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"It is nevertheless the only game program (counting both the PC, Atari, and other current console systems) that has ever attempted a serious interpretation of this difficult genre." A creative and informed review of the Mindscape game by James Chambers.

 

James Chambers' Review

Title: Knightmare

Game Type: RPG

Players: 1

Company: Mindscape (1991)

Compatibility: 1 Mb

 

From father to son.....

Knightmare is the true underdog of the Dungeon Master family tree. Since its creation at the height of the Amiga 500's popularity, I have found only one favorable review of it since. Even the understanding folks on a popular web site devoted to its ancient precursor have a hard time liking it.

The problem cannot be with the game's graphics. Knightmare is a veritable feast for the eyes. Not since the errie dungeons in Ishar: The Legend of Fortress have I been so effectively excited, frightened, and awed at the same time. Knightmare is a shock to the system, from its blood stained dungeon corridors, to its grimacing evil elves, Knightmare is a knock out of a game.

I suppose the problem comes in when fans of Dungeon Master try to translate Knightmare as another Dungeon Master. While this ancient fore-father began the tradition, Knightmare is a game that stretches the genre. Knightmare seeks to redefine the idea of the dungeon crawl by adding layers of dark atmospherics based upon the engine of fairy tale types. This combined with a fevered hack and slash approach makes for one challenging game.

"All ye who enter here..."

As the player boots up Knightmare for the first time, fond memories of Dungeon Master float about like heather upon the wind. However, these memories quickly fade as the game screen loads up. In the labor to integrate mythic atmosphere with a twinge of the present, the player is re-introduced to an old construct of the theater, namely the simple use of curtains. Curtains are the simplest artifacts of creative strivings.

It is the curtain at the opera that separates the mythic stories of Wagner from the hum-drum mediocrities of the world; when the curtain rises, all disbelief sinks to submission, and the viewer becomes a part of the drama. As the player clicks the mouse and the curtain draws aside, one is drawn completely into a world different from Dungeon Master's and our own. I cannot think of a better cue, a better way in which to invite the player into the drama of the game; however, as we submit to the game world, we must remember that Captive is the blood that Knightmare thrives upon. This one constructive difference is the making of the game, and the flavor of its soul.

Though it is true that Knightmare (and Captive) owes its physical appearance to Dungeon Master, it is the soul of the game that differs vastly. Knightmare's approach was cut from the archetypal cloth of old folk tales. This cloth is wonderfully stitched through with the modern spirit of dry humour and the odd collapse of historical time into that of a believable `once upon a time' so popular in fantasy stories of our day.

It is here that the differences between Dungeon Master and Crowther's brain child are most obvious. Monsters are a good example. Knightmare's induction of creature types are smooth lifts from the bestiaries of our oral fairy tale cultures. Thus the old problem of covering the question "Hey, what's a wasp doing down here in the dungeon without a nest?" is answered quietly, so quietly that the question never occurs.

Dungeon Master occasionally suffered from its illogical usage of beasties in unlikely dungeon areas. This small interruption between interface and player causes for a small forgetting of the game's driving plot. However, in fairness, Dungeon Master obviously grew from the old memories of dedicated pen and paper role playing enthusiasts where the bestiary was often mixed. This proved to be a solid bedrock for the old father. The holes of "What's a wasp doing deep underground" were occasionally answered and patched by the commonality of the eclectic spirit of the Dungeon and Dragons monster folio experience in the player's background. The giant wasps, the mummies, and the large arachnids all flow from our AD&D daydreams like honey from a bee hive. This miasma of horrors was pulled together by believable monster routines, gorgeous sounds, and fun character portraits.

However, none of this interruption between player and interface is found in Knightmare (at least to my mind). The evil elves, bumbling trolls, and the tomb clothed Lord Fear all hail directly from the soil of the European past (of course the TV show processed this material in a gamey atmosphere, the game reprises the full moody nature of these types); the other monsters are very Captive-like renderings of Greek Mythology beasts. This makes for a tantalizing palette of strange enemies to defeat; coupled with the gorgeous hedge mazes, stormy Highland mountains, and heavy moody clouds, Knightmare rolls into one large atmospheric punch, which offers no escape once you begin.

The use of dreary colour renderings seeps over into the character selection menu and clearly recalls the wonderful eclectic stem of the Dungeon Master tradition. However, there are one or two things underdone in this department. The Dungeon Master enthusiast will miss the hall of heroes; for in Knightmare we are treated to a less than interactive experience in choosing our personas. Yet, there is a silver lining to this problematic cloud. From among the roster of possibilities one may pick from in the Knightmare world, the mundane human class (male and female) is the least of the sum of possibilities available. The player may choose from the smallish goblin as a character, a large ogre, or an ugly troll. The ephemeral characters of the Wraith , magical Genie, and earthy Insectoid are also up for grabs.

The strange character races reflect the wonderfully odd colour palette of the game. Each character is depicted in an errie blend of minimalism and dark shadings. One cannot help but feel out of place as you decide the profession of each; whether to be a gladiator or a mage are the important choices one will have to weigh carefully. The old adage of choosing two fighters, one mage, and one cleric type are still advisable here (though later the game will commit the player to a complete reversal of fortune). The world of Knightmare will continually test and re-test all initial decisions made early in the game; thus the engines of Fate and Fortune (alike in Dungeon Master) are also heavily relied upon here to create the grim realism of the game.

Playing..........

Knightmare demands a quick mastery of the Captive desk top. The combat is timed so that if you miss a beat, you had better back-step very quickly or loose your first line of characters in seconds. I call this realism, as combative realism in this game genre is best related to the player by the threat of character death. In contrast, the grand old father Dungeon Master allows the player to ease into its system enjoyably. This is of course a big part of the Dungeon Master method; however, Knightmare was sculpted from a different mold.

In the first few days of gameplay (and this depends largely upon your gaming habits) your characters will be armed with the likes of baseballs, pea-shooters, rocks, and perhaps a shovel if you are lucky. These weapons don't often make for comfortable stepping stones from the daggers, short swords, and bows of the Dungeon Master game. Thus early in the game, timing is the player's true weapon of choice (that and the use of doors).

The demands of nutrition are also present as you stalk the dim halls of the quest dungeons. This is where timing and planning also come in, for not all the dungeons contain food; in fact, most of the quest dungeons have one way doors that trap the player within, effectively entombing you in the depths of the earth until the quest is fulfilled.

The first level is a conglomeration of all the perils of the later dungeons. There you experience the pains of looking for the right keys, operating the pressure pads to reveal doorways (beware, for some are fallacious), riding the mining car to a different part of the map (watch out for the rails) and hunting for food in the form of rabbits and apples.

The dungeons contrast fiercely with those of Dungeon Master. Knightmare has within its nook and crannies lakes (you can drown in them), boats, islands, roller walls, and devious wall buttons (with hateful fireball portals nearby).

Knightmare features an "above ground" playing field. As stated earlier, this level of the game is a beautiful hedge maze/forest level with a splendid view of cloud clad mountains in the background. However, the players must not linger here indefintely. They must search carefully in the hedgemaze, for many items can be found in the grass.

Rabbits also abound in the hedges, both for food and general experience points. It is said that apples are available (they are also part of a well known cheat) in the forest; however, you will need to find a special tool to collect them. Careful planning and progression of skills early on is suggested by most veterans.

In structure, Knightmare resembles Bloodwych more than Dungeon Master. The small plot teasers and plentiful puzzles combined with nice dungeon decor (evil moose heads on the walls, odd shield crests, the familiar name plaques, and occasional resurrection plants) add an odd atmosphere to the game (which was Bloodwych's true call to fame; for in its oddness we excused the scrunched player world). This sincere brand of oddness when combined with a game design like Crowther's makes for one dark horse of a game that will embrace only the most sadistic of fantasy role playing enthusiasts.

In conclusion, Knightmare is often framed as a game that has poor graphics. I for one do not see how this is the case. The graphics are shaded oddly by a dark palette choice, but we must remember - Knightmare is not an interpretation of Dungeon Master, but of a dark fairy tale culture (non-Tolkien at that). Though this culture is poured through the Captive lens (which can be very challenging to some), it is nevertheless the only game program (counting both the PC, Atari, and other current console systems) that has ever attempted a serious interpretation of this difficult genre. Buy this game only if you long to experience the dark heart of a difficult but sincerely enjoyable quest.

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