The thing about the bullet hell sub-genre of shmups is that it operates on a tried-and-true rule of “if it ain’t broke, don’t break it”. These are titles that have seen endless exercises in skill-based evasion, blank battlefields with beautifully stylized backgrounds which will soon see an endless stream of deadly patterns go up against an effortless display of dodging. It’s something that The Knight Witch wishes to emulate in full fashion.
This is the latest release from Spanish developers Super Awesome Hyper Dimensional Mega Team, a studio that most recently released the 2017 “think and gun” Rise & Shine. The Knight Witch sees similar fusions at play, As a newly-instated protector of the lands, main character Rayne becomes a “Knight Witch”, the first and last line of defense against an evil that relies on her public image to stay strong for the threats that drove her people underground.
With a name referencing medieval and fantasy culture, you’d think it’s a title firmly rooted in the tropes expected, and you’d be wrong. The Knight Witch shares a lot of similarities with the medium-pushing ambitions present in Rise & Shine, which saw Metal Slug-esque combat blend with puzzle platforming. With The Knight Witch, you’ve got not just a Metroidvania, but a deck-building bullet hell shoot ‘em up also, wrapped inside a self-serving narrative that sees the ethos of TV series The Boys mesh with The Lorax.
No, really. It aims to be relevant with its story, while also being hip and timely with its fat handful of genres it’s ready to blend together, and the result is about what you’d expect: Thin mechanical and narrative offerings so sparse in their messaging and opportunities, that you wonder what the point even was. A veritable smorgasbord that doesn’t go far enough in any direction, instead choosing to run circles into the ground in awe of its own smugness.
It's the story that really drags down The Knight Witch throughout its entire runtime. Villains and threats are continuously rotated between with no real rhyme or reason, explanations are quickly drawn out without thinking about what was set up previously. It shows a remarkable lack of confidence in keeping the player engaged, instead choosing to make the main character Rayne become a thinkpiece for memetic dialogue and cutesy-wutesy writing which just ends up making her look like a childish psychopath.
It’s stunning to see Rayne, despite being a 35-year-old married woman, be framed to emulate a petulant teenager. Every line she speaks about her husband, her backstory, the world in ruin, the plot twists that take place, all of it is given the same ditsy, almost insulting demeanor. She will never not look like a variation of the “:sweat_smile:” emoji, as death stares her in the face, and the best thing she can do is make a joke about imposter syndrome.
At the same time, Rayne could’ve been written by Herman Melville, and it still wouldn’t hide just how poor some of the design choices in The Knight Witch are. Almost every focal point and genre that bleeds into the gameplay is missing critical polish, or makes shocking oversights. While it’d be unfair to call it utterly irredeemable, it’s not far off that mark, mostly down to its confusing difficulty curve.
It’s not like the game is difficult due to going the wrong way in a Metroidvania. In fact, the linearity of how Rayne progresses through the map is so strict at times, you wonder why the game doesn’t simply consist of closed-off levels. The addition of late-game mechanics to justify backtracking is there for just that, backtracking, with no applicable use in combat despite the desperate insistence otherwise.
The deck-building mechanics of The Knight Witch also lack a certain amount of depth, even with a deck size of 8, and over 30 cards to choose from. There’s not much choice beyond going completely offensive or retaining defensive tactics, and the latter suffers from wasting time in firefights. There’s no option for a shield to protect Rayne in motion, and you can’t shoot while inside a shield, so it’s a visual obstacle between everything else.
It's the visuals that become the final nail in the coffin for The Knight Witch, which isn’t to demerit the game's graphics themselves, which are stunning. Just like Rise & Shine, the game is almost always screenshot worthy with how rich and detailed a lot of the biomes can be. Clearly, the developers know this too, which is why they always take center stage over everything else.
Player readability, actual level design, the correlation between threats and mechanical implementation, all of it is thrown to the way-side to show off how pretty The Knight Witch can be. Bullets and enemy spawns will consistently be hidden by foreground elements and a large amount of bloom, leaving Rayne swinging around wildly trying to avoid whatever she thinks is a threat. Even in their beauty, the game's visuals instead self-sabotage, swinging back around to being an eye-sore.
One of the other gimmicks The Knight Witch possesses is press conferences after each main mission, where Rayne has to go back to the hub level to explain the plot and answer questions in an interview. Here, she can decide to become a PR nightmare and tell the truth or tell little white lies to keep people’s confidence in her and the system sky high. If you tell more of the former than the latter, then you won’t have enough experience points to utilize Rayne’s abilities properly.
Even though tying a morality system to baseline character and level progression seems incongruous with what a morality system actually is, it’s a clever way to modernize the narrative. However, The Knight Witch continues its self-sabotage further by having Rayne explain which question is the morally correct one, and which one will net you more experience points. Every single time, without fail, it will insult the player's supposed lack of literacy skills, in the hopes you didn’t get it the first time... or the second time... or the eleventh time.
It’s impressively sad seeing how much goodwill can be squandered on a title like The Knight Witch. Almost every element it possesses crashes and burns in the vain hope you’ll clap at its clever infusions of late-stage capitalism jokes and modern genres, while seeming to show no promise on any of its fronts. It’s not a dense Metroidvania, it’s not a skill-based shmup, it’s not a clever critique of corporations and yuppie culture, and it’s not fun to play.
TechRaptor reviewed The Knight Witch on Xbox One S using a copy provided by the publisher. It is also available on Xbox Series S|X, PlayStation 4 & 5, PC, and Nintendo Switch
- A visually striking game
- Press conference mechanic is a clever idea, in theory
- Poorly implemented morality system and narrative
- Insulting character development ruins main character's arc
- Metroidvania elements undercooked
- Shmup gameplay lacks visual clarity and feedback
- Deck-building mechanics offer no variety in playstyles