Immortality isn't all it's cracked up to be

Let's face facts: A lot of interesting games out there don't get much attention, because frankly, interesting rarely equals great.

"Knights Contract" is one of that number -- a nice idea held back by several shortcomings in its design.

This hack-and-slash-style action-adventure takes a novel approach to the typical simulated co-op game. You know, ones where a player-controlled hero is paired with an AI-controlled partner.

In this case, our hero, Heinrich, is immortal and unkillable. If he gets chopped up in pieces on the battlefield, as can happen if you're not careful, it's usually an inconvenience, not a game ender.

Therefore, the challenge of "Knights Contract" lies with the player's need to protect Heinrich's all-too-mortal companion, the witch Gretchen. If she falls, it's game over; the bad guys win.

Thankfully, the game is NOT designed as one long escort mission. Gretchen has some fighting ability, so you can let her deal with an enemy or two while you focus on the big threats. And you can command use of her magical powers to restrain and damage foes. Thus, it's a symbiotic, not parasitic, relationship.

For the most part, "Knights Contract" apes "Devil May Cry," minus the gunplay. For instance,  progress is mission-based, with completion of each resulting in a scoreboard that grades you based on completion time, combat ability, items collected, etc. If you've seen "DMC," it's immediately clear what "Knights Contract" is copying.

Heinrich is a hulking fellow who wields a giant scythe, and his moves are executed with the typical buffet of button-mashed combos. It's run-of-the-mill, completely familiar. And, thus, not all that noteworthy.

Gretchen's magic adds a slight strategic element to fights, but it's more noteworthy for the visual flair on display when grasping vines and spears of ice stab up from the ground than for any actual originality.

Still, this stage of the combat experience is solid enough and faultless enough to be enjoyable.

But boss fights, of which there are quite a few, almost always culminate in a game of quick-time events during cutscenes -- and I've grown to hate these QTEs. You must press the right button at the right time as a icon flashes on the screen or else you suffer a big setback -- or even get "game over" in some instances. And that bothers me. It's bad mechanics, especially as in "Knights Contract," the timing of these is so tight on occasion that you're practically guaranteed to fail the first time through. And what should be spontaneous becomes a slow exercise in memorization.

The game does have a well-constructed, decently told story that slowly unfolds as you progress through various stages, even if the concept is somewhat confusing on paper: 100 years prior to game-time, Heinrich was an executioner of witches, believing them to be evil. His final victim, Gretchen, cursed him with immortality. In the game's present, all of the witches have come back from the dead as monsters determined to get revenge against humanity -- except for Gretchen. She's been reborn as a living woman through alchemy, and she bears no grudge against Heinrich.

Unfortunately, the storytelling happens over the course of way too many cutscenes. Fight some monsters, get a two-minute cutscene; walk down some empty halls, and get another lengthy scene. I wish they'd found a way to tell the story without constantly interrupting the game-play.

Two other big flaws with the game: The horrible camera regularly gets confused whenever fights take place against a wall or in a corner. Too many levels are confusing messes of design, leaving you uncertain of where to go next, despite the in-game map.

In other words, "Knights Contract" is fiercely mediocre.

"Knights Contract"
Platforms: Xbox 360, PS3. Reviewed on Xbox 360.
Publisher: Namco Bandai.
Price: $59.99.
Rating: M for mature.
Recommendation: Sometimes I enjoyed the game-play; other times I threw the controller down in frustration. It's rentable, but I wouldn't buy it.

Images courtesy of Namco Bandai
First image: Gretchen shows off her witchy ways.
Second image: Heinrich carves up monsters with his scythe.

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