Black Knight Sword

A game by Grasshopper Manufacture for Xbox 360 and PS3, originally released in 2012.
Black Knight Sword is an interesting experiment that mixes simple gameplay with a unique visual style, drawing influences from eastern European art, as well as papercraft and theater. In fact, the entire game takes place on a stage, framed by red curtains on either side with foreground lighting, and new backdrops are lowered into place as you transition from one location to another. This is not unlike the stage presentation in Cave’s Nin2-Jump, except that there is no audience in the foreground and the presentation here is far more elaborate.

The story begins with a man – or at least a ragdoll resembling a man – who has hanged himself in a hotel room. The player is guided to press the control stick to the left and right, causing the body to swing until the rope breaks. The man-doll stands and you walk him slowly toward a pile of armor lying on the ground. Then a creature called the Black Hellebore appears, resembling a sort of dark flower spirit (a hellebore is a beautiful but toxic flower). The Black Hellebore transforms into a sword that is sticking up out of the body of the knight/armor on the floor. And when you pick it up, the armor disappears, reappearing on your body as you hold the magical sword.

The sword is your primary weapon, allowing you to stab quickly forward, up and down at angles, and straight up. If you jump, you can aim the sword downward and strike from above, even pogo-sticking multiple attacks on enemies and causing them to spew liberal amounts of blood.

The Black Hellebore does more than act as a weapon, however. You can send the Black Hellebore outward to activate switches, which sometimes affect doors or other objects in the environment, but it is most often used to turn switch blocks into a solid objects so that you may stand on them. The Black Hellebore also grants you the ability to double jump, and she appears briefly when you tap the JUMP button a second time in midair. In fact, you lose the ability to double jump when the Black Hellebore is away from you, and your sword disappears as well, although she always returns quickly. The Black Hellebore can also be used to summon lightning magic at close or long range, although this ability remains locked until you complete the first level.

New abilities open up after completing each of the 5 levels, although most of them focus on new sword attacks. These attacks are useful against some of the more powerful foes, but most standard enemies can be defeated with a few jabs of your sword. Given the speed of your attacks and the ability to strike in multiple directions, you can generally rely on this single ability for the duration of the game. You can even tackle airborne enemies by jumping and striking, and you will hang in the air for a moment as you continue to attack. This strike-and-hang design is particularly useful against bosses and minibosses who must be attacked in a specific elevated weak point.

As you kill enemies, they drop hearts… Not the cute little 8-bit hearts we’ve grown accustomed to in countless adventures; rather, they drop the kind of hearts that you would find if you sliced open a nice meaty mammal. These may represent the actual hearts of your defeated adversaries, although their size is a bit too grand, and stronger enemies drop multiple hearts.

You can also find hearts in special item boxes, which appear in the form of microwave ovens. Stab the oven a few times and the door opens, revealing the prize within. In the case of hearts, these spring forth in a veritable fountain, spewing cardiac muscles in all directions with a cartoony accompanying tone. You need to be mindful of where hearts will fall, since they can drop down into bottomless pits and be lost, and they disappear after a few seconds if uncollected. Other pickups are skulls that act as health restoratives, and the occasional 1UP.

Hearts are the game’s currency. Fitting with the overall bizarre tone of the game, there is no ordinary shopkeeper; instead, you will occasionally find a winged eyeball confined in a birdcage which is supported by a human leg. Knock over the leg-stand and the cage will spring open, allowing the flying eyeball to escape. Touch the eyeball and it will summon forth the shop… a spinning eyeball thing lined with spikes and 6 mouths. The creature speaks to you in a voice you’ve probably heard before, provided you’re a fan of Monty Python… namely the gravelly voice of a man who is playing the part of a woman in a purposely exaggerated and terrible fashion.

Along the left of the screen appears a rather standard-looking shop interface that allows you to select a number of items. Cheapest among these is the ability to restore some of the knight’s health. You can also restore the Black Hellebore’s magic (which is otherwise limited to 3 uses), increase the power of this magic, increase the knight’s health meter, purchase a 1UP, or add additional defense to the knight with armor that sustains damage and breaks away while leaving your health bar intact.

The extended health meter is an extremely useful upgrade, particularly given that your health is restored between levels and upon death, and you can buy health from the shop. But you also need to be mindful of the number of lives you have remaining. Modern gamers have grown accustomed to games that auto-save at checkpoints and offer infinite lives, but that is not the case here. Along with the old school gameplay comes an old school design, requiring that players manually save their games. There is only one save slot, and it keeps track of whatever health and lives you had remaining at the time. This means that you can actually run out of lives, so you’ll need to hone your skills and get used to determining when it is better to reload a save rather than continuing.

Exploration is rewarded, with side paths often leading to microwaves with health restoratives, 1UPs, or at least a few hearts. You can also find some odd little things referred to as “cat head grass”, which are literally potted plants with cat heads. There are several hidden throughout each of the 5 lengthy levels, and some can be tricky to reach. Often these are tucked away near a bottomless pit, requiring that you purposely fall into the pit and then double jump your way back out; elsewise, you’ll lose a big chunk of your precious health. Collected cat head grass gives you a score bonus at the end of the level, and there’s a strange gallery where you can view all of your collected feline plants while they bob back and forth and mew.

Precision platforming is somewhat cumbersome in Black Knight Sword, given the weight and slow movement of the knight. The double jump makes things a bit easier and gives you a last-minute save should you miscalculate your jump distance. Short hops are possible with a single jump, but anything else requires a double jump. For the most part, complex platforming is only required to access optional side paths, but there are a number of difficult sections in the back half of the game where missing a jump will cause you to lose progress, or worse, fall into a pit of spikes. Your long invincibility period helps you to avoid taking continuous damage, but it’s still easy to kill yourself or at least lose enough health to warrant a reload.

As mentioned, the game’s overall presentation is extremely peculiar, mixing papercraft designs and eastern European art set within the confines of a stage. As you move across the stage, the backgrounds change, but rather than simply scrolling new scenery into play, the backgrounds are raised and lowered into place, or folded open and closed, accompanied by the sounds of ropes and rigging being moved “backstage”. Much of the audio accompaniment – from talented sound designer Akira Yamaoka – supports this strange setting with cartoonish noises mixed in with the otherwise standard clanking and slashing that comes from an armored knight’s sword attacks.

Most of the artwork is 2D, although platforms and certain setpieces are presented in 3D, jutting forth from the background. The front lighting causes everything to have a sharp shadow that is cast onto the backdrops. Since background objects are in 2D, complex level structures appear in layers, which appear to be 2D boards operated by unseen technicians. For instance, the rising water area in Level 2 has waves crashing down in the background, but these are static 2D images rotated to appear as though they were crashing into the multi-leveled rising water, as if being turned by stage hands. There’s even a bit of action going on in the background with repeated appearances of a stick-puppet cat, which reacts to various contextually appropriate things, like a rat in the sewer.

In fact, there’s quite a bit of cat-centric design in the game outside of the cat-on-a-stick and the cat head grass. 1-way platforms are an odd amalgamation of cat paws and tails strung together, and elevators are made up of cat noses, mouths, and fangs which act as spikes.

Also worth noting is that the game has a gigantic fire-breathing chicken that appears as a miniboss. After you defeat him, you ride him as he flies through an extended shmup sequence, shooting projectiles, picking up a few upgrades, and consuming fruit to restore his ammo. You even face off against the end-level boss in this state.

The odd presentation extends to every part of the design, with enemies including fire-burping heads, springed horse heads, walking and flying heads, and singular appearances of such disturbing oddities as a pair of half-monster half-motorcycle creatures that attack you outside a biker bar in the desert. Each stage begins with the narrator relaying a dark fairy tale – and not the friendly “cleansed” versions of the stories told to the current generation – which ties into the form of the boss you face at the end of the level.

Black Knight Sword was developed by Grasshopper Manufacture, a studio known for creating niche titles with unique audio and visual stylings, although they tend to operate exclusively in the realm of 3D. They have developed such titles as Killer 7, the No More Heroes series, Shadows of the Damned, Lollipop Chainsaw, Contact, and Sine Mora.