Knight Witch first caught my eye during last year’s Steam Next Fest (proving once again with Dredge the utility of such events!), and after the publisher provided us with a review key I went ahead and started my adventure in this new world. It’s a 2D metroidvania game mixed with a bullet hell shooter. If that sounds exciting, please follow.
The World of Knight Witch
At the beginning of Knight Witch, you actually start before the events of the game, when society was ruled by the industrious Daigadai clan. Those guys liked to work and build drones and robots. That clan was industrious and focused on progress at all costs, harming the environment in their endeavors. This led to a civil war, with the opposition being led by the Knight Witches who possess magical powers, as you can imagine. After a long war, the Knight Witches ended up victorious but the final battle ended in a worldwide disaster and forced society to move underground to survive.
Now many years have passed, and you play the role of Rayne who has lived her childhood underground and dreamt of becoming a witch one day like in the tales she was told. She is an apprentice Witch herself and can fly in the air, but her powers are still very limited. One day, their settlement is suddenly attacked by the Daigadan clan. They were not wiped out as everyone had thought! Now they come back for revenge, and Rayne is on a path to defend home and her friends at all costs, and hopefully defeat the Daigadai clan once and for all!
There’s definitely a lot of effort put in having a background story in The Knight Witch, with proper introduction of characters and enemies before you even get to the real beginning. However, narration-wise, it’s not very subtle, but more on that later.
First, I have to commend all the work done by developers on the graphics, sound and animation. Everything is of top quality - the backgrounds, the character design (while it has its own style), the visual effects when shooting enemies, and the soundtrack are all top notch. If I’m not mistaken it seems to be using vectors for all graphics, which helps make the zoom effects smooth and neat.
Now, the bullet hell mechanics can be frustrating. By design, you move into tight spaces, and if there’s something that bullet hell genre does not forgive, is to be cornered and unable to move. Many times you will die because you lacked space or flexibility to avoid an attack, and it does feel unfair the more it happens. Some enemies can also fire at you beyond walls and barriers and you will curse them at every encounter.
The whole concept of a metroidvania is to go from A to B by going back and forth between C, D and E to finally open the door to B. You have a map that guides you and show you clearly where to go next, and you then need to figure out the right path to get there - usually involving going around, never in straight line. There’s some tediousness to it. Not just because there is a lot of back and forth, but it’s just non-stop respawning enemies like in every metroidvania game out there. It will fell like grinding (even for the best games in the genre like Symphony of the Night) because it IS all about grinding. But there’s good grinding and bad grinding in this world. You can recognize good grinding with:
- Fights that are challenging yet pleasant enough that you don’t mind doing them 200 times in a row.
- A strong storyline (and characters to go with it) to make up for the grinding. If you really want to know what happens next, you can make the grinding appear less of a chore. Intrisic motivation.
So how does Knight Witch fare on my made-up criteria?
Fighting is Fun Until it isn’t
I did not mind the fights, despite the fact that it can get pretty hard and times. When moving around, you don’t really have much choice but to kill the re-spawning enemies over and over again, as you move into narrow spaces. Some boss fights are REALLY, ABSOLUTELY brutal - as in, you’ll die 10, 15 times before you can actually beat them. There’s skill needed to avoid all the bullets, and then there’s luck to make it through.
The game introduces a card system that lets you use your mana to unleash some powers on your ennemies. You can have only a few cards equipped in your “deck” at once, and then the game randomly assigns 3 for you to use when your mana is refilled. One you use a card, it is replaced by another random one in your deck.
While the idea is OK on paper, it does not work too well in-game. You can access the cards with 3 buttons on your gamepad (X, Y and B), and since the cards are always in a random order, you can never expect the button to always have the same kind of power attached to it… in the end you have to keep looking at what cards are currently available before pressing a button, and that’s the last thing you have time to do when the screen is filled with bullets and you only have one heart left. Poor UI, poor design in that regard. I would have much preferred to have 3 cards fixed based on your selection and always usable instead of this random dance of powers.
A lot of Background Yet a Weak Story
The story, however, is not its strongest point. After an introduction, you are made into a young Knight Witch and the powers that be in the kingdom take advantage of your innocence to do their biding, and it feels a lot like “go there to do that”, instead of proper inner motivation. There’s clear hints that you are being manipulated, and the twists are a bit too obvious, which is a shame.
Some of the missions given to you are vague and feel uninsteresting - that’s the last thing you want in the beginning of the game.
The game devs also included some scenes where you talk to the masses from the window of the castle, as a kind of spokesperson, and you have to make some trade-offs between telling the truth or lying to some degree to avoid making everyone panic.
The idea has merits, but how it’s rendered is just bad. You only see your character speaking some lines, and then a “link” gauge moving up in case you select answers that are pleasing the crowd. But you never see the crowd or even have a picture of any of them. You can’t build relation with invisible characters. This should have been more of a back and forth between how you see your character and what your character sees in front of her. Just like for the deck issue mentioned earlier, this feels like another bad UI choice, but this time in the narrative part of the game.
I don’t want to pile up a list of problems with Knight Witch, because I did enjoy the game overall - but since I’m at it, let’s also point out some other flaws:
- The shops that you find across your path are completely useless and sell nothing of value, which makes you wonder what is the point of the game currency. At best you get some kind of new armor that gives you a few more hit points, and disappears after you get hit a few times anyway. Pure garbage.
- In some parts you will go into a submarine when levels are submerged by water, and you will lose all ability to fire into non-horizontal directions. It makes the overall fighting experience 100 times worse, and I can’t imagine why they thought it was a good idea to handicap the player in such a way.
It’s just details, but it kind of show that the developers have either not completely play-tested their game, or did not consider this to be a problem somehow. For the shops, I don’t mind, but the submarine part is just awful while it lasts.
The Knight Witches who say Ni
Despite its flaws, Knight Witch is a good game. It has great fundamentals: solid gameplay, great art, and a challenging set of obstacles. Mixing bullet hell and tight spaces is probably not for the faint of heart, but it works quite well, all things considered. The magic deck system needs a complete overhaul, but you can get used to it after pulling your hair a few times. However, the story and narration could clearly be improved, as it makes you want to skip the boring parts quickly to go back to what you do best: shooting, avoiding bullets, and beating the next boss.
Made for the Steam Deck?
I forgot to mention it works perfectly on the Steam Deck with the 7.0.6 Proton, and is a great fit for that device (you need to make sure you hit 60fps, as 40fps look awful for side scrollers). My settings were:
- Framerate limit: 60
- Refresh rate: 60
- TDP Limit: 5W
The only major quibble that I have about performance is that the first loading screen is extremely long - this game takes longer to load than Cyberpunk 2077 takes to load a full city with a simulated environment on the same hardware. Sounds like it could use some optimization.