The latest title from Grasshopper Manufacture has received very little attention in the run up to release. Indeed, for a developer that is widely considered to be one of the most consistently innovative of all those working on current-generation consoles, Black Knight Sword has been practically ignored. Even more of a shock is this when you consider the fact that Black Knight Sword is a side-scrolling action-platform videogame; the kind of production that in the modern age is considered the forte of the strictest core demographic, and few others.
Black Knight Sword throws traditional expectations on their head in many ways, beginning with that of the story. Playing as the titular Black Knight, players exist in a fairytale world full of towering castles and decidedly odd creatures. Faced with a great evil, the Black Knight must venture through this dark and twisted land in order to eliminate it at the source. However, there is no damsel in distress to rescue, no princess offered as a reward. In fact, it’s a princess that is the cause of all upheaval to begin with, and she’s not the pretty picture you might be imagining.
It would be both easy and lazy to compare Black Knight Sword to Super Mario Bros. or …, as while the basic principles of side-scrolling platform action remain the same the experience is very different. Much like Mark of the Ninja or Hell Yeah! Wrath of the Dead Rabbit, Black Knight Sword takes these rules and plays with them, tugging at them and reshaping them into something altogether different. But while Klei Entertainment and SEGA made inherently fluid, modern experiences, Grasshopper Manufacture has opted for a more rigid, harsh challenge.
Playing through Black Knight Sword will be familiar to any 16-bit gamer in that you have a set of moves, with both short range combos and long range single-blows accompanied by special – and limited – magic attacks. You also have double jump and roll manoeuvres, and a health bar. And this is where the major crux of Black Knight Sword’s challenges comes into play: that health bar is more important here than in any other platform videogame you will have ever played. The player begins with three lives, and aside from buying more lives from the store (costing 100 hearts each, which will unquestionably prevent you from buying something far more interesting), that is all you have.
Losing your last live may only mean restarting the level, but given that the levels are lengthy endeavours it would want to be avoided even if that were the case. However, there is more to it than that. It’s not simply a case of going back through twenty minutes of gameplay; players will also lose any currency they have collected, as well as additional magic attacks and power-ups. The power-ups that can be acquired can easily be compared to Capcom’s 16-bit classic Ghouls N’ Ghosts (a.k.a. Ghosts & Goblins), as can the primary low jump arc and measure of difficulty. Players can purchase new items to help with their quests, such as additional armour and extra quantities of magic, though each is limited in their usefulness.
In addition to the considerably challenging campaign comes the Cat Head Grass mode, which is quite the opposite. Collectable items scattered throughout the campaign, once found their numbers will be added to the choir available in this alternative mode where there really is neither reason nor rhyme. One might suggest it to be a rhythm action mini-game of some kind, as the face buttons each present a different sound, but after twenty minutes of constant play nothing had changed and no rewards were earned. The exact opposite of a gameplay mode where every action affects the future of the adventure, then, Cat Head Grass is perhaps the perfect point of relaxation after that necessary challenge.
Just like the story and the gruellingly taxing nature of the gameplay, the visual style is an aside that fights back against tradition at every turn. Presented as though it were a theatrical performance, the objects upon stage are flat and cardboard-like, while the characters regularly behave like puppets. The illusion is broken somewhat by the scrolling floor, moving in opposition as the player wanders from left to right as have been the tradition for nearly three decades, but it’s this affordance that is at the feet of the core demographic, willing to accept this implausibility as the gateway between style and substance, the bridge between art direction and interaction. Oppressively macabre throughout, Black Knight Sword is arguably Grasshopper Manufacture’s darkest production – more so even than Shadows of the Damned – and intentionally so, as very few videogames support their most basic action with the sounds of unknown animals squealing in pained delight to the tinkling of an improperly tuned piano. Black Knight Sword is about as adult a subject matter as there can be, once again reinforcing that intention of delivering a product designed for a very small, close knit demographic of gamers.
So despite the lack of attention that has been given to Black Knight Sword throughout its development, in this latest digital release we find yet another videogame title that is undeniable Grasshopper Manufacture magic. Twisting established conventions to create something that feels entirely new yet still familiar, and dressing it all up in an impenetrably gritty, grotesquely odd façade, Black Knight Sword is just as welcome an addition to the foray as Diabolical Pitch or Sine Mora, and just as compelling an experience as Lollipop Chainsaw and Shadows of the Damned. Black Knight Sword’s market is undeniably more limited than any of those titles simply due to its aggressive difficulty curve, but those who manage to penetrate its hardened exterior wouldn’t have it any other way.