There are few things on this earth as expansive and wonder-filled as the imagination of a child, and there are few games that can communicate this concept as effectively as Knights and Bikes. The latest release from Foam Sword – a studio comprised of some ex-Media Molecule staff – manages to perfectly convey the carefree and curious nature of childhood adventure, while also hitting enough notes to be a decent co-op action game. Although the gameplay doesn’t do anything new or particularly compelling, the overall aesthetic of the presentation and storytelling guarantees that Knights and Bikes is an unforgettable co-op adventure.
The story takes place on the mysterious Penfurzy Island, where long ago a treasure was hidden on the island by fearless knights and subsequently cursed by forces unseen. Nessa, a seemingly orphaned girl, comes to the island in pursuit of the lost treasure, and she then becomes fast friends with the energetic and imaginative Demelza, who lives at a trailer park/golf course run by her dad. Demelza initially doesn’t really believe in the treasure, but she quickly changes her mind when she and Nessa inadvertently trigger what seems to be a real curse on the island.
This is perhaps the handle of what gives Knights and Bikes such an effective edge in its storytelling. The narrative being told from the perspective of two young girls leads to a lot of elements of magical realism appearing, and it’s never made exactly clear whether events are actually unfolding as they seem or if the kids are simply lost in their own fantasies. Naturally, things only get more fantastic as the two continue their treasure hunt, and this long journey does a wonderful job of conveying the purity and depth of their friendship. Little things like how Demelza gets possessive over Nessa using her bike, or how the two will make aeroplane noises if you hold down the run button, act as small but significant character moments that capture each girl’s personality in heartwarming ways.
Though full of verve and whimsy, Knights and Bikes also proves to be a bittersweet tale in many respects. Demelza, for example, lost her mother in an accident prior to the story’s beginning, and one poignant early scene sees her showing Nessa a shrine that she built where she talks to a cutout of her mum and does crafts with it. Moments like these help to inject the narrative with some much-needed gravitas, while giving the two main stars believable dimension that makes them that much more lovable. This careful balance between glee and gloom is expertly struck by the developers, making for a tale that draws you in all the more as the hours roll by.
Gameplay could be most closely described as a much more linear, co-op focused take on the Legend of Zelda, with each playable segment mostly comprised of a mixture of easy puzzles and light combat sections. Each girl obtains unique special abilities along their journey that often need to be used in tandem with each other for progress to be made, and these abilities can often be used in more than one way. Nessa, for example, gets to use water balloons at one point, and these can create puddles which can then be splashed in using Demelza’s boots to cause literal splash damage to enemies. Though puzzles are seldom of the variety that you really need to stop and think about what comes next, they manage to put up just enough of a fight that they’re entertaining. The same could be said about the combat, too. You can dodge roll and use a mixture of chargeable close and long-range attacks to fend off all manner of weird monsters, and though combat is exciting and fun, it never proves to have much depth to it.
Though not an open-world adventure, exploration still proves to be a key factor in Knights and Bikes. Checking under rocks and inside sealed boxes, for example, will often yield you a few treasures (the game’s currency) to add to your collection. These treasures take the shape of random things like worms and tiny toy robots, and they can then be taken to the bike shop and traded with the friendly shopkeep for new cosmetic upgrades (like flags and wheel decorations) to your bikes. Perhaps it would’ve been more interesting if the exploration was more concerned in offering up gameplay-affecting upgrades and boons, but this focus on cosmetic change means that you can do as much or as little poking around as you want without affecting your game progress either way. And plus, some of those cosmetics are pretty cool; who wouldn’t want a flag on their bike with worms all over it?
We feel that the focus on co-op play in Knights and Bikes is something that warrants further discussion, given that you have the options to play either solo or with one other friend. If you choose to go it alone, you can swap between controlling Nessa and Demelza at will, with AI taking over the other girl. Though it does have a tendency to get hung up on level geometry now and then, we were mostly impressed at how effectively the AI manages to handle whatever role it needs to for the situation. You can make it through the whole ten(ish) hour experience with just this AI partner, then, but we would argue that’s missing the point of Knights and Bikes entirely.
This is a game that’s meant to be played with a friend, tying in well with the overarching theme of friendship. For example, several mini-games pop up throughout the adventure where the two girls will directly compete with each other in, say, a race or something similar. The outcome of the competition is irrelevant – there’s no game overs or consequences like that – but competing against a lifeless AI takes away from the parallels that the developers are clearly trying to draw between the girls and whoever happens to be holding the controllers. It’s not about the competition itself, it’s about the bonding taking place between two people, whether they’re on screen or sitting on the couch. This philosophy extends to the whole game with its focus on co-op and while, yes, you can make it through all the obstacles and challenges alone if you choose, you’re missing out on a critical component of the experience by not having a friend on hand to enjoy it with you.
We’d be remiss to discuss Knights and Bikes without paying special attention to the excellent presentation on display throughout the whole adventure. Rex Crowle’s significant art direction is endlessly charming, packing each scene with an abundance of small, quirky details that all look as if they’ve been sketched with crayons. The over-the-top expressive faces the characters make throughout the story are a sight to behold, and all of this is matched by an equally gripping sound design that never misses a beat. A lot of personality is brought into cutscenes through the usage of random samples, such as a jaguar call when Demelza talks about a particularly mean goose, while environmental sounds such as the soft blowing of wind as the girls explore do a lot of legwork in helping to set the scene.
From stem to stern, Knights and Bikes is a delight to behold and a testament to the creative power of the talent at Foam Sword. Demelza and Nessa’s story is a compelling one that hits all the right emotional and comical beats, while the laid-back gameplay proves to be varied and interesting as the narrative continues. All of this is tied together by some stellar presentation to make for a couch co-op experience that you won't want to miss out on. We’d give Knights and Bikes a strong recommendation whatever way you choose to play it, though bear in mind that you’ll be getting the best and most fulfilling experience if you play it through with a friend.