You’re probably going to die. A lot. Knightmare is one of the first games to truly combine the random element of modern 80s hits like Rogue, combined with the deeper storytelling promised by hot games like next year’s thrilling looking Ultima V: Warriors of Destiny. But how does it actually play on your PC? Or more likely on Amiga and ST, where it probably has much better graphics and audio. One day they will pay.
The genius of Knightmare is that no two games are ever quite the same. You begin each time with a randomly selected party, though it must be said that most of the characters generated do tend to be of a certain mould – squeaky-voiced, male, more than a little awkward. After that, Treguard the Dungeon Master ushers your lead character into the dungeon to begin, while the other three sit back as ‘advisors’. The amount of help they give is often questionable, but at least they don’t tend to repeat too many lines, with the exception of ‘You’re in a room’. This may lead to feelings of irritation after a while, or loudly yelling ‘No shit!’ They also tend to struggle with basic concepts like ‘left and right’. Oh, for basic clock directions or something.
Sometimes your goal is randomly selected, other times you get to choose it – but it typically involves retrieving some golden artifact that doesn’t really seem to have any bearing on the case. Likewise, some rooms have multiple doorways, but it’s hard not to feel like you’re being pushed down a fairly specific, very linear path through most quests, with less raw ‘gameplay’ than you might expect.
Early on especially you might start wondering if the designers have ever played an RPG. My first game ended, for instance, when picking up a sigil from a clue table, which seemed like a smart move when encountering another room with that sigil above its door, only to find out that I was merely meant to remember that and actually take a lamp instead. Gah! I know roguelikes have a justified reputation for difficulty, but it’s rare to find one that wants to put the boot – sorry – the Silver Spurs into something squishy quite this early.
Fortunately, this level of bullshit proved relatively rare, though there were quite a few moments when ultimate success or failure did come down to a random choice. The second run through for instance – running into a witch who wanted to do her hair, and only having soap instead of a comb. Another ended with a smug comment about picking up a weapon instead of a horn, as if anyone would just assume “Well, I might just randomly come across the walls of bloody Jericho…” Bloody RNG. It wouldn’t be so bad if you could at least make saves whenever you wanted, instead of… let me just check… ah, yes. Never. Oh, well. Back to Level 1!
It’s a shame that the NPCs you meet all seem to run on such tight dialogue scripts rather than really offering much scope to talk around a problem or find inventive solutions. Very, very occasionally you get that chance, like persuading a guard to follow along, but usually they just exchange names and say their piece. Like a lot of RPGs, Knightmare does reuse character models quite a bit, but at least they generally compensate by giving each a strongly defined character. Still, there’s so much more they could do than simply ask riddles.
Early on NPCs are all pretty much obstacles, though it’s not too long before you start to meet more friendly and neutral figures with their own mini-quests to complete and storylines to learn by using an artifact called the ‘Spyglass’. The downside is that the more the game relies on this past its opening levels, the more on-rails everything becomes. You’re outright told what items to pick up most of the time, the trivia questions go away, and usually each scene is so led by the hand – sometimes literally – that the earlier feeling of danger largely fades.
Also, for some reason you’re not allowed to kick hostile NPCs in the balls.
That’s not to say things ever become easy, mind. It’s just a different, and less satisfying form of difficulty most of the time – there’s the adventure, increasingly told through barely interactive cut-scenes in which your character just stands around looking a little confused, and then there’s the puzzles, completely separate. It’s still compelling stuff, if often badly acted, but the sense of actually being on an adventure in a dangerous dungeon is soon lost. The addition of towns and friendly dragons and a whole civilisation living in the dungeon is great for variety, but it means a long, long wait for any actual drama on each life.
At the start of the game simply getting to Level 2 feels like an achievement. After just a few attempted quests, it’s almost a certainty, with Knightmare more interested in its own characters’ lives than the actual player. In particular, while it’s a great reveal that the universe is a competition between the Powers That Be and the Opposition, as led by the awesome Lord Fear, it’s hard not to notice that he spends most of his time barely even giving a damn about the Dungeoneer. And in fairness, I can’t blame him, since it’s not like you’ll get all that many of your characters far enough to even make him a little bit nervous about having to show up as the final boss.
The problem is that in generally giving up on puzzles, but having NPCs that never really evolve to a point that allows for emergent solutions, Knightmare increasingly has no choice but to deploy outright assassin rooms. Now, this can work. You die to a corridor with giant circular saws running down the wall and goddamn, you feel like that death was warranted. Even if you aren’t allowed to do the sensible thing and just lie down on the floor and let them whiz over your head. It helps though that in that case the death is on you – on not being fast enough, on walking into a blade rather than away from it, or something like that. But some of the other ones the game will sometimes throw in – Christ! What kind of sadist would throw in a game of Play Your Cards Right with collapsing floors for failure and time pressure and no explanation of the pattern required to cross the tiny bridge in safety? Evil! Have the designer flogged!
Overall though the game’s approach of throwing everything against the wall does help make each quest feel different and dynamic, even if it can take a while for bad ideas to work themselves out. A dalliance with more outright comedy characters, for example, leads to the unfortunate appearance of racist Chinaman stereotype Ah Wok, who thankfully doesn’t appear very often. Mostly though it’s the graphical styles as you unlock more and more of the game that don’t always fit, as the cool handpainted locations of the first few quests give way to edited photographs of assorted castles and then to some seriously underwhelming 3D work that even now, now being roughly 1987-1995 according to my calendar, are almost too bad even to giggle at.
It’s at this point that the creators’ lack of apparent familiarity with modern RPGs really starts to bite, with the game increasingly becoming non-interactive aside from the assassin puzzle rooms and seemingly more interested in dragging things out for hour after hour, heck, week after week, than retaining the sense of danger established in the early stages. You have to be really, really dumb to not know what you’re supposed to be doing, and usually don’t even have the option of doing anything else. At this point I really missed the early levels where it felt like there was an actual dungeon to explore, instead of just a linear path that occasionally takes your legs out from under you for screwing up.
Mechanically, the more you play, the more you also spot a lot of glitches with the core game, especially in terms of collision detection. One time you’ll have a blade go right through you with nobody caring, the next you’ll be on what looks like a safe spot only to tumble to your death or fall into quicksand. The platforming bits in particular often seem flat-out unfair. The advantage of being able to look down and see your feet just doesn’t compensate for the difficulty when that’s literally all that you can see. After just a few quests, you also learn to completely ignore the so-called ‘life force’ system – health to you and me – since pretty much anything that kills you does so in one hit. Really it only exists to add completely meaningless drama to finding food. But, since the only time you’re really reminded that you need any is when you find some, it never actually matters.
Unlike most Roguelikes though, of which there are currently very few since as we all know, it’s 1987-1995 and even Diablo hasn’t come out yet, you have to give Knightmare full props for staying interesting. By the time its own life-force expires and it just doesn’t have the novelty it used to, it’s still a hugely compelling game that at least tries to reinvent itself on a regular basis. It’s just a shame that when you reach those moments, it’s the graphics rather than the core systems that get all the focus – that there’s never the scope to argue with the NPCs instead of quietly following them, or to widen up the dungeon with alternate, specific paths, outside of a poorly conceived ‘short cut’ concept that occasionally but still too often shows up.
But, as a way of making RPGs more relatable to the average player, and a demonstration that D&D type games don’t have to be a deep, number-heavy spreadsheet odyssey, there’s no way to call Knightmare anything but a complete success. It’s the game destined to make dungeons feel cool for a whole new generation, and likely remembered fondly for years to come. Even more than Time Busters.
Hell, it’d probably make a pretty good TV show too.
Meanwhile, in a parallel universe not so far away, Knightmare wasn’t in fact a computer game, though it did spawn a couple of them. And they were terrible. Check out the write-ups I did of them here. Wince that the gamebooks were better.