Tecmo Koei is well known for it’s support of the PlayStation Portable (PSP) format. A number of Dynasty Warriors and Samurai Warriors titles have made their way to the handheld console, both Warriors Orochi outings have received a conversion and even Gitaroo Man has graced the system. Further to this, the Dead or Alive series is set to make it’s debut on the format in the very near future, but all of these titles are based upon franchises which have previously found success on other consoles. Undead Knights is an entirely original intellectual property (IP) built from the ground-up for the PSP, and it very much shows.
An old king past his prime marries a young woman, and a new era of peace and prosperity is ushered in. However, the knight clan known as the House of Blood greatly disagrees with the king acting on his new wife’s whims, and propose that a council more attuned to the needs of the common should be established. The king’s response comes in the dead of night, ambushing a young knight of the House of Blood, Remus Blood, on his way to inform the king of his coming marriage to none other than the king’s own daughter. Both the young knight and his wife-to-be are slain, followed by the rest of the clan.
After the bodies of the House of Blood clan begin to disappear, rumours start to spread about the king’s attempts to cover-up the murders, while others suggest it simply the work of gravediggers. However, the truth lies in a story of demonic curses and bloodthirsty revenge.
Undead Knights has regularly been compared to the likes of Pikmin and Overlord throughout it’s time in development, though in actuality it lies somewhere between the two, with some Dynasty Warriors style combat thrown into the mix. Players can create their own armies of undead from fallen enemies, and command them to do their bidding. Grabbing enemies with the Circle Button will initiate the transformation, and damaging an enemy before beginning will result in a shorter delay in the time it takes to create a new undead minion.
Undead life is cheap, as players will regularly send their undead warriors on suicide missions without a second thought. Bombarding large enemies with numbers or charging enemy encampments is exactly what your army has been raised for, and there’s almost always plenty more unwilling victims to join your ranks. Your horde will attack nearby enemies at will, though the player can command them to attack specific targets by holding the R Button. When doing so, the camera zooms to the targeted enemy/location, leaving the player’s avatar vulnerable. Any blows landed upon the player’s avatar will end the command and confuse your undead troops, so the player must ensure an area has been cleared prior to engaging a new target.
Most troops transformed will become the generic blue zombies, mindless and entirely brutal. There is the infrequent twist, such as zombies that will explode on impact, but the opportunity for variety hasn’t been explored perhaps as well as it should have been. Players are occasionally able to tie larger enemies to their command also, bringing large ogres and other beasts under their control, though their usefulness is often short-lived. Aside from the combat element, there are a number of simple puzzles throughout the levels that the player must solve whilst avoiding the continuously spawning enemies. These invariable rely on sending your troops to interact with an element of scenery – creating a bridge or bringing down a siege tower – though the complexity grows in terms of the precise means and numbers of zombies required.
There are three different playable characters, Romulus, Sylvia and Remus, each with their own upgradeable combos and weaponry. Dark Energy is awarded upon completion of levels, with a greater quantity of Souls collected and completing the level in the quickest possible time awarding greater amounts, and can be used to unlock/upgrade abilities for any of the three characters. If you’re finding a challenge overly difficult with a specific character, replaying levels with another will offer you Dark Energy with which to improve any character and attempt the level once again. Three difficulty settings are also available, which can be switched between prior to embarking on each new level, and with the comprehensive score charts for each character, level and difficulty setting, there’s plenty of incentive to replay levels. Further to this are the unlockable Revenge Titles – notes that are checked-off a list when certain fulfilments have been required. The Revenge Titles are effectively in-game Achievements/Trophies, which lends weight to the belief here at Electronic Theatre that Undead Knights would certainly do well as an Xbox LIVE Arcade title, and is perhaps even deserved of a further exploration with a full retail release on high-definition consoles.
While Undead Knights isn’t the prettiest title to have graced the PSP, it’s certainly not unkind to the eye. The environments may be limited in scope, but this allows for some crisp and detailed illustration, with many areas demonstrating Koei’s typical fondness of explosive combat in normally serene settings. The gothic aesthetic of the playable characters is nicely contrasted by the bright and neatly organised ranks and locations of the enemy armies – an effort that works in concert with the storyline to have the player constantly question whether or not they’re actually playing as the good guys or the bad guys. The soundtrack however, is little more than typical pseudo-orchestral score; somewhat of a disappointment when the voice acting is on the whole of a particularly good standard.
Undead Knights is a brilliant example of how to be creative within existing genres. Taking on the masterful combat of the Dynasty Warriors series and applying a new template to the overarching objectives, Undead Knights is an entirely enjoyable linear romp through some creative set-pieces. The occasional interaction may be misjudged and the lack of exploration of many of the new ideas will irritate as much as the innovation itself captivates, but Undead Knights delivers it’s somewhat po-faced mythology so passionately that it’s difficult not to love. From the easily removable limbs of your horde to the beasts that trample you upon sight, the tight-knit corridors to the bridges of corpses to traipse across, Undead Knights is one of the most inventive and charming titles the PSP has seen in quite some time.