Updated: Dec 23, 2022
We all are aware of some of the classic mash-ups. Tilapia and Sauvignon Blanc. Horror movies and popcorn. Guile's Theme and anything. But there's also some things that you didn't expect would work well together that turn out pretty damn good. For instance, I enjoy peanut butter and jalapenos on my burger. Hey don't knock it till you've tried it. When it comes to the world of video games, I'm usually pretty conservative when it comes to genres, but I do love a good mishmash (as long as it doesn't involve roguelikes, yuck). And with The Knight Witch, I found myself pleasantly surprised by this mix of two of my favorite genres: Shmup and Metroidvania.
In The Knight Witch, you play as Rayne, who is – to no surprise – a Knight Witch. The Knight Witches are a special group of heroes with amazing powers, and are tasked with keeping the world safe. However, their strength is dependent on the citizens' faith. If the general public believes in them and puts their trust in them, the Knight Witches grow stronger and become more capable. This is put to the test, as in the prologue, the Witches are up against an evil dictator who has taken all the planet's natural resources and causing an imminent, world-ending disaster. This forces everyone to hide underground and live their lives free from the scorched surface.
The main story takes place a few years after this epic battle, and Rayne, who missed out on that prior battle due to her inexperience, is coming into her own as a Knight Witch. She is still learning the ropes when suddenly the underground city is attacked by forces similar to the ones that the Knight Witches defeated. Unprepared, she is forced to defend the citizens, while at the same time, tries to figure out who is behind the attack and what became of the Witches that went missing after the battle.
I won't give away much more of the plot, but I will say this: this is one of the most story-heavy Metroidvanias I've ever played. Most games of this genre don't give you much; you're left trying to piece together the plot yourself. So to see a lot of dialogue was a breath of fresh air. Not only that, but the story was very well-written. The relationship between Rayne and her husband is heartwarming, and her trepidations of becoming a Knight Witch really adds depth to the character. Additionally, her dealings with the city's mayor and “propaganda department” make for a very intriguing narrative. Towards the end the story things start to get a little convoluted, so that was a bit of a put-off.
Gameplay-wise, The Knight Witch is a 2D Metroidvania, albeit with a few alterations. First, it's not a platformer. Rayne never touches the ground. You have full control over her as she flies around the screen, blasting baddies and solving puzzles. You'll traverse to four different biomes, and have to go back and forth as you unlock new abilities. The Metroidvania tropes are all here – power-ups, health and magic upgrades, and tough-as-nails boss encounters. Unlike most games of this genre, though, is that the battles are presented like a bullet-hell shmup. Different enemies have different bullet patterns, and you'll be spending as much time dipping and dodging as you are shooting. Like so many shmups, battling enemies in The Knight Witch can get difficult and frustrating, but once you figure out these patterns you'll be a formidable opponent in no time.
In addition to her basic attack, Rayne can also collect Spell Cards. These cards allow her to use mana to execute a special move. These moves include homing swords, circles of protective rocks, and a move that creates a spiral of bullets around you. Using these cards strategically is imperative if you want to survive some of the tougher battles – especially later in the game. I hit one area in the game that was particularly difficult, until I realized I had a Spell Card that stunned enemies. So using that card, I didn't even bother engaging – I just used the brief opportunity to speed past them.
Exploration and enemy/boss battles are not the only aspect of The Knight Witch - moving the story forward also plays a big role. At several points throughout the game, you'll have to conduct a press conference with the propaganda department in order to let the citizens know the status of this attack on their city. Your interviewer will ask questions, and you have two options: choose to embellish the truth (or flat-out lie) in order to gain more trust (XP), or tell the truth and gain much less XP. I must say, there were several times that I sat there thinking about what was more important: the truth or my own power. It was a a moral conundrum that had lasting effects and made me feel either really proud or really guilty.
Like many shmups, The Knight Witch can get pretty challenging. Evading enemy attacks gets chaotic, and trying to aim your shots perfectly gets cumbersome. Luckily, the developers included an option to auto-aim so you can focus on your movements. The caveat, though, is that your attacks are weaker than if you were aiming directly, so it's a fair trade-off. This offensive/defensive mechanic helps when trying to decide whether to go on the attack or stay back and play it safe. Boss battles are tough without being unfair. I've died plenty of times during boss battles, only to take a break and come back refreshed only to win the very next attempt. That, to me, is a sign of a good game. And I know it's a small thing, but whenever you get, all the other bullets on the screen disappear and you have a short window of invincibility. It comes in handy – believe me on that one. And if you're really getting killed out there, there's cheats you can unlock that will significantly help Rayne out. Did I use any of these? Yeah, I'm not gonna say.
The game is well put-together and looks very pretty. Each biome has its own personality to it, and character animations are fluid. Enemy bullets are bright red and do not get lost in the background. The environment also does not get in the way of gameplay, and the characters show strong emotion during the dialogue segments. The music isn't overpowering or out of place, and does a great job drawing you into the world.
Not everything is perfect though. First, the load times are painfully long. When you are using the game's central portal to move to a new area, it takes quite a while to load. This is on the Switch, so I'm not sure if the other systems are faster. Second, I did encounter some slowdown, especially during the boss battles later in the game. Also, for a Metroidvania, there wasn't a whole lot of backtracking involved. And when I did earn the upgrades I wanted, it was late into the story and I didn't feel much like going back to get some extra XP. Finally, when I was aiming shots while up against a wall, some of them wouldn't fire. That's a small annoyance, but when you're surrounded by enemies, every shot counts.
The Knight Witch is a fresh experience. It's not like any other that I've played, and does a lot of things right from both the Metroidvania and Shmup genres. There were some technical issues and the difficulty can be very frustrating – even to the point where you may want to give up. But the captivating story, strong writing, and engaging cast of characters will make the controller-throwing moments worth it.
Final Grade: B+