Game Republic’s Knights Contract fails on every level a game can fail. Its brawler play is broken; its grim fantasy version of 15th-century Germany is a jumble of drab, confusing corridors. Its characters are ugly, empty vessels for exposition; its story lumbers and lurches with little logic to hold together its continuity. The list goes on and on. If not for the fact that it’s possible to play the game start to finish, it would join the ranks of videogames’ most reviled titles. Knights Contract is just shy of being 2011’s Superman 64.
The game’s premise, as a gory anime take on the Faust legend, has merit on paper. You play as Heinrich, a neckless bruiser who once acted as the executioner for a witch coven accused of causing the Black Plague. Tricked into killing the innocent witches so Faust can obtain their seven pieces of the Anima Del Monde—a gem that grants its possessor wishes—Heinrich is cursed with immortality when he executes the last witch, Gretchen. Knights Contract picks up 100 years later, when Faust has helped resurrect the witches as monsters seeking revenge on humanity in his quest to get their jewels. Gretchen, resurrected in a bikini-and-chaps-wearing homunculus body, seeks to stop Faust, and offers to lift Heinrich’s curse if he’ll act as her knight. The play is an extension of the theme. Heinrich can’t die, so rather than having a diminishing health bar, you have to protect Gretchen in combat. On his own, Heinrich is like a graceless Kratos, wielding a giant folding scythe that allows for simple light/heavy attack combos with some grappling thrown in. The play gets its complexity from Gretchen’s six upgradeable spells, which work like traps, allowing Heinrich to execute monsters in cartoonishly gory ways—attack, hold down a trigger to activate the Enoch’s Hammer spell to knock the monster into the air, press B for elaborate finisher.
This would all be fine if it was executed with any competence. The combat is weightless: Heinrich’s attacks often pass right through enemies instead of convincingly connecting. Since the spells are trap-based, they need to connect with enemies to work, but they’re inconsistent. Sometimes an airborne enemy will fall on the spear spell, sometimes not. Sometimes the finishing-move button appears, sometimes it doesn’t. The novel basis for survival—Heinrich can be dismembered in battle, necessitating rapid button-presses to revive him before Gretchen dies—is never explored in any meaningful way. Drab, confusing level design exacerbates these problems: Most of the game’s 20 chapters take place in the same five large environments, but each arena and corridor looks so similar to the last that it’s easy to get lost. (There’s a map, but it doesn’t indicate where you entered, so its usefulness is limited.)
The story offers no relief. Gretchen, Heinrich, and the rest aren’t characters so much as mouthpieces for exposition that’s doled out in awkward, frequent cutscenes. Their motivations are a mystery—Heinrich never really expresses any opinions about being immortal, and Gretchen is only trying to stop the villains because protecting people is in the “Witch’s Code.”
These are many more problems—a bug-ridden mess of a mid-game boss fight, frustrating retreads of earlier levels in the game’s back half—but they’re too many to list here. Technical excellence does not a great game make. By the same token, a game can be great in spite of mechanical and thematic problems. Games with broken parts can still succeed. Knights Contract does not.