fancy. However, the zombie concept often feels basic and unrealized, between the lack of significant zombie variety and the lack of anything but basic actions for them to perform. Further, the game can become repetitive if you’re not a fan of hacking apart everything you see over and over, and the multiplayer modes, though amusing, aren’t as exciting or interesting as they could have been. Undead Knights is fun and enjoyable, especially if you like rending faceless troops asunder, and there’s enough to the game to make it worth a look if you’re on the fence, but anyone who’s sick of Dynasty Warriors and its ilk won’t find enough here to keep the game interesting, as the game simply doesn’t do enough to be anything more than a violent hack-and-slash game with zombies in it, albeit an enjoyable one.



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