Knights in the Nightmare is the newest game from developer Sting, and is the third game in the Dept. Heaven series, which includes Riviera: The Promised Land and Yggdra Union: We'll Never Fight Alone. Most of Sting's games have taken a genre and added new ideas and other twists to it, but still remaining close the genre it was based on. Knights in the Nightmare mixes numerous different play styles, such as Strategy RPGs (SRPG) and shoot-em-ups (shumps) to create a game which cannot be classified with just one or two genres. With this eclectic mix of play styles, is this game a nightmare gamers should avoid at all costs, or should they delve into the darkness to see the game within?
Knights in the Nightmare's control scheme uses the Nintendo DS's touch screen for the majority of the game's battles, using the face button for either pausing the game or revealing the back story of the characters through a system called Pause Talk (more on that later). Without going into too much detail (the game includes a immense tutorial), you use the touch screen to animate dead souls to attack enemies via the Wisp, the spirit of a dead king. You will be paying more attention to the top screen, however, since that is where all of the action takes place - the touch screen only shows a HUD-like display showing the units on the battlefield. Wherever your stylus moves on the touch screen, the Wisp will move there on the top screen.
There are over forty maps to play on, each of which having a set amount of rounds, and each round gives you 60 points of life to use, which will end once you reach zero. By holding the Wisp over a soul you can charge their attacks (giving up some of your life points), dealing damage to the enemies that appear each round. Each enemy killed will mark off a box on the bottom of the touch screen. Line the marks either horizontally, vertically, or diagonally, and you clear the map. To kill enemies faster, you can drag weapons (which are picked before each round by the player) which deal more damage at the cost of using more life. Special items can also be dragged onto characters or non-playable characters (NPCs) to have them join you or get powerful weapons. However, the enemies will not let you kill them so easily - they will occasionally cause projectiles to appear on the screen, causing you to lose life if you touch them. In this sense, the game is similar to a shoot 'em up, causing the player to evade attacks while commanding their units in battle.
The touch based interface, for the most part, works extraordinarily well. Dragging equipment and items to the characters is very easy, and the game allows you to press the L button to cancel attacks or dragged items if you accidentally picked the wrong one. The Wisp moves in perfect motion with the player's motions on the touch screen, which is especially needed in some of the harder levels which have projectiles that take up most of the screen. One fault with the interface is that some icons are quite small due to the amount of information Sting needed to put on the screen, so it is easy to accidentally pick the wrong icon when evading an attack or using an item the wrong person and having to drag it again. This becomes less of a problem once you understand that the life points only decrease when your units attack or you get hit, thus you can take your time, but until you get used to the game, it can be a small annoyance.The units in the game are one of six different classes, each with their own advantages and weaknesses. The two moveable units, the Duelist and L. Knight, can only deal damage in a straight line. The other classes cannot move, but can deal damage over a broader area. In the later levels this becomes paramount when bosses and enemies become smarter and interrupt your attacks, forcing you to think about which class is suited for that particular job. Each unit has their own life point value, called VIT. Each charged attack uses up VIT, leading into the Transsoul system. The souls of the units can be given to other units to increase their VIT, as well as increase the max level they can be upgraded to. Players are continually forced to pick carefully which souls they will transsoul, since some weapons have special high level attacks that can only be used if their element matches the element of the weapon. This system also allows those who want to play a harder game to do so by forgoing the Transsoul system, allowing the player to determine how hard or easy they want the game to be.
The storyline, while nothing extraordinary, is quite detailed. For the first half of the game, most of the story is told via scenes after each battle, which revolves around the characters you find in that map. Initially these scenes seem unrelated, but eventually link together to paint a broader picture. This is further developed through the Pause Talk scenes, which appear when you hover over a character and press down on the control pad, or use an item that is related to them. As more of the scenes are found, they will start to link together into a back story that gives more depth to the characters than if one just watched the scenes before and after battle. While none of this is needed to complete the game, it was nice to see so much detail put into the characters, since there are over 100 Knights you can recruit in the game.
The music and art direction in Knights in the Nightmare is amazingly detailed for a Nintendo DS title. Like Golden Sun, the music truly shines when you listen to it with headphones. The composer for Yggdra Union: We'll Never Fight Alone, Shigeki Hayashi, returns again to composer Knights in the Nightmare's soundtrack, which is a quite a bit more varied than his previous outing. Over forty different tracks are included in the game, all having their own unique style. The graphics in Knights in the Nightmare also carry over this attention to detail, from a fog that rolls through almost every area, animating the flickering of the flames in the castle, to the animations of the characters as they move. It is evident that Sting took their time crafting the world in Knights in the Nightmare, and it shines through throughout the game.
Usually games that piece together various genres are a lesser sum of their parts, never reaching its full potential in any area. Knights in the Nightmare manages to do this and become something truly unique that has yet to be replicated on the Nintendo DS. At times the game appears a bit too complex for its own good, and the menus might be a tad bit too small for some players, but for gamers who devout the time to learning the inner workings of this game, it can become a truly rewarding experience. For those willing to put in the time, this is one nightmare that is worth experiencing.