This week, Zero Punctuation reviews Black Knight Sword and Hotline Miami
Now that we're done with Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, Saturnalia or generic bland obligatory half-remembered swamp of gluttony and resentment, we've a few weeks to kill before the time of year I've come to call "Phew, coast is clear, gang" when everything they didn't want to try and compete with seasonal sales makes a break for it now that Call of Duty's done eating all the money in the world and is lying in a bloated stupor dreaming happy little dreams about oppressing the under-privileged.
So like the England cricket team, I've been trying to keep up with the Indies. And with the end-of-year Steam sales, I can certainly think of worse times to do so, like the Battle of Stalingrad, or when your head has gotten trapped in a Lego castle.
Counter-intuitively, though, the first one that caught my eye was an XBLA game called Black Knight Sword, an informative, if grammatically iffy title, 'cause it's about a knight in black armour who uses a sword. If only other games were willing to wear its colours so prominently in their titles, it'd certainly make cataloging them much easier, like Orange Nerd Crowbar or Brown Sweaty Racism or Red Dead Revolv– oh wait.
Interestingly enough, Black Sword Knight Black comes to us from an occasional friend and possible nutter, Suda51, and is strongly reminiscent of those weird 2D paper doll things from his last-but-one game Shadows of the Damned, all made to look like a 2D cardboard puppet show with Terry Gilliam-esque visuals and sound, telling the story of a bloke who hangs himself, turns into a black knight and then opts to use his new lease on life to meander through a succession of levels and boss fights themed around slightly fucked-up animal fables. And thank Christ, Suda, 'cos after Shadows of the Damned and Lollipop Chainsaw, I was afraid your narratives were getting too coherent!
In fairness, it's more like poetry than standard game story telling with the aesthetic in a Grimm fairy tale slurpily making out with surreal Pythonesque imagery and an on-going narration by someone who sounds like Vincent Price teaching his children how to pull the legs off spiders. Maybe the plot comes together in the end, I wouldn't know, 'cos the actual game plays like arse. And by arse, I of course mean the late 16-bit era, third party platformer- oh wait, actually I do mean arse.
The checkpoint system is like a crippled dog attempting to pole dance; awful, bewildering, and not the least bit sexy! Get this: if you run out of lives, you have to restart the level without upgrades, by which I mean all the upgrades you've acquired since the very start of the game inexplicably gouged out of your black knight bum. Unless you do a manual save from the pause menu after every checkpoint, which you can only reload from the title screen after quitting out of the game after sitting through three fucking loading screens!
Game quality is subjective to taste, but there is one aspect that can be calculated mathematically: Between getting killed and getting back into the action, time plus number of button presses plus extremely grating repeated sound effects equals how many bits of myself I will have chewed off by the end of the game!
I get that it's trying to make you seriously want to not die but the game is deliberately hard, so it's throwing rocks at your head without warning and yelling "Try harder, you prick!" And all the unnecessary slow and ornate menus and loading screens completely pile-drives the pacing into a concrete traffic barrier to the point that it just ruins the whole thing. I suppose you might like it if you've secretly murdered your wife and are seeking punishment to assuage your guilt, otherwise can't recommend.
You know what video games need more of these days? Violence! I'm surprised no one's ever thought of that. It seems like such an obvious fix since people who play video games are all frustrated social misfits with secret longings for power over others in whatever twisted demented forms they can get it, and you'd think more developers would capitalize on that. Well, this niche is finally being filled with Hotline Miami, a rather unique blend of arcade action and various forms of mental illness.
In a retro depiction of Miami blearily glimpsed through a psychedelic haze, you are tasked to complete a series of massacres against an unspecific criminal organization at the behest of your answering machine while descending further and further into whatever madness caused you to employ a piece of home office equipment as your lifestyle coach in the first place. It's presented in a top-down floorplan perspective with retro pixelly graphics like a cross between Dreamweb, GTA: Vice City and Super Meat Boy, and good thing too, 'cause as I was throwing boiling water in a man's face and repeatedly smashing his head against the kitchen floor while his friend crawled around trying to gather bits of escaped brain, I remember thinking "It's lucky it's all stylized or I might have thought it was a bit fucked-up!"
What drives the Super Meat Boy comparison is that pacing is almost the entire opposite of Purple Monkey Dishwater above you die instantly from the slightest mistake but you can reload and be back in the action before your guts are finished flopping out onto the zebra-skin rug. I'd call it "trial and error" but the pacing is way too fast for a whole two syllable word. It's more like "trial and err- Restart, try again!"
At first, you might make the mistake in trying to be methodical and plan your way strategically. "Mmm yes, a direct assault through this entrance I think, disable guard A, take his gun, waste 2.7 seconds, smash open this door, knock out guard B, shoot guard C through the window across the room and- Whoops, forgot about that patrolling guard dog that was trained to equate jugular veins with bacon strips!" So then you restart and make a noise somewhere along the lines of "GRAAAAGGGGHHLLLL" and this time run around swinging a katana around like your mum let you eat too many sweets before the anime convention and somehow this works out a lot better. It really captures the desperate adrenaline-pumping berserker rage that come from having to live in the 1980's, but when the synth music stops blaring and the red mist fades away and you take stock of the ocean of mutilated bodies lapping gently around your ankles, you have to think to yourself "I am so fucked in the head that my frontal lobe is essentially a bellend."
The story is a bit ambiguous, but I think it does a good job conveying how absolutely bonkers you are, as hallucinations and reality become impossible to separate and your lucid moments feel like the brief snatches of air a drowning man grabs when his head momentarily breaks surface. The conclusion isn't particularly satisfying, but it's not a deal breaker, 'cos it's equally engaging to cry Frothing Bollock Milkshakes to story and just concentrate on beating your massacre high score, you monster.
For want of criticism, there's one very misguided forced stealth chapter in which the pacing comes to a screeching halt and a game like this can't afford to slow down for long 'cause we might end up thinking, "Hey, this gameplay's really frustrating and all the synth music is starting to get on my tits! Not seriously on my tits, just sort of nestling on the sternum area like a sleeping cat and I don't want to wake it but I kind of need to be somewhere."
On the whole though, it's really quite engaging and I found myself jolly hooked indeed, so I recommend Hotline Miami, or, to use the new naming system, Magenta Nutcase Kitchenfloor!
- Yellow Critic Knob Gags: Ben "Yahtzee" Croshaw
- We'd be pretty fucked if gang members started hanging out in rooms where the doors only opened outwards
- For me it's self-checkout machines that make me want to murder people
Black Knight Sword