Downloadable games by small studios can be some of the most creative in the games industry. Away from huge budgets, fan expectations and large marketing campaigns these games can take more risks. Games like Journey and Brothers – A Tale of Two Sons show that unique concepts with the right execution can breathe life into an industry addicted to formula.
The unfortunate thing with Blood Knights (made by DECK13, a relatively small German studio) is it tries to compete in a more mainstream arena dominated by games with higher budgets and more resources. This kind of ambition with limited resources is commendable, but unfortunately in the case of Blood Knights, foolhardy. Blood Knights has a few interesting ideas but they are undeveloped and ultimately overshadowed by the general lack of polish on display.
The story follows Jeremy, a warrior against darkness who finds himself in the precarious position of being bound to a vampire, Alysa. After the seal of blood (an ancient artifact that keeps demons from walking on Earth) is stolen by vampires, Jeremy and Alysa must hack-and-slash their way to recovering the seal. After a confusing opening that seems to drop you into a situation without any explanation or context, a patchwork of fantasy clichés proceeds to ferry you from location to location. The frequent cutscenes that intersperse the action are mostly of the talking head variety, and not very eloquent talking heads at that. The dialogue is poorly delivered and not all the criticism can be leveled against the cast, who have to deliver fragmented lines that rarely flow into one another.
The design of the levels will be very familiar to fans of the hack-and-slash genre. There is a spooky forest, a castle and even an inn to enjoy a very brief respite. The graphics are cheap and cheerful with small areas and a top-down view that doesn’t let the eye wander. The character models are quite basic and unimaginative - Jeremy has typically harsh features and the female characters are given skimpy outfits to show off their stereotyped fantasy physiques.
The gameplay is much the same as the story, it follows genre conventions but without the polish to really make it stand out. The game is built to be played co-operatively with a friend, although with a lack of online support, local co-op is the only way to play together. The game can be played solo but it isn't an optimal experience, with the user having to switch between characters rather than having an AI companion to fight alongside.
Despite a lack of polish, some of the co-operative elements in Blood Knights are fairly well conceived. Alysa has crossbows that make her effective from afar and Jeremy has two swords that allow him to deal damage up-close. Being vampires, the characters can share blood between them, allowing your partner to regain health at the expense of your own. There is also a light platforming aspect with Alysa being able to propel Jeremy to raised platforms, and Jeremy is able to pull Alysa up to join him like a proper gentleman. Unfortunately these mechanics, while novel and maybe even cute at first, start to grate after overuse. Likewise some painfully simple non-puzzles, involving switches to access new areas, feel tolerable at first but plain irritating later in the game. They never offer up much of a mental challenge and seem placed, more than anything, to break up the combat and stretch the length of the game. The camera also suffers when the characters get too far apart, normally meaning a blind death for the unlucky player.
The enemies that the player faces are vampires and other assorted demons that can offer a challenge when they corner you but otherwise aren’t smart or very diverse in their attack patterns. Most enemies have only one main attack pattern and beating them normally descends into a button-mashing scenario. If your health gets too low you can slow-down time to feed off your enemies and gain some health but a byproduct of this is it disrupts the flow for your partner.
All told, the campaign of Blood Knights lasts around four to five hours on the default difficulty, which is a bit on the short side. What irks more though is the repetition that it takes to get to four to five hours. Blood Knights follows the common development philosophy of ‘any objective worth giving, is worth giving at least three times’. Once completed, there is little incentive to play the story again. There are leaderboards to see how you compare with other players but no game + that warrants a further playthrough. There is also a hard difficulty setting but this doesn't make the enemies smarter, it simply gives them more health while weakening your own abilities, making the game longer and thereby increasing the tedium.
There are also a few rough edges when it comes to performance. The game will occasionally freeze for a split-second while under heavy load or near a save point. When leaving an area, the last played audio will sometimes loop. These details really confirm that Blood Knights is punching above its own weight. There are items to equip and a skill tree to follow, but the basic skills of the player are rarely tested and when there isn't a particularly engaging story to pull you through the lull, it quickly descends into a bland grind.
It’s hard to recommend Blood Knights when there are similar games that offer a slicker production and far greater variety. If you are desperate for some local co-op gameplay and don’t mind a few rough edges it might occupy an evening or two. For those playing solo, it really is a game to avoid. The poor dialogue, when shared can add a bit of a ‘so bad, it’s good’ quality but when playing alone the story and gameplay do nothing to keep most players from sullenly putting the controller down and calming uninstalling it from their hard drive.