Let me put a word to you, folks: hardcore. That's right, hardcore. It's a word used to describe something overwhelmingly tough or resilient, something that crosses a perceived threshold of difficulty and endurance and reaches a level that few others can hope to match.
Within the world of gaming, however, the word "hardcore" has been used that stake an ideological claim towards a certain style of game and a certain demographic; a hardcore game is one that rewards the gamer for time invested, for dedication and and understanding and, most of all, for pure skill. In a market of brain games, fitness coaches and a gratuitous misuse of the letter 'z', many Nintendo fans would be forgiven for thinking that hardcore games were becoming a thing of the past.
Publisher and localisation studio Atlus, however, is determined to prove that Nintendo's best-selling hand-held is capable of catering to the hardest of the hardcore. Case in point: Atlus' latest release, Knights In The Nightmare, combines the tactical depth of a strategy-RPG with the disciplined chaos of a bullet-hell 'shmup' to create one of the deepest, strategic and most challenging games available on any console.
Knights In The Nightmare is the fourth episode in the Dept. Heaven series of strategy-RPGs from Japanese developers Sting. How the game fits into the world established by previous series entries Riviera: The Promised Land and Yggdra Union: We'll Never Fight Alone (yeah, this is the fourth episode of a three-part series, go figure) isn't stated explicitly, but so much has changed in terms of game mechanics that newcomers can treat Knights In The Nightmare as a standalone game in its own right.
The game's story centers around the efforts of a Valkyrie and a Wisp in defending Castle Aventheim against a horde of monsters unleashed during a mysterious crisis. Battles serve as stand-alone set pieces and outline each particular scenario as it plays out; upon completing the battle you're given a recap of past events that served as the catalyst for the situation you just experienced. It works kinda like a flashback from the TV show Lost and is an interesting take on plot progression with a satisfying payoff. Be warned, though: there's a lot of dialogue that takes place both during cutscenes and during battle that cannot be revisited, so for those of you determined to follow the game's intriguing plot to the end you'll need to be paying attention at all times.
For those of you who couldn't care less about the story and want to jump into the thick of the action, be warned that you'll be thrown into the deep end from the very beginning. The game's unique, action-packed take on the strategy-RPG requires you to learn and negotiate a seemingly endless amount of different mechanics and stats - so much so that you're presented with a good hour's worth of tutorials before facing your first battle. Even after these tutorials (which can be revisited at any time) the best way to get a grip on just what the game demands of you is to ignominiously lose your first dozen battles until you get a feel for the particular demands the game makes of you. That being said, there is a definite method to Knight In The Nightmare's madness, which I'll do my best to explain.
All the action takes place on an isometric grid on the DS' top screen. The player takes control of the aforementioned Wisp, a spirit of a deceased king with the ability to resurrect fallen knights to do battle with monsters and demons. Enemies attack with constant waves of energy that fly across the screen and need to be dodged in real time by moving the Wisp via your stylus on the bottom screen. The Wisp is incapable of attacking enemies directly, so in order to defeat the monsters you must resurrect soldiers and knights to do battle. Knights are placed on the battlefield prior to battle and are incapable of moving on their own, so in order to stand a chance they need to be to deployed strategically and their attacks aimed by the Wisp to be most effective against the enemy.
Each resurrected character has a Vitality stat that depletes when attacked or when using special abilities and will die permanently if that stat reaches zero. Items pour out of deceased enemies like power-ups from your favourite scrolling shooter that need to be collected by the Wisp, which can then be dragged and dropped from the menu onto characters during battle. The length of each battle is governed by a delayed timer that, rather than counting down like a regular timer, counts down after turns or when the Wisp is hit by an enemy attack. That doesn't seem too bad, does it? Well, wait, there's more!
In order to complete each battle, enemies need to be defeated in accordance with a tic-tac-toe-style Kill Grid displayed on the bottom screen; each enemy takes a unique spot on the grid, and defeating enemies so as to create a line horizontally or vertically on the grid is required to properly progress. The game world can be set to either Light or Chaos which changes the enemies' attack patterns, shields certain knights from damage and reveals certain hidden items not available in the alternate mode.
The game's cast of nearly 200 recruitable characters can be levelled up through reliving previous battles, upgraded to new classes, equipped with 150 different weapons, made to permanently join your party through the use of key items hidden in each battle and even merged together to create new soldiers. These and many other gameplay mechanics too esoteric to describe along with the somewhat overwhelming stat gauges and menus present during battle and the constant need to dodge a screen full of intricate bullet patterns will eventually become second nature, but lesser gamers, be they lacking in skill or merely patience, are likely to be turned off the game within minutes. Perseverance is of the utmost importance (and if all else fails, there is an Easy mode).
Knights In The Nightmare's core gameplay is easily matched by its remarkable production values. The game uses a menagerie of hand-drawn character art imagined with soft, foreboding colours and lighting against a backdrop of darkness that is both beautiful and somewhat foreboding. The game's magic and special attacks are all suitably flashy and the game rarely suffers from slowdown even during the most intricate enemy barrages.
The game's environments are all quite similar but even after countless hours with the game they never tire to look at. The huge amount of on-screen data during battle borders on excessive at times - to the game's credit, the various menus and read-outs are always legible and rarely interfere with the game, but at times it's almost as if Sting set out to deliberately intimidate or confuse players.
The game's soundtrack is one of the best of any DS game, featuring a large number of tracks that combine modern harmonies with both traditional and synthesized orchestration to stunning effect. Atlus and Sting are understandably proud of the game's production values, with each retail copy of the gaming packaged with a full CD soundtrack and each pre-order rewarded with a limited-edition book of concept art - the perfect final touch for what is overall an extremely impressive package.
Let's be clear here: Knights In The Nightmare is a game designed for a very niche audience. It is a game that almost revels in being inaccessible to the average gamer. By this point I'm sure you've already decided whether Knights In The Nightmare is or isn't for you, but those of you willing to take the challenge will find a beautiful, genre-bending game with near-endless amounts of strategy, customisation and content. Truly, Knights In The Nightmare is a game worthy of the title "hardcore".