Review: Bahnsen Knights

18 Dec 2023

Time is a circle, and what’s old is new again. There’s been plenty of aesthetic throwbacks in recent years, most typically to the 64-bit era, following along the 16-bit nostalgia wave previously. But poking in at the margins here and there is a growing trend of games imitating the early PC games of the 80s.

Bahnsen Knights doesn’t just seek to imitate this aesthetic, however. It’s reaching even further back, taking inspiration from the pulp magazines of the early 1900s. As someone who started PC gaming with those early classics and grew up reading anthologies with their roots firmly in pulp magazines, I was intrigued from the moment I saw the trailer. But nostalgia has a way of rose-tinting everything, so let’s see how it actually holds up.

Bahnsen Knights was developed by LCB Game Studio and published by Chorus Worldwide Games. It released on December 14, 2023 for PC via Steam.

Crosses and Caddilacs

In a midwest county sometime in the 1980s, a former used car salesman preaches to his flock, a group that calls themselves the Bahnsen Knights. To a people plagued by tornadoes and poverty, he promises salvation. His acolytes carry themselves with all the grace and piety of a biker gang as they drive about in cross-emblazoned Ford Sierras. You are Boulder, a man from an unnamed agency infiltrating deep undercover, and you are here to stop them.

For all the religious tones, your conflict here is not with angels or demons, but something more mundane and all too familiar. The agency that sent you isn’t really concerned about their faith or their message, but rather the power and territory the gang has been acquiring. Indeed it’s unclear how many, if any, actually believe these road exorcisms and sermons are doing anything to help with the tornadoes. But for at least a few of them the trappings of religion make for a useful smokescreen, permission to bully the town and take what they are “owed.”

Right off the bat, I loved the premise. We have a beautiful intersection of church corruption, gangs engaging in extortion and robbery, and America’s fascination with automobiles all colliding into an absurd yet believable group. If there’s one thing the writers did well, it was giving just enough details to evoke a strong impression. Each character is immediately recognizable and memorable, and you very easily get a sense for how the Knights carry themselves.

Unfortunately, there are a few issues. One major problem I had was with how they handled Boulder’s motivation. The previous agent sent was a friend of his, Cupra, and Cupra’s now missing and presumed dead. He’s also away from his wife and daughter for their protection, and part of his cover story is that he accidentally killed them in a car accident – a story that’s been fraying at his mind as the longer he maintains his cover the harder it’s becoming to remember they are safe and sound. So far so good, a decent backstory for our hero.

The problem is that we are reminded of this constantly. Just about every chapter starts with mentioning his family or Cupra, and while this wouldn’t normally be a problem, this leads into problem number two: This game is extremely short. It is about an hour long. This is less a visual novel and more a visual short story. This means when you’re being reminded of Boulder’s motivation, it’s been maybe five minutes since the last time you were reminded.

I get that the idea was to have a cheap and short, yet evocative visual novel. It’s part of that pulp fiction charm after all. Yet I can’t help but feel it would have been more effective to have either a longer run time, or alternatively fewer chapters that had more substance to them.

Another matter is the interactive portion of this game: You’re able to make decisions at several points, and occasionally you’ll have minigames to act out certain scenes like brawling or driving in formation. There’s a bit of clunkiness with the minigames, they use the same UI as the decision making so they’re a bit slow-paced by necessity, but there’s a decent variety of them and they serve well to break up the pace and pad the runtime by just a bit.

As for the decision making… it’s standard visual novel fare more or less. Most of the decisions are simply “make the right choice or die and restart at the checkpoint right before the question,” but some can cause scenes to play out differently. A few also change things several chapters down the road, but I feel like there was a missed opportunity here. They could have made your decisions branch the narrative, turning the short length of the story into an advantage since they don’t have to worry about branching paths tesselating too much. Instead, no matter what you do, nothing short of dying will stop you from going through the same chapters and leading to the same climax.

A Timeless Throwback

The art and sound are absolutely stellar. I’m a huge fan of that 2-bit aesthetic, especially with what appears to be a CGA color palette, and it only adds to the 1980s charm. In spite of their limitations the developers crammed in a lot of detail, especially on their more striking scenes.

The music and sound are an absolutely perfect fit, foreboding and tense while maintaining the low-fi aesthetic. For the most part there’s plenty of little adjustments here and there to evoke that 80s feel while sounding better than anything from that era. Though, for better or worse, I did come across a few sound effects that felt like they were pulled straight out of that time period. Just be prepared for some obnoxiously loud beeps at times.

A Hard Sell

Bahnsen Knights is something I’ve said I’ve wanted, I just wish it did it better. Short and cheap games seem like the ultimate cure for folks burned out by the current gaming landscape… but a single hour is perhaps too short, even most folks I know who appreciate shorter games would probably feel cheated, and that hour could definitely do with some improvements. They definitely tried and succeeded at having a unique and memorable voice, but this also means wearing its flaws on its sleeve.

There’s some great scenes, and the aesthetics are absolutely on point, but at the end of the day I simply can’t find myself recommending this to anyone except those who’d look at the trailer and immediately know it’s their jam.

~ Final Score: 7/10 ~

Review copy provided by Chorus Worldwide Games for Steam. Screenshots provided by reviewer.