Treguard is a very nice man, a very, very nice man. He always pops up just when you need him, to offer, friendly but cryptic advice in ITV's Knightmare. Now he's changed the format to help game playing mortals who fancy a crack at the second computer interpretation of this successful TV show. His help is need, badly. The game is designed around the Captive adventure system and has cracking credentials, uniting an excellent licence with a proven code. The result is strong, but once past the titles it has suspiciously little to do with the TV programme.
Captive players will immediately feel in control of Knightmare. The system that drives the game essentially uses the same icon and keyboard commands as Captive, with improvements and tweaks where necessary. The four man teams can be driven either by clicking on directional icons or keypad combinations. Clicking on anything with the left mouse button, gets or activates it, while the right is employed to initiate party actions. It's a simple system to learn, but offers enough flexibility to fill four huge dungeons with tests of precise control.
The four members of the Knightmare team all have different skills and specialties. Controlled from a cluster of icons they can be clothed, checked and changed to suit any strategy. They've an empty backpack in which to carry the kit they find and two hand 'slots' for those all important items - like weapons.
Unlike Captive, or any other first-person perspective role-playing game, the character's hands in Knightmare don't just 'use' an object when you click them into action. First of all a click brings up a menu of all the actions possible with that object: knives, for example, offer stab, swing and hack. These can be preset so no delay is encountered when it's required. And it's not big or clever to start fiddling about with menus when there's a 10-foot hobglobin trying to rip out your spleen.
Even the magic system is driven in this way, neatly sidestepping the need for a submenu screen. All spells must come from wands and their menus get larger as the wizard's skills improve. Different wands become available progressively, offering you the chance to cast wilder magic and the designer to ensure magic's restricted where necessary. Just like weapons, selected spells can be preset. So all you have to watch when 'it' hits the fan is your wizard's remaining points.
Character control is what Knightmare tests, and you have to be swift to survive,. The keyboard/icon mix works well, with the left hand physically walking the team via the numeric keypad while the right guides the cursor to control actions. Mistakes means death, so every action that you preset must be thoroughly thought through or menu messes are guaranteed when the blood starts to flow. Use the system well however and foes are swiftly dispatched.
Evidence of the TV's influence is profuse, but superficial. The plot is true to the TV format, supplying you with foes and a motive for play. Treguard pops up as Orcales, to warn of danger or set your next goal. You're on a mission to scour the dungeons of Dunshelm for the Shield of Justice, Sword of Freedom, Cup of Life and Crow of Glory, while your major foes are the FrightKnight and Lord Fear.
These elements set the tone, they even dictate the look, but not the way it plays. It is finely tuned to test you at all times and stresses puzzles more than its predecessor: Captive. While wandering the wilderness area above the four dungeons you may be fooled into thinking this is the world of Knightmare. Enter the first tunnel though, and it becomes clear this is the domain of the programmer, not Treguard.
Knightmare doesn't pull its punches, mistakes are punished ferociously. You start the game wandering three areas of wilderness and during this respite you're expected to master the game's controls. It isn't a threat-free area, but the hassles are sparse enough for you to become familiar enough with their functions and layout. The first quest you have to complete is unannounced but implicit - finding the dungeon you're supposed to explore!
Roaming through the hedgerows without a compass gets confusing. It's not difficult, especially if you map from the word go, but sudden action or changes of focus can leave your disorientated. The slowish pace at the start could also disillusion you before the main game gets a chance to show off!
Once 'safely' entombed in the corridors of the dungeon, Knigthmare goes into a higher gear. Monsters lurk around most corners to test mouse speed in combat, wile the puzzles begin to stretch your cerebral powers. The tunnels are an interconnecting maze. Locked doors restrict movement until the correct key or switch is found. They start as simple tests with the key for the next door hidden at the extremes of the currently accessible network. These evolve, with hidden switches introduced to ensure you're paying attention.
The pace of the game is forced by the creatures who lay in wait. These are intelligent and tough beasts who don't warn to becoming sword fodder. In a straight fight the result is never a certainty, with death a real possibility. Each has been placed to meet the party at a specific point in the game, so they match the party's power almost perfectly.
With no walk over opponents, each battle is plagued with doubt. Can your fighter take another hit? Should the last magic be used or saved? If you run, where do you run to? Your team should have a slight edge, if they are used with maximum efficiency. Make a mistake, or fail to recognise the power of a magic item and you're dead meat! There are a few straight-up fights and you're warned but outnumbered. So a tactical approach is needed if you're to win through with a full team.
Knightmare's gameplay teeters on unplayability tough. Importantly, though, it never falls. As each encounter has been precisely weighed you must match that precision to win. One slip during battle, one tactical oversight or missed hidden switch will prove fatal. However, the frustration of failure and the danger of combat only heighten the feeling of satisfaction when a tough beast is beaten.
Knightmare has a frustrating but compulsive edge. Despite spending half of any game cursing at its relentless aggression, Knightmare does have strange compulsion. Despite its ability to totally destroy your team and their hopes time after time, you still find yourself coming back for another go.
The game doesn't help its cause though, with its unfriendly save system. It's easy enough to save a party and position at any time in the game, it's the loading that's a problem. Knightmare has been deliberately designed to discourage liberal use of save and load. Within the game you can only load a saved game initially after booting or if the party dies. In this way it was hoped to force a more careful style of adventuring. However admirable this first sounds as gameplay theory, in practice it soon grows into an irritating chore.
If one battle caused enough damage to kill one of your characters and leaves everybody else shattered, it's annoying. It's also fair to assume that the next fight will be even harder. The choice of whether to load up a saved game or slough on should be yours whether to 'cheat' or not. The safeguard isn't even strong enough to work effectively, it just forces you to kill the remaining members of a team to access the load option.
Knightmare's other irritations are minor compared to the loading problem. The lack of a compass is less of a hindrance once the party go underground, but it still causes occasional moments of complete confusion. Experienced adventurers should have no problem here, but folk who aren't veterans when they first play have to become one real quick or give up.
The ability to choose specific actions other than merely 'use' can sometimes prove a blessing too. If teams are prepared and no slips occur during combat, it's a fast and effective system. One error or missed click, though, can unbalance the finely weighted combat and give monsters a fatal advantage. Accidentally calling up a menu and not an action is time consuming in a time-critical situation. Again the game theory is sound - reward the skilful player and punish the clumsy - but the penalty you have to pay for mistakes is high.
Hard but fair?
Knightmare plays fast and hard. As dungeon romps go, few can match it for the continuous ferocity of its assaults on your party's lives. Each encounter is tailored to suit your team's status, so the game runs in a state of perpetual high tension. Success in this environment feels like an achievement, but failure is both frustrating and far more common.
An element of frustration can drive players on to try again or rethink their current tactics. It can focus the thinking and hone the player's style to suit the game system. Extreme levels of irritation however ruin games. Knightmare manages to stay on the right side of the frustration line - just, but there are times when the account appears overdue.
What we have here is a precisely balanced game that requires maximum effort at all times. Every spouse of corridor must be checked on all sides at all times, each character must be watched to ensure that they are ready for unexpected combat. Every battle must be thoroughly prepared for, adapting proven tactics to suit current needs. All the puzzles and riddles that inform your quest must be analysed and solved.
In terms of a strict translation from TV show to computer Knightmare is far from a convincing success. As a highly polished game in its own right it is a definite success. A finely balanced affair Knightmare continually pushes players harder and faster. It accelerates from a tough start to plain hard real fast, and that means that you need to either be a dungeon expert or a quick learner to stand a chance.
The frustrating process of loading in saved games soon becomes a familiar one, highlighting the steep difficulty curve. But if you've patience and fancy a heavy duty underground bash then check out Knightmare. If you've a low frustration threshold then...