Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Preview: Knights in the Nightmare PSP

"Are You READY...?" For those of you who missed it, 2009's Knights in the Nightmare on the Nintendo DS was an innovative mix of isometric tactical JRPG, RTS, a bit of chess and fast-paced stylus driven "bullet hell" style shooting with a deep, complex (and often quite dramatic) storyline. The often brutal level of difficulty in the game thanks to many factors that required actual thought pre-battle and deft dancing of the stylus hand in battle made KITN a bit of a sleeper for the handheld (and a slightly expensive collectible these days). Developer Sting has taken the game and reworked it for the PSP into what's looking like one of those truly hardcore experiences for those that love their games to bite back hard.

Atlus' Aram Jabbari showed off the upcoming PSP version in a live conference (gotta love that WebEx!) that showed off the game's planning and battle phases along with a few other features. If you're looking for a real challenge and like your RPGs in hybrid form, KITN is calling you out for a showdown. This isn't a "jump in and play me!" type of happy-snappy JRPG with cute mascot-ready characters going though the usual hoops. KITN is a depressingly gloomy, visually stylized trip into a dark world ravaged by war. I'd mention Demon's Souls in terms of how bleak the game's tone is, but I don't want to give the impression that the game are related in any way... other than the level of difficulty.

On second thought, maybe I will mention From Software's modern classic just to get it out of the way: In terms of pure gameplay depth and sheer level of challenge, KITN just might be to the PSP what Demon's Souls was to the PS3. Both games take familiar gameplay and shake things up with innovative elements that make them instantly memorable and highly replayable. Sure, KITN has no multiplayer modes, but like DS, this is one hell of a ride many players won't forget... provided they don't chuck their PSP's into the nearest body of water or out a window. KITN on the PSP is going to be hard as hell for some, but there are those wouldn't have it any other way.

The story is the same as in the DS version with the kingdom of Aventhiem and all its turmoil and political intrigue spelled out in time-jumping cut scenes that introduce the games' major and minor players. Trying to spell out how the game plays took about half of the conference, but as one of those who actually played the DS I was more interested in how the game translated over to the PSP. For the uninitiated (or folks that gave up on the DS version) there's a huge Tutorial split into many parts that covers every aspect of the gameplay. You can choose to avoid these helpful hint sessions, but as a survivor of the DS version, let's just say that the more you learn about how KITN plays, the better you'll do in the end.

That the game forces you to pay attention at all times will no doubt give the short attention span crowd fits as they whine about things being too complicated. On the other hand, it's what makes KITN constantly compelling in the way a good book or film is hard to pull away from. There's a lot going on during battles, but guiding your wisp around as it assists your units in attacks while dodging enemy shots by a hair while trying to deal as much damage as possible is something to see when everything clicks. Even if you fail miserably, there's a weird ballet happening on screen where you can learn from your mistakes and move on (or restart if you so desire).

Other elements such as breakable weapons, careful positioning of your troops, taking into account which objects are destructible on each map and which enemies can travel underground are only a tiny portion of things to consider. There's even a Law and Chaos system that has you switching between the two modes during combat to keep a peculiar yet necessary balance in play. KITN will keep your fingers and brain bubbling even before you get to the actual combat and that bubble will come to a boil as you blast and slash your way to temporary victory.

Speaking of combat, the PSP version uses the analog button to move your wisp around the screen, making for a more direct means of control. From the demo play, it looks a lot more precise when the going gets rough and as you don't have to draw out certain tougher patterns on screen, there's a better chance of surviving some of the trickier encounters. The enemies in the game require pretty much nothing but powerful attacks to beat and the action gets really frantic in the game's timed battles where chance and skill both determine the outcome. Jabbari mentioned games such as Tony Hawk's Pro Skater and the Burnout series in trying to describe the scoring system used during combat, as gameplay is very fast and split-second timing can mean the difference between a win and a loss.

There are also a number of characters in the game that can join your party provided you meet the conditions for getting them. Miss the opportunity and they're gone for good (at least until you replay the game from another characters viewpoint). Similarly, death can be permanent for your units (sort of like the Fire Emblem games). If I recall correctly, there is a way to restore dead characters back to life, but only by locating hidden items during battles and transferring them to the expired units. In terms of presentation, Sting has done a fantastic job in moving the game over to Sony's more powerful handheld. Visually, the game is dramatically gorgeous 2D bliss with stylized anime characters and environments looking even better in the PSP's wide screen format.

It's expected that one trip through KITN will take about 20 hours, but with three storylines plus many other variables that change how the game flows, players who grasp the game and play to the end can easily triple that time. As with the DS version, I'd highly recommend watching each and every cut scene, as they explain the plot and pack quite a dramatic punch as the game progresses. I haven't even mentioned the Transoul System, "Connect Four" matching sub-game menu deal, weapon forging, elemental attacks and so forth and so on. Even the game's trailer barely touches on the sheer amount of depth, so I'd imagine Atlus might want to do some newbies a small favor by cooking up some strategy videos at some point.

In any event, Knights in the Nightmare is looking like yet another outstanding PSP release in a year of stellar games for the handheld. The game is set for an October 19, 2010 release at retail and over PSN, so pick your poison and prepare for the pain with one the most intensely focused strategy games you'll ever play on the system.

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