There's no shame in taking the easy way out, especially when playing a gruesome platformer like Black Knight Sword. Its five stages don't appear insurmountable at first, but it doesn’t take long for merciless traps to pick away at your confidence and measly stock of extra lives. The chilling presentation and strict mechanics may lose you at first, but digging deeper into Black Knight Sword heightens your appreciation for its intricate web of creative misdirection. Expect the worst when venturing into this world, and you'll be rewarded with stylish and satisfying action.
It starts innocently enough: the game is presented as a staged performance, and as the main menu loads, the orchestra warms up while a lively audience chatters away. Once you begin the Story Mode, a narrator with a chilling timbre gloomily introduces the scene. He presents it in the typical “dark and stormy night” manner, but there’s never any mention of the events or characters at hand. It’s a mysterious start, and the only way to get any real context for Black Knight Sword’s plot is to sit idle at the main menu. After a few moments, a semi-hidden prologue reveals that the you have been reborn as the agent of a sword spirit and sent on a mission to destroy an evil, murderous princess. The fact that these breadcrumbs of plot points aren’t readily communicated is odd, but in the context of the ominous performance in which the gameplay exists, the ambiguity gives your imagination plenty of room to wander.
Nearly everything in Black Knight Sword resembles papercraft. Though enemies may occasionally appear organic, they’re animated like an unsophisticated marionette puppet and movement is limited to simple joint articulation. Terry Gilliam of Monty Python fame seems to have been a major influence, but with a dash of Edgar Allan Poe’s morbid sensibilities thrown in for good measure. Most of your enemies resemble mishandled biological experiments fit with miserable expressions and droopy, lifeless flesh. There are occasional deviations, such as ravenous wolves and brightly colored sewer slimes, but you’ll spend the majority of your time fending off decapitated heads of various shapes and sizes. The motif does wear a bit thin, but variations in enemy design and mannerisms prevent its use from growing completely stale.
The soundtrack is in many ways the most absurd element of Black Knight Sword, and there’s nothing quite like battling waves of sorrowful foes and bravely leaping for perilous ledges while a demented cacophony of atonal string instruments and hauntingly repetitive vocals attacks your senses, and perhaps your sanity, too. The entire aural and visual presentation is a stressful combination of ungodly sights and sounds that are anything but pleasant or endearing, but they ultimately work in the context of the game’s nightmarish setting.
As the Black Knight, your sword is your primary survival tool. You are limited to thrusting attacks in the early going, other offensive moves must be unlocked later. Your thrust is a quick motion that can be repeated in rapid succession to quickly deliver multiple strikes, but you are unable to do so while in motion. Thrusting in mid-air allows the Black Knight to hover in place, and you can also use it like a pointy pogo-stick, repeatedly stabbing enemies below.
New sword abilities become available as you progress through the game, including an upward swing and the ability to fire projectiles, but the basic thrusting action remains the best tool for the job in most scenarios. Your new, flashy abilities are never truly required though and are only useful on rare occasions. When you need to hit an object or enemy at a distance, you do have the option of projecting your sword’s spirit, but it’s a slow process that hampers your ability to attack or double jump until she returns to her sword form.
Though he wears heavy armor, the Black Knight is surprisingly nimble, capable of sprinting, double jumping, and backflipping when necessary. You spend a lot of time fighting enemies, but some of the game’s most challenging segments involve navigating lofty platforms, all the while avoiding spikes, pitfalls, and stacks of flame spewing heads. The mix of demanding platforming and tricky enemy patterns makes timing your jumps and strikes a delicate procedure. It’s almost too easy to take damage and jeopardize your progress unless you consistently play your hand just right. Mastering the required timing takes a lot of practice, but its incredibly motivating when you finally figure out how to tackle a particular stage without losing lives. In most platformers, it doesn't mean a whole lot to have to restart a level, but in Black Knight Sword, stages can last upwards of thirty minutes.
You can save your game at anytime during a stage to preserve your progress and accumulated items at the the most recent checkpoint, but choosing when and where to save can be tricky at first. You have two options when choosing to continue: you can load your last save and give it another go or restart the level with a fresh stock of lives. Save at the wrong time, and you may find yourself stuck in an impossible situation without enough health to finish the level.The second options sounds reasonable enough then, but it comes at the cost of your health and equipment upgrades, the former being a crucial element to your survival in the long run. Enemies drop currency in the form of beating hearts that you can spend on said enhancements and it can take the better part of five stages to realize your full potential. So what then do you do when confronted with the roadblock outlined above? At some point, you wouldn't be crazy for thinking a complete restart is in order. You may even feel the need to set the difficulty to easy.
There’s so much more to Black Knight Sword than completing the Story mode a single time that you shouldn't concern yourself with proving your worth right away. Plus, when you ultimately reach the end of the final stage for the first time, you’re unceremoniously thrust back to the start of the game after a meager, unfulfilling ending. Not unlike the classic, Ghouls’n Ghosts, this is the game’s way of telling you that you need to do it all over again if you want to see the true ending. Thankfully, it opens up the New Game + option that allows you retain your armor and health upgrades. Only when you can play with a fully-realized Black Knight from the start does the Normal difficulty begin to feel like a reasonably accomplishable task.
After completing the Story Mode a second time, you may be tempted to explore the additional content in the Arcade and Challenge modes, but it’s unfortunately more of the same. Arcade mode remixes enemy layouts and removes the ability to continue after losing all of your lives. It’s the most difficult rendition of Black Knight Sword’s five stages, which is saying a lot, but it’s not exactly new content. Challenge mode consists of twenty-five brief levels that are essentially glorified time trials, but Black Knight Sword’s gameplay doesn’t fit within that mold very well. Frustratingly, most challenges start you off with a single unit of life and your attempt ends the moment you even touch an enemy. Add that to the lengthy process required to restart a challenge and any remaining motivation to press on quickly disappears.
It takes time to master Black Knight Sword's strict mechanics, so expect to expend some effort conquering each stage without losing a life or two. People with the perseverance to do so will discover that it’s actually fair and balanced in all but a few minor instances. Challenging games aren't inherently bad unless the gameplay is somehow broken, but Black Knight Sword’s adherence to a high-standard of difficulty will ultimately turn a lot of people off. If you prefer your platformers charming and whimsical, this game is best avoided. If, however, you’re looking for a challenging, action heavy platformer that’s reminiscent of old-school behemoths, waste no time picking up Black Knight Sword on either PSN or XBLA.