Imagine waking up in your hotel room to find a dead body laying on the floor at the foot of your bed. Here in Chicago that can be a commonplace occurrence, but for those of you in fairer parts of the country and world this would likely cause you quite a shock. Especially if said dead corpse was wearing menacing black armor had an enormous sword stuck in the ground near it.
Naturally, your first instinct would be to call the police. However, the sword looks pretty badass and you’d like to take a few swings with it before your friends with the talking brooches arrive. As you place your hand on the hilt, the aforementioned black armor on the corpse magically transports itself onto your body and you are hurled into a string of adventures as a strange black knight with an enchanted sword.
Black Knight Sword is a strange fairy tale which has developer Grasshopper Manufacture and Suda 51’s hallmarks (such as buckets and buckets of blood, nightmarish monsters, and a very strange world) woven throughout it. Once players don the armor of the black knight, who is actually the hero in this story, they will embark on a quest to put an end to the reign of the tyrannical Evil White Princess. Basically, all tropes of this kind of story have been flip-flopped and twisted right from the get-go, so players will never really be able to predict just what happens next.
The visual aspect of Black Knight Sword’s story is relayed with in a unique style based on Kamishibai story telling from 12th century Japan. Buddhist monks used paper scrolls to relay moral stories to a mostly illiterate audience. In the case of Black Knight Sword these “scrolls” have been given movement, and feature static characters on top of a moving background to give the illusion of the character moving. The look of these scrolls has been captured wonderfully by the art team at Grasshopper Manufacture, and it really gives the game the feel of an interactive storybook and can make it easy to forget that you are actually playing a very challenging video game.
I’m really not sure what ancient Buddhists would say the moral of this story is.
It is nice to see that the developers didn’t spend all their attention on the looks of the game and then slack on the music. The soundtrack of Black Knight Sword is amazing orchestral (with hints of opera) fare that really furthers the sensation of being at some sort of wonderfully gory theater. This music is ambient, but very easily heightens the creepy and dramatic elements of the game.
Black Knight Sword is very much a Metroidvania type of game, meaning that it is a non-linear action-adventure game with heavy elements of platforming woven in. While exploring the Black Knight’s twisted world, you will find yourself backtracking, and quite possibly downtracking and uptracking, in order to find each branching path or each pot of Cat Head Grass (don’t ask). The platforming elements of this game range from simple to outright brutal, but there is a high degree of cleverness put into the design. One thing that makes the platforming unique is the utilization of Hellebore, the spirit that resides in the Black Sword. Players will often have to release Hellebore so she can turn on platforms and make them solid so the Black Knight may jump on them.
Combating the twisted enemies of this game is fairly simple and enjoyable hack-n-slash fare. When the game starts, the knight will often be stabbing his foes, but as the game progresses he will earn new attacks or powered up forms of old ones. Often it seemed that the key to success in a battle was knowing when it was okay to go in and just wail on a bad guy wildly, and when to take a moment to strategize and pick your timing properly to avoid the game over screen. Thankfully, the game has abundant checkpoints so when you do die, you won’t be replaying an awful amount.
The Black Knight’s fairy friend has a sweet magic attack she can use.
To help you along your journey, there are floating eyeballs that serve as shopkeepers. They will sell you things like life meter refills, 1UPs, and also temporary upgrades to the Knight’s armor. You pay for these items with the piles of human hearts you collect from slain enemies and the microwaves that serve as item boxes in the game. If you’ve never played one of Suda 51’s games before, this will sound gross and weird. If you are a fan of his work, this will sound delightful and charming and really indicates just how much fun you are in for if you choose to pick up this game.
The knight’s armor may be black instead of shining, and he may be trying to defeat the princess instead of save her, but that’s just part of what makes Black Knight Sword a great game. It is a game that takes what could be a somewhat conventional and boring fairy tale, turns it on its head, and sets it all in a world that could easily be described as a schizophrenic person’s nightmare. All of this is wrapped up in a solidly built action platformer that has been rendered in a beautiful ancient Japanese art style and is sprinkled with some haunting music. You will never be bored, and you will constantly be grossed and/or stressed out while playing this game, which is to say you will be consistently entertained the entire time you play; even if you are a puny noob playing it on easy (like me).
Pros: Suda 51’s twisted mind has churned out what is sure to be deemed another classic game by his somewhat cultish following. Black Knight Sword is a great game for those looking for something old school with a demented new school twist.
Cons: The sheer and utter weirdness of the game’s environment may make it inaccessible for some people.
Verdict: If you are brave enough to take up the sword and assume the mantle of the Black Knight, you will be very glad you did.