Despite its relatively short track record, Japanese video game maker Sting has quickly become one of my favorite developers of the modern era, releasing a number of quality handheld titles on the WonderSwan, GBA, DS and PSP. They aren't afraid to take risks and try something different, and as a result, their games feel very refreshing. Riviera and Yggdra Union were both a little quirky, but fun. Knights in the Nightmare is flat out crazy.
It doesn't really fall into any one genre, making it difficult to describe. I could probably write a book about the mechanics. In fact, the in-game tutorial is split up into something like 100 different sections. It takes somewhere around an hour to get through it, but you won't fully get used to it until a few hours of actual play. Definitely not a game for those that just want something to pick up and have fun with. However, if you're willing to put in some time and effort, I can't think of a more enjoyable game on the DS.
Again, it is very difficult to explain, but I guess I'll try. At a glance, it looks like a traditional isometric strategy/RPG like Final Fantasy Tactics or Tactics Ogre. But you don't control the characters directly - you control a small, white wisp using the stylus (on the DS). With the wisp, you select a weapon, drag it over to a fighter, wait for it to charge up, and then lift the stylus off the screen to attack.
The thing is, this game takes place in real-time. Enemies (with a couple of exceptions) don't target your knights, but instead shoot out various bullet patterns that you must avoid with the wisp. In that sense, it resembles a shoot-em-up, minus the shooting. Each enemy type has its own attack patterns and special attack. It might seem easy dodging slow bubbles from slimes in the beginning, but it gets insane later on, with as many as four tough enemies constantly shooting while various obstacles like catapults are also going off in the background.
Here, the player must navigate the wisp
around a bunch of falling stars.
You don't simply die by getting hit with a bullet. A small chunk of time gets taken off a clock, and when it reaches zero, the turn ends. Charging up a knight's attack also uses up time, so you must be careful when attacking. If you don't beat the level within a certain number of turns, you get a game over.
The best parts are the boss battles, and there are a ton of them. During the mid-game, just about every other level is a boss fight. These bosses have much crazier bullet patterns and other gimmicks that make them very fun and challenging. With one early game boss, if you hesitate too long when attacking, he will instantly kill your selected knight. Permanently.
There are dozens and dozens of recruitable knights in the game, who join you when given a certain item. These recruitment items are easy to miss, however, and you can't go back to get the ones you skipped over. Like Riviera and Yggdra Union, this game is a perfectionist's nightmare.
With all the action going on, it is very easy to screw up and permanently miss out
on certain characters. Players who want everything will find themselves resetting a lot.
Knights also have a limited lifespan, which is shortened every time they attack. Levelling them up can restore some of this life, but each knight has a level cap. Characters that are on the brink of death can be sacrificed to make another character stronger via transouling. This not only strengthens the knight on the receiving side, but also restores some of their life and increases their level cap. Certain knights have good and bad relationships with each other, which causes the transouling effects to be amplified or diminished correspondingly.
There are six main classes of knights, and they are all unique. Warriors use axes and are the only class able to break obstacles. Archers can freeze enemies in place and stun them so that another character can quickly follow up. It is important to deploy the correct class in the correct location, as each class has its own attack range and only Lance Knights and Duelists can move around.
Weapons, like knights, have a limited number of uses, but can be made stronger through forging or more durable through combining. It is important to keep a good stock of weapons and not overuse one type. Lances in particular are rare early in the game and you will quickly run out of you abuse them.
Sunaho Tobe (character designer for Riviera, Yggdra Union, and Summon Night: Twin Age) returns and her work is better than ever. Tons of detail and gorgeous use of shading to match the darker, more serious mood of Knights. Each of the 100+ recruitable characters has his or her own unique portrait, as do the human NPCs you encounter during battles.
Oh, and the enemy design is pretty damn awesome, too.
Music is also very good, composed by Shigeki Hayashi (Riviera, Yggdra, Baroque, Evolution Worlds). Each of the several bosses has its own theme, and the "regular battle" song changes after every few levels, keeping it fresh. Unfortunately, it tends to get drowned out by the character chatter and loud (yet satisfying) sound effects.
The story is a bit different. You start off with no idea about what's going on, with a little cutscene after every battle that unlocks another piece of the puzzle. Once you finally figure it out, it's a bit disappointing, and basically just another "guy got power-hungry, summoned demons, now everybody's screwed" sort of plot. Knights becomes irrelevant to the story after joining your squad, but you can listen to their thoughts by hovering over them in battle and pressing a button on the D-Pad.
After beating the game the first time, you are allowed to play it again on a separate story path, with a new main character and dozens of new knights available for recruitment. In addition, the Nightmare difficulty mode is unlocked, which will give even the best players a run for their money.
All in all, this is my favorite game on the DS, and I highly recommend it for those that want to try something different (and have the time to invest in learning the mechanics). It is also available on the PSP, but I'm not sure how well the wisp responds to analog control as opposed to the DS's stylus control.
For a glimpse of how frantic the action can get, here's a boss from the early-mid game:
The player controls the little white orb floating around, which is used
to command knights to attack while dodging enemy projectiles.
Also try to look for the artbook, titled Tome of Lost Souls.
It contains dozens of character biographies and designer comments.