Review: Knights in the Nightmare (Sony PSP)

Knights in the Nightmare
Publisher: Atlus
Developer: Sting
Genre: Strategy
Release Date: 11/05/2010

When Knights in the Nightmare originally released on the Nintendo DS, I must admit, I was a bit hesitant to try it. After all, if I have to spend hours looking at tutorials before I can even begin playing the game, perhaps the game will be far too complex to be enjoyable. So I kept putting it off, vowing to someday revisit it and find out what the fuss is all about, but I just never did.

Fast forward to 2010 and the PSP port is finally here. Despite the reservations many people may have had about the original, apparently enough people bought it in order for us to recieve this version. However, since this is a game designed for the Nintendo DS with touchscreen controls in mind, how well does it make the translation? Is it a rushed port or a new reason to pick up the game?

Let’s Review

One of the things people don’t generally tell you about Knights in the Nightmare is that it isn’t just learning the game that takes awhile to get off the ground. The story is slow moving as well. Fortunately, it’s just intriguing enough to where you’ll want to know what happens next even before things start to really get interesting.

Knights in the Nightmare takes place in the kingdom of Aventheim, shortly after the death of King Willmgard. A mysterious armored woman frees a wisp which is believed to be the spirit of the deceased king, the likes of which you’ll be playing as. You’ll encounter many fallen knights during your journey which may be recruited to fight by your side in a similar fashion to Valkyrie Profile. Unlike that game, however, these knights have very little backstory and most aren’t featured in more than one scene during the game. And how could they be, with a promised 200 characters being included as part of the game’s storyline?

Even though the characters are merely set pieces to tell a much larger story, the tale, by and large, is a very good one. Events unfold in two ways. There’s the scenarios that occur in real time which follow both your wisp as well as happenings with the mysterious armored woman and residents of Aventheim. There are also things that occur in the past, taking place prior to the start of the game. After every scene it will flip-flop between these two perspectives and, although it is a bit jarring at first, you’ll get used to the flow of the story being told. It’s also a plot that starts out very confusing, but quickly unfolds into a grand political tale that will have you hooked until its conclusion.

It’s important to note that Knights in the Nightmare is part IV in Sting’s Dept. Heaven series. It was preceded by Riviera and Yggdra Union as parts I & II respectively. I’m not sure what happened to part III, though perhaps they are purposely creating holes which they will fill later with different games. Regardless, I had not played either of those games before picking up this one and I was still able to follow the plot, so no previous experience is required.

Story/Modes Rating: Good

I checked out the DS version just so I could see what the differences were in this department (as well as the controls, which I’ll get to later) and the PSP version really shines. Not that there was anything wrong with the original; I thought the Nintendo DS title was a very good looking game, and it has been made even more so by the PSP hardware. It’s merely a 2D game, but the sprites are very detailed looking and reminded me a lot of Disgaea. Also, despite the small stature of the characters, they have a surprising range of animations that they can use during the game.

The backgrounds which you’ll do battle on are equally as detailed. Some landscapes, such as the forest (which you’ll spend a good portion of the game in for awhile) are very detailed and filled with lush plant life that brings the world around you to life. The only problem with these landscapes is that you’ll be seeing the same ones over and over again, but at least they look good, right? Despite that, it’s a very impressive set of visuals for a title not rendered in 3D.

Graphics Rating: Great

The soundtrack is hands down the best thing about the presentation. One of the perks for paying a premium for the Nintendo DS version was actually getting a copy of said soundtrack, and for good reason. Its orchestrated tracks provide some much needed atmosphere to the various battles and scenes and the soundtrack is of a quality I haven’t heard from a portable game in a long time. There’s also far more clarity to it due to the PSP hardware, so that too is a definite plus.

There isn’t much in terms of voicework in this game (just as there wasn’t in the DS version), though given the lack of any real character development in Knights in the Nightmare, I can’t say that this would have added much to the experience. They do shout attack and special skill names during battle, which are done in a very cutesy, anime styled manner. It can get repetitive at times, but it is never so distracting as to annoy the player.

Sound Rating: Classic

There were two things that came to mind immediately when I started playing this game. One was “uh… what?” and the second was “um, how am I going to explain all of this in a review if I don’t fully understand it myself?” There’s a reason that Start Game is the second option behind the tutorials. Seriously, when you access the tutorial list and then hold down on the d-pad, it takes a whole five seconds just to get to the bottom. Yeah. Luckily, as long as you get the basics down, the rest falls into place rather quickly.

Basically, it goes like this: you play as the wisp during battle and must micromanage your knights while simultaneously dodging attacks thrown at you by your enemies. These come in the form of bullets, spider webs, bubbles, and other random paraphernalia that can sometimes cover the screen during the crazier bits of the game. Luckily, these things come at you slow, so you don’t have to worry about a shmup level of precision dodging.

In the DS version, you would use the touchscreen to guide the wisp. Since the PSP does not have this capability, you instead must use the thumbstick to move the wisp around. The face buttons are delegated to speeding up and slowing down the wisp to make dodging easier for you. There’s also a button dedicated to switching between the Law and Chaos modes, which is a vast improvement over having to draw on the touchscreen. The controls made a smooth transition, and I’d almost go so far as to say that I prefer the PSP controls more. The one thing that did irritate me is having to cycle through all the units one by one to select them during the tactics phase. It would’ve been easier to just allow the wisp to hover over them and select them that way.

Speaking of the tactics phase, it is here where you’ll decide which knights will be used in the coming battle. You can use the ones that are put in place for you (along with a chance to recruit them) or you can substitute your own. Sometimes you may have to, since certain knights can only face certain directions, and the ones that can move can only move in those directions. You may inadvertently move your knight into a corner where they are no longer effective. Think of your knights as chess pieces in that you must position them in accordance with how they move and how they attack.

Also, during the tactics phase, you will have to assign weapons that, based on their individual elements, may be effective on the enemies you face. You’ll also want to bring special items with you that may be used to recruit knights that are already on the field, such as a scarf or a tea cup or something. There are also non-knights that litter the battlefield who may give you a weapon or other such valuables if you give them a unique item in return.

Once you are in combat, hovering over a knight and hitting X will charge up one of their attacks. Striking your opponent in this manner barely does any damage to your enemies, but it allows you to acquire gems that recharge your MP and allow you to use your truly devastating skills. To use these, you must drag a weapon from one of the four corners of the screen to a knight that can use it and hold it in place so they can charge up the attack. When you let go of the button they will unleash the skill and damage whatever enemies are caught in range. Part of the challenge is that the enemies can still move while you are waiting for the skill to go off, so you may miss them completely, not to mention that they are simultaneously attacking you.

There are also two phases to take into consideration, Law and Chaos. Certain skills can only be used in a specific phase, so you’ll have to keep that in mind as you place your weapons and knights. Also, the more you attack in a specific phase, the less fog there is, and also, the less MP gems you can gather. It reminded me of Ikaruga in a way, with how there are two phases that must be flip-flopped to be successful.

Each scene consists of several turns, and you have a limited amount of time you can spend attacking before the turn ends. You must defeat your enemies before the turn is up, otherwise, if you run out of turns, you lose the game. Taking damage as the wisp causes you to lose time, though if you have an abundance left over, there is an option on the menu to trade in remaining time for experience. Winning a scene doesn’t mean you have to defeat ALL of the enemies, however. There is a small grid located on the corner of the screen with each line representing an enemy. You must create a line across going in any direction in order to succeed. Part of the strategy is trying to use the roulette round in between turns to get the enemies you need to complete a line to appear.

Once the battle has been won, there’s a phase of micromanaging your party and equipment. You can choose to level up certain weapons or merge them together to create new ones. Same thing with your knights. Leveling them up not only increases their stats, but also increases their vitality, which is drained when you use them in battle. You can also fuse knights together to make them stronger, but such an action is permanent, so you have to think carefully before doing this.

Honestly, I could go on and on about the nuances of the combat system and the leveling system, but the bottom line is that it is a complex system that takes some time to get used to. Fortunately, the PSP version does inject some tutorials in between the scenes of the main game, so if you foolishly skipped looking at them before you started, they will be presented to you seamlessly during the game.

Control/Gameplay Rating: Good

Once you finish the game, you can access a New Game+ mode that allows you access to two additional scenarios, including one featuring Princess Yggdra from Yggdra Union. The game doesn’t change that much, but it presents another opportunity to collect various items and knights that you may have missed the first time around, which is something that proves to be a challenge in of itself.

There are also four difficulty settings you can attempt to play through as well. You have access to Easy and Normal right from the get go, but successful completion of the game will net you a Hard mode too. And if you can get through that, you’ll also acquire Nightmare mode. Enemies don’t really change their behavior much, just their HP and the number of turns you get.

Replayability Rating: Above Average

Despite all the quirks of the combat system, the game is actually pretty forgiving, particularly on the easier difficulties. Even if you lose, it’s not like you are losing a ton of progress either. Also, you may miss out on items to use to recruit knights later in the game, but this is hardly gamebreaking if you miss one, since there are No Name knights that will join you temporarily from battle to battle.

One thing I will comment on is despite Sting’s improvements to the way the tutorials are introduced to the player, I feel like more could have been done. This is still one hell of a daunting game to learn how to play, and any attempts at “just winging it” will be met with failure. That said, if more tips or something could have been provided during the course of the game so that the player would not be overwhelmed by mountains of tutorials even after getting through the important ones, it would have been a huge help. It’s up to the developers to make the player feel comfortable playing the game, and doing otherwise may turn away potential players.

Balance Rating: Above Average

Even though it’s a port of a Nintendo DS game, this is still one of the most unique titles I’ve ever played, even for an Atlus game. It takes elements from shmups, real time strategy games, and RPG’s and throws them all in one big pot. Even that doesn’t accurately describe the kind of gameplay you’ll be experiencing. It’s truly one of those titles you have to try for yourself to really know the flow of game. As I mentioned above, it’s a tough game to learn, but once you do, it makes for an incredibly rewarding experience.

Originality Rating: Classic

Despite my praises for Knights in the Nightmare, it is still a game that I can only handle in small doses, much like any puzzle game I’ve ever tackled in my life. It’s kind of like crossword puzzles in a way. They are a fun diversion, but would you really want to spend several hours in a row concentrating on something like this? Granted, I think this game is more fun than any crossword puzzle, but the amount of thought and concentration that goes into preparing for each scene of the game is rather taxing. Fortunately for it, it is still a game I want to keep coming back to.

Addictiveness Rating: Mediocre

Appeal Factor
Knights in the Nightmare is an incredibly niche title, there’s no doubt about that. To further the barrier of entry even more is the steep learning curve it takes to even grasp the rules of the game. When someone learns that they have to spend at least an hour doing tutorials before they can even begin understanding the game, that turns off a lot of people. Heck, it’s the main reason I haven’t played the game until now. I find tutorials, as necessary as they are at times, to be incredibly boring. I like to just jump into a game and fumble my way through it until I figure things out for myself. This is a title that doesn’t really allow you to do that and so I had to bite the bullet and learn how to play the correct way.

That being said, I’m glad that I finally leaped that hurdle and played it anyway, because it made for a worthwhile experience. However, I know a lot of other gamers will not give it the same chance, which is truly a shame, but it’s the kind of territory that comes with this sort of game.

Appeal Rating: Bad

If you have any reservations about trying Knights in the Nightmare at all, then perhaps this will perk up your ears. Purchasing this game will net you a download code for Yggdra Union. That’s right. By buying this one game, you will get another full priced game for free. When you consider that Knights in the Nightmare is only $29.99 (which is already cheap for a PSP game), that is an absolute steal. So basically, even if it turns out you don’t like this game because of its steep learning curve or whatever the reason may be, you have a whole other title to fall back on. There aren’t very many games that give that kind of security to your purchases, and this is a fantastic perk.

One minor quibble about this version of Knights in the Nightmare compared to the one released on the Nintendo DS is the loading times. They are far more numerous and, although they don’t last very long, are kind of a nuisance. The version I played was the downloadable version from PSN, so this may impact you more if you’re playing the UMD. Just something to keep in mind.

Miscellaneous Rating: Classic

The Scores
Story/Modes: Good
Graphics: Great
Sounds: Classic
Controls/Gameplay: Good
Replayability: Above Average
Balance: Above Average
Originality: Classic
Addictiveness: Mediocre
Appeal Factor: Bad
Miscellaneous: Classic

Final Score: Good Game!

Short Attention Span Summary
Knights in the Nightmare attempts to recapture the magic of the Nintendo DS version and adapt it to the PSP hardware, and to that end, it succeeds. Although it does introduce some of the tutorials during the course of the story, it’s still a tough game to learn. So if it you were put off at all by the learning curve of the original, this version won’t do much to change your mind. If you’re willing to take the time to learn the game and look past all its quirks, what you’ll have is a unique game presented with some nice visuals and a superb soundtrack in addition to a well written story. And, hey, a free game download doesn’t hurt either.



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