When it comes to games that contain escort missions, some are actually quite fun if your escort is helpful to your cause, while others can be a pain if your escort does nothing but get in your way and actually prevent you from achieving your goal, whether intentionally or accidentally. Knights Contract by Namco Bandai is actually a mix of these two scenarios. Throughout the game you're accompanied by a witch who can provide many useful spells for you to use, but only if she herself isn't in any trouble; the catch is that she constantly is. It makes for an interesting concept, one that I actually got into while playing, but how does the execution hold up? Let's find out by going more in-depth with Knights Contract.
Set in a time in which witches are hated and everyone is superstitious about them,
you play as Heinrich, a witch-executioner who did his work under direction from the game's antagonist, Dr. Faust. Seemingly out of nowhere several other witches are resurrected, and they seem to hold a grudge against Heinrich for killing them in the past. To exact their revenge on humanity the resurrected witches create monsters and zombies to unleash terror in the world, all the while under direction of the Dr. Faust. Not long into the game Heinrich meets Gretchen, a reincarnation of a witch he killed a hundred years ago. While she doesn't decide to create monsters to wreak havoc on the world, she does curse Heinrich with immortality as an act of revenge for her execution. Eventually Gretchen makes a deal with Heinrich, or rather a contract of sorts: if Heinrich helps Gretchen stop Dr. Faust she’ll lift Heinrich’s curse of immortality. So…help the witch you killed a hundred years ago to take out the guy who ordered you to kill her and she'll lift the curse that she herself placed upon you. Interesting plot concept.
While the story and the cinematics that help move it along are nice, there are a lot of them and you’ll see them constantly. If you’ve played Sonic the Hedgehog on the Xbox 360 or PS3 (I’ve only experienced the PS3 so it might be different on the 360) you may recall how often you had load screens when it came to the missions. That’s how the cinematics and cut scenes feel here, especially towards the beginning where you have a battle or two, then a cut scene. Even more annoying is when you start a stage, move two steps, and have a cut scene, or have a cut scene, move two steps, and end the stage.
The game’s combat system is easy to pick up and get used to within minutes of starting the game. You have two different types of melee attacks: a normal attack by hitting X and a harder attack by hitting Y. You can chain your attacks together for longer and stronger combos, similar to the God of War series. You can also use B to grab weaker enemies and either throw them with B or attack them with A, X, or Y. You can also hit the A button to evade which really comes in handy during the boss fights. However you can't jump per-se, which is kind of strange for a third-person action game. The only time you can jump is if you approach something you can jump on top of and even then it's automatic.
Another mechanic is the ability to lock on to enemies by holding down LB, but this only serves two purposes: see the enemy’s health and know the enemy's location. If you've ever played the later Legend of Zelda games (mainly from Ocarina of Time onwards) you can lock onto an enemy and then strafe around it while attacking and even evade it by side-jumping or back flipping out of the way. That is to say if I lock onto something and get in close I can hold the control stick back while attacking and at a moment’s notice hit a button to get out of the way of an incoming attack. In Knights Contract however holding back on the control stick while locked onto an enemy will actually make me attack in the direction I’m holding. This can be kind of annoying for using spells as you'll attack in whatever direction you're facing, so quite a few times I had my spells attack the wrong spot because I was trying to evade an enemy at the same time I tried to use a spell on it. It's not a huge annoyance once you get used to it, but it's still an problem when timing is critical.
You also have two special attacks that require a gauge to be filled, which you fill up by defeating enemies. To do these attacks you hold down LT and hit A or B for Gretchen’s attack and hit X or Y for Heinrich’s. To be honest I never did use Gretchen’s attack but Henirich’s kind of stops time briefly while you hack away at enemies for a limited amount of time. This is useful against boss fights if you’re having trouble with them or if there are too many enemies on screen. For bosses it's best to take out about three or four bars of their health, then execute Heinrich's special ability and just go on an all out rampage against it. More than likely the boss will either be defeated or close to it when the effect wears off.
Your blade isn’t the only weapon you get,
though, as Gretchen is able to cast spells. You pick up multiple spells along the way and you can assign any four spells to be used at any time. Once assigned you can use spells by holding RT and hitting A, B, X, or Y. After using a spell it must recharge before you can use that spell again. If an enemy is weak enough you might get a small QTE (quick time event), which is usually the B button in these cases, that’ll do extra damage to the enemy and possibly defeat it outright. As stated earlier you must keep Gretchen near you and out of danger or you can’t use spells since she’s the source of them. For the most part (at least on the easiest difficulty) this isn’t too hard, but if she’s in danger you’ll lose access to your spells until you free her from the danger she’s in. The more enemies you defeat and damage you do you can obtain points used to level up your spells. You can also obtain these points by smashing open some random crates and barrels you find lying around the stages. I’ll admit on Easy difficulty I got pretty far into the game and never had to level my spells at all, but I’m sure on the harder difficulties it’d be wise to level up the spells you use frequently.
This is where your escort may seem a bit stupid. During battle Gretchen will occasionally cast some small spells when enemies get near her. Yeah I know, she’s trying to help which is fine, but sometimes she just doesn’t know when to back away and winds up in trouble, and if you get too far away from her the enemies will begin to target her a bit if they’re near, so now you have to go back and help her while you’re being attacked. Not only that, but if you're not careful Gretchen's life can drain rather quickly and by the time you get back to her it's too late. It’s a good concept but the execution could be a bit better. The good news is that if Gretchen's life is low you can pick her up and carry her in your arms to regain her life. Several reviews I've come across noted this as something that irritated them, but if you're not fighting anything you might as well carry Gretchen and refill her life anyway.
The final thing I need to comment on are two other mechanics, one that’s interesting and one that’s annoying. The interesting mechanic is the quick time events, or QTEs. If you’ve ever played a God of War game then you know where this is going. At the end of each boss fight you have to get through a QTE that’s no less than four button presses or analog stick movements and you have only a couple moments to perform the correct action. If successful the boss will fall, but if not the boss will regain roughly one-third of its health. That’s not too bad and the actions for the QTEs are the same throughout the fight, so if you fail the fourth action and have to fight the boss some more the first three actions of the QTE will remain the same.
The annoying mechanic on the other hand is the timed events. This is when an icon appears at the top of the screen that has an arrow and five dots. You basically have a specific goal to perform before this timer runs out. The annoying thing though is that you don’t see the hand slowly moving to the next dot. Instead you proceed towards the goal for the event and after a while it switches to a cut scene showing where the goal is at, then goes back to the action with the arrow pointing at the next dot. This is especially annoying when you’re fighting a battle and are about to cast a spell when the cut-scene occurs and it can throw off your timing. I like the QTEs but the timed events I can do without.
Despite having some flaws here and there in regards to the controls and timed events, I still found my self enjoying the game as I went on, and some of the boss fights can be quite entertaining. Some of them are your basic boss fights where you just hit the boss as fast as you can while dodging whatever it throws at you, while others make good use of your spells and make you think quickly on your feet before the boss pounds you into a pulp. The only other flaws I found were minor, but still a slight annoyance. Even though Heinrich can't die, he can take enough damage to immobilize him for a short period of time, that short period being how quickly you can mash a button on the controller to get back up. While it's not that bad once you get use to it, you may find yourself doing more button mashing than fighting if you get too overwhelmed. The other issue I had was with one particular enemy: a floating witch-like ghost. Until you learn a ranged spell, these will be the bane of your existence as they're typically too high up to hit with your sword or most of your spells. This means waiting until they fly down to attack you, then you rush in to attack them before they fly back up. Even with the games flaws it was still an enjoyable game, but by no means perfect.