Review: The Knight Witch
William Goldman wrote the novel The Princess Bride inspired by stories that he told to his two daughters, who at ages 7 and 4 requested a story about “princesses” and “brides” respectively. That’s the origin of that title. Yes, an excellent novel which was adapted into an amazing film came from just slamming two concepts together into one thing years before the Internet decided that slapping “ninja” or “pirate” onto everything made it better for some reason, a practice which has only worked once (Dr. McNinja) and never again.
What was I talking about? Oh, right, The Knight Witch, which is totally unrelated to any of that except for the fact that it has a title with a similarly straightforward “let’s mash two concepts together” feel to it. More relevantly, though, it’s a video game that promises to be a metroidvania title while also being something of a shoot-em-up, two great tastes that do not seem to naturally lend themselves to one another.
So is The Knight Witch a good game that works, or does it wind up tasting as bland and uninspired as something like the generic “zombie pirate ninja” you’d expect from the less creative corners of our online space? Find out now before it releases for the Nintendo Switch, PC via Steam, Xbox, and PlayStation consoles on November 29th. (The Steam version was played for this review.)
The Knight (Witch)’s Tale
So first of all, it’s worth noting that The Knight Witch’s title is as much of a lie as Final Fantasy, because there is not the Knight Witch. There are five Knight Witches… eventually. At the start of the story, there are four, empowered by the hopes of the people in a struggle against the Daigadai and their golem minions to avoid the destruction of their land. While the Knight Witches are successful in the playable prologue where you control Robyn, their leader, ultimately too much damage has already been done to the land and the people retreat into a subterranean dungeon that becomes their new home.
Cut to some time later as the player character, Rayne, prepares for the celebration of Robyn’s Day with a degree of consternation. Rayne was initially meant to be a part of the group of Knight Witches, but unfortunately she washed out of training, and she’s subsequently spend a lot of time being Definitely Not Bitter while living with her husband, Akai, who is basically an adorable supportive cinnamon roll and who kind of resents the Knight Witches for sidelining his wife.
Of course, any video game starting with you preparing a celebration is contractually obligated to have you get attacked in the process, and wham, right on time, in come war golems led by the heir to the Daigadai attempting to capture the inhabitants of the underground refuge and destroy the Knight Witches. Does this mean that it’s now Rayne’s time to shine?
Yes. Immediately. That’s the point, right?
This is in no way meant to be mocking or dismissive; indeed, the plot not only has a degree of self-referential humor along the way but also clearly enjoys acknowledging its silly elements without an ounce of shame. “Sure, this is a little goofy, but you’re playing a video game called The Knight Witch,” it says. “Enjoy our characters and our story without worrying if it’s silly.” And you can, because said characters have strong and charming characterizations, said story moves along at a brisk pace while remaining engaging, and you always have a clear sense of the stakes, your goals, and the issues involved.
It’s definitely wearing its inspirations on its sleeves, and you can tell from even early on that the game has more going on under the hood than just “Knight Witches good, villains purely evil.” But it’s compelling and fun to go along with, and I liked the people I was supposed to be rescuing and the protagonist. That’s more than enough.
Escape From (Knight) Witch Mountain
So here’s the fundamental issue that you’re going to see the moment the game starts: Rayne can fly. Actually, that’s a misnomer. It’s not that Rayne can fly; she does fly, all the time. She zooms through the sky as her means of movement, and a metroidvania game is usually all about seeing ledges you can’t reach and being like “how am I going to get there?” (Or “please don’t make me do stupid shinespark things to get there, I hate the shinespark so much” if you’re me.) That’s harder to do when you’re constantly flying.
As it turns out, though, I needn’t have worried. Sure, you’re not locked off from areas because you can’t make a jump. Instead, you’re locked off by barriers you can’t bypass, doors locked from the other side, and the like. It may reduce a touch of the genre’s exploration by allowing you full freedom of movement, but it doesn’t lack for optional areas… especially since one of your first abilities points you toward your next objective, which all but encourages you to go explore off the beaten path.
The flight also plays into the fact that the game is also part shmup, complete with bullet-dodging and firing back at enemies. Rayne has two options for shooting; you can hold down a shoulder bumper and fly freely and she’ll auto-aim at the nearest target, or you can manually aim with the right analog stick as you shoot. That makes it easier to miss but it also means you do more damage, and so smart play is recognizing when to focus on dodging and when to focus on aiming. Since swapping is as easy as letting go of the right stick, it’s very intuitive.
Rayne isn’t limited to just shooting bullets at things, though. She also has access to spell cards which are part of a larger deck. Each time you use a card, another random one from your deck replaces it. Each card also requires a certain amount of mana. There are power-up items you find throughout the world that either increase the size of your deck and your mana gauge or increase your health; you can also choose to focus on spellcasting or on bullets each time your Link level rises as you help more people in the world.
Unfortunately, spellcasting does run into a problem for two reasons. The first reason is that it’s obviously hard to predict which of your random spells will come up next. The second is that it’s unnecessarily difficult to refill your mana mid-battle, which means that often outside of boss fights – like during the locked-room gauntlet fights which happen frequently – you can cast your initial spells and then you’re out of luck for quite some time. This is frustrating when it doesn’t need to be, and more passive mana generation would help a lot.
That being said, the variety of cards available work well; you can equip alternative styles of bullet, create barriers to hide behind temporarily, bypass defenses with powerful attacks, and even manipulate the environment to a limited extent. While availability in combat can be a problem, the spell cards don’t lack for impact, and the option of having more deck slots and more mana is useful even if you want to have a more bullet-focused build.
Combine that with unlocked abilities as you progress and you have all the elements in place for an enjoyable experience. It does fundamentally require you to like both shmup games and metroidvania titles, and it’s not entirely either one of those, but it is a nice blend of them.
First Knight (Witch)
The sprite work in this game is simply outstanding. There’s no other word for it. It reminds me a little bit of Metal Slug both in the ornate mechanical designs for mechanical enemies and the simple fluidity of movement for every single one of them. I appreciate elements like how Rayne’s sprite has different animations depending not only on which way she’s moving but where she’s aiming relative to her motion, as well as her different spellcasts and reactions.
Despite being a detail-heavy game, the art doesn’t get cluttered, it’s clear where the foreground and background separate, and bullets are easy to read against the background. It’s also easy to tell enemy projectiles from Rayne’s, and different bullet types behave differently and have different requirements.
All of this is enhanced by the soundtrack being lively and atmospheric, with the music shifting into combat themes very naturally while also having a calm and open vibe as you search through zones for items and your next destination. It’s hard to recommend or highlight specific parts, but that’s because like the best examples of its genre, the pieces are all part of a sonic whole; they blend together and feel like this game.
It is worth noting that the game seems to have unusually long load time for me, although I’m not sure why. It’s also worth noting that this game is not a game with wide margins of error. At the start of the game Rayne can take three hits. Three. Life upgrades are not common, and you have to choose between a life upgrade or a mana upgrade right from the start, and it is in fact a real choice rather than one being obviously better than the other. Fortunately, continuing from where you left off is relatively painless and rarely involves running a gauntlet early on.
The Worst (Knight) Witch
Don’t let the header fool you; there’s a theme going on with these section titles. The Knight Witch is not going to be everyone’s cup of tea, and if you find shmups or metroidvania titles to be less than fun this is not going to be the one to convert you. If you like one or the other, though, this is easily the sort of game you owe it to yourself to explore.
And if you like both of them? I like the latter more than the former, but I do enjoy both, and it became very easy to sink lots of time into this game very quickly. Removing some of the more awkward moments of “am I supposed to be able to make this jump yet” early on makes everything feel more natural, and this game is easily going to fit into my space of comfortable replays when I want to search around and see what’s out there. It helps that it’s also a game with build variety from the start, because even if you get the same upgrades in the same order the way you engage with the game changes if, say, your spell deck is all offense vs. all defense.
Fans of exploration and shooters are strongly encouraged to try out The Knight Witch, because it’s a little indie title that’s going to charm you with both its story and its gameplay. What do you know? Mashing concepts together worked out pretty well here after all.
Review copy provided by Team17 for PC. Screenshots both taken by reviewer and courtesy of Team17.