At this point, it’s easy to think that the Metroidvania genre has become played out. The indie community has positively run away with the genre over the past decade, producing projects that need to work increasingly harder to differentiate themselves from the pack. Still, this pressure has also bred some impressive innovation. Who would’ve thought the genre could be mashed well with a cute pinball game? Or what if your only movement option was teleporting? Super Awesome Hyper Dimensional Mega Team (no, that’s not a new Street Fighter game) has decided to take a crack at this lineage of more offbeat takes on the genre with The Knight Witch, a new Metroidvania that integrates the white-knuckle gameplay of a bullet-hell game like Ikaruga. Though it’s not perfect in how it executes mixing these styles, The Knight Witch still manages to offer a memorable and enjoyable experience that ultimately proves itself to be worthwhile.
The narrative in The Knight Witch picks up several years before the events of the game, when society was ruled by the industrious Daigadai clan. Their focus on progress at all costs destroyed the environment and led to a civil war, with the opposition being led by the titular Knight Witches. After a lengthy campaign, the Knight Witches defeated the Daigadai, but the fallout from their epic battle forced society to move underground to rebuild. Years later, the story places you in the role of Rayne, the secret fifth Knight Witch who was never powerful enough to join her sisters and thus went unknown. Things are peaceful enough in Rayne’s underground village, but events quickly take a turn when it’s revealed that the Daigadai weren’t completely wiped out and they’ve come back for revenge. With the famed Knight Witches scattered and broken, it’s thus up to Rayne to defend her home and defeat the Daigadai once and for all.
The Knight Witch features much more of a focus on story than is typical of a Metroidvania, but we feel it mostly delivers on what it attempts here. Though some late-stage plot twists are foreshadowed a little heavily in advance, we felt the developers did a good job of crafting a lighthearted fairytale that still isn’t afraid to have some serious moments when the situation calls for it. The only drawback here is that the relatively short runtime of the full game means that certain plot beats feel like they happen way too fast, to the point it can be a little jarring. Still, we enjoyed the narrative on offer here, if for nothing else than the fact that it aims for something that most of its genre peers don’t.
Gameplay in The Knight Witch is one-part Metroidvania and one-part bullet-hell shmup, and we’re pleased to report that it merges the two quite well. Rayne is constantly flying (think Aurora from Child of Light), which removes any sort of platforming challenge, and replaces it with tests of timing and steadiness. Perhaps you’ll be asked to navigate a narrow spike-lined hallway without touching any of the sides or you’ll have to work out the timing of dashing between laser traps that activate on intervals. It feels like Rayne controls a bit too loosely for what’s being asked—sometimes weaving between dense lines of bullets feels next to impossible—but the floatiness works well enough for most fights.
Levels are laid out in a traditional maze-like fashion that routes you through enemy encounters and rooms filled with traps while you seek out shortcuts and upgrades to make your journey a little easier. Map design feels a little more linear than a traditional Metroidvania, but this isn’t necessarily a drawback, as the experience overall feels quite streamlined and well-paced. Upgrades are doled out at a relatively quick pace and each biome feels like it ends just about at the point that its defining gimmicks are starting to wear thin. For example, the second major biome focuses on raising and lowering water levels by switching between your default control style and a submarine you can enter at certain docks along the waterline. It’s a fun concept and The Knight Witch does some interesting things with it, but it doesn’t overstay its welcome.
Combat is handled via a mixture of your primary fire and a series of spellcards that consume limited mana which can only be refilled by enemy drops or breaking environmental objects. Primary fire can either be aimed with the right stick while you strafe with the left, or you can simply let off the right stick and have auto-aim take over, though doing this incurs a slight penalty to your damage output. Spellcards trigger various beneficial effects—such as a homing attack that stuns enemies or a shield to catch a few bullets—and these each have varying mana costs.
The main drawback with these is that you only have three spellcards available to use at a time, which are randomly drawn from the dozen or so that you have equipped to your loadout. So, if there’s a specific card that you need in the moment, you have to burn through your available cards and limited mana until you get the one you want. In a slower and more strategic game, this would be a more enjoyable mechanic, but in the often fast-paced battles of The Knight Witch, you don’t have the time to monkey around with a loadout that might offer what you want.
Beyond the upgrades that you acquire through exploration, you can also level up Rayne by raising her link level, which represents the public’s faith in her. This is brought up by talking to and helping NPCs, and by engaging in public interviews at key story beats—usually after you’ve just beaten the boss of a biome. These interviews are especially interesting, as each question comes with options that allow you to lie. Projecting a strong image by minimizing or ignoring the things you struggled with nets you more link power and therefore levels you up faster, but this also means you have to lie and that has story implications later.
When you get a new link level, you’re then given the option to progress either your ‘Knight’ or ‘Witch’ attributes. Knight buffs will give you boons like a faster fire rate and a longer invulnerability window after taking damage, while the Witch buffs can expand your mana pool and increase the effectiveness of your spellcards. Further, the buff that you choose to pass up will be offered to you again the next time you level up and every time after that until you finally choose it. We appreciated this light approach to having a ‘build’ for Rayne; though you can’t go wrong with either choice when you level up, it’s nice to be able to shape your character to better fit your playstyle.
As for its presentation, The Knight Witch does a spectacular job of showcasing its richly colored, hand drawn art style that feels like a mixture of the visuals of Grindstone and Rayman Origins. Though just about everything takes place in a subterranean location, it’s impressive how well the developers manage to make each biome feel distinct from the next. Details in the background like the ruins of a crashed pirate ship or the ornate roots system of a massive magical tree help to give each locale a nicely ‘lived in’ feel, while nearly every screen displays an impressively broad color palette.
Matching this riveting visual display is a soundtrack that does a great job of setting the ‘fairytale’ theme while still mixing in other genres on occasion. Bigger enemy encounters, for example, will swap in rock music to amp things up a little more, compared to the more wondrous and calming music present while you’re exploring. The music feels like a perfect match for the inspired visuals regardless of the setting, and while this isn’t necessarily a soundtrack you’ll want to listen to outside the game, we think it does a great job of creating an effective atmosphere.
Unfortunately, this excellence in the visuals and sound is dampened a bit by the technical side of things, which feels like it could use a little more polish. Though we didn’t note too many instances of noticeable frame drops, there’s a certain amount of jankiness to be found in how the physics are applied. If you have Rayne too close to a wall, her primary fire suddenly stops working because bullets evidently spawn a few inches behind her and thus are spawning inside the wall. The game soft-locked on us a few times, too, because an enemy needed to unlock an arena we were locked in failed to spawn, necessitating a return to the main menu and a loss of some progress up to that point. Such issues don’t crop up commonly in The Knight Witch, but they do occur enough that it drags down the experience a bit.
The Knight Witch seems to occupy a unique niche on the Switch eShop — there’s really nothing else quite like it. It’s not the best shmup nor is it the best Metroidvania we’ve experienced, but its fusion of many core ideas in those genres is interesting and worthwhile. The adventure feels perfectly paced, the action is snappy, and though there are missteps here and there, they shouldn't disqualify The Knight Witch from your attention. If you’re looking for a Metroidvania that mixes things up a bit — and you haven’t been utterly burned out on the genre — we’d suggest giving this a look.