Ever since the release of God of War back in 2005, there has been a marked increase in the number of action-adventure titles on the market which are clearly inspired by the adventures of Kratos. The quick-time sequences, raw action and general movements have been seen many a time. What does vary, however, is the presentation and the quality of these titles.
Knight's Contract, while clearly taking a lot of cues from God of War, is a real mixed bag. While its story and general premise are intriguing and do stick out ever so slightly from the standard action-adventure fare that we're all used to seeing, it is really dragged down by its shortcomings in the form of a very poor camera, maddening AI and great inconsistencies in graphical quality.
Knight's Contract is set in the Middle Ages, and the period is presented in all of its harshness. The Black Death sweeps the land, and doctors are abound in the famous bird-beak masks of the era. People are poor and miserable. And, most importantly of all, it's a time where superstitions ran strong, and fear of witches was rife. The key role you play is that of a man called Heinrich, a witch executioner. He is no ordinary man, however. Upon beheading the witch Gretchen, he is cursed by her to never die. When Heinrich begins to wander from village to village, he begins to see scores of plague victims and hostile enemies all around him, and encounters a reincarnated version of Gretchen. Together, the two of them are able to use their respective abilities to scour the land for evil and vanquish it.
The gameplay is of a hack and slash variety combined with a game-long escort mission, and Heinrich wields his giant executioner scythe against the minions of evil throughout the course of the story. Meanwhile, Gretchen is capable of unleashing magic attacks which can damage enemies on their own and smash their armour, leaving Heinrich to finish them off. The combat is very basic in terms of controls but still quite satisfying as there are some unique animations and finishers at play. However, other gameplay elements are less than satisfying. Though Heinrich can be hurt and turned into a pile of blood and bones, he cannot be put down for good. Gretchen, however, is not so lucky, and it is here that a major issue of the game arises.
Though you can control Gretchen's magic attacks to some degree, you cannot directly control her movements, and it's up to Heinrich to protect her. When Heinrich does turn into the aforementioned collection of gore, players can rapidly press one of the face buttons to regenerate his body. During this time, Gretchen is free to go about her own devices and will often go after enemies when she herself is already weakened from fighting, and when she dies it's game over. As a result, Gretchen dies a lot and when you're regenerating there's nothing you can do to stop her folly. It's not that Gretchen herself is necessarily weak, but her AI is incredibly unintelligent. Logic would dictate that she might stay by Heinrich's body to cover him as he regenerates, especially when you can make Heinrich carry Gretchen out of danger when he is healthy, but when Heinrich is down for the count, it seems she would much rather take on a boss alone or five enemies at once to seal her doom time and time again.
The game's camera pronounces this effect much of the time. You will be travelling through a town and attacking enemies when it begins to shift in such a way that buildings are obscuring your view just because you happen to step in one spot. You do have some control over the camera, but it's a bit glitchy and not always possible to right your viewpoint straight off. Sometimes you will be able to find a sweet spot to step into that makes things as they should be again, but it's frustrating that the camera isn't any better than it is.
Knight's Contract is visually inconsistent to an almost astonishing extent. Its cinema sequences aren't necessarily up there with the best ever seen on a home console, but they are still quite pleasing to the eye and evocative of the Middle Ages setting combined with mystical undertones and a grubby subject matter. The same praise can't be said about the look of the game during play, however. Heinrich and Gretchen look passable enough themselves and the enemies they do battle with are likewise well-designed, but their world is a mass of muddy textures, from the grounds they walk on to the buildings they travel past. The genuine care that was taken with the cinematic sequences seems to have been abandoned during the play itself.
The audio design of Knight's Contract is probably its most consistent feature. Its music is a collection of the types of tunes you would hear in any Middle Ages themed game or film, brimming with a sense of pomp, dignity and occasionally sinister undertones. All of the sound effects and voice-work are also of a respectable standard. There isn't much of the audio which does stick out, but it's at least serviceable, consistent and not a pain to endure.
Knight's Contract does have things to like about it, but as an overall game it's hurt by its inadequacies. The combat and cinematics are solid, character designs are interesting across the board and the story is actually quite absorbing and unique when you get exposed to it. It's a shame that there is just too much about it that brings it down. The variable graphic quality, frustrating camera-work and the amazingly inept AI of your partner Gretchen all spoil something that, while not an instant classic, could have be unique and enjoyable enough to recommend. Worse games may be out there, but there are certainly superior ones in the action-adventure genre.