A quirky shoot ‘em up that brings witches and bullets together in a way that’s almost as stylish as Bayonetta!
Developed by the fantastically named "Super Awesome Hyper Dimensional Mega Team", The Knight Witch’s is a MetroidVania style shoot-em-up that is familiar yet surprisingly interesting. The plot concerns a very powerful group called “The Daigadai”, who have unified the world, but started using up too many resources in the process. Angry at the ravaging of their home, the people dubbed the “Children Of Gaia”, rose up and began fighting on nature's behalf against the evil cabal of world leaders, and their horde of mechanical minions. Just when all hope seems lost, the Knight Witches awake from their slumber and take the fight to The Daigadai, harnessing the raw power of nature to save the planet, and becoming the face of the rebellion.
The game opens during what can only be described as the apocalypse. The sky has shattered, the planet is dying, and after some socio-political commentary between the captain of the witches, Robyn, and the emperor of The Daigidai, they clash and the planet is damaged beyond repair. People on both sides of the War lay down their weapons and move underground to live in peace.
Of course, this isn't a perfect solution, or we’d have no game here, so we take the role of an aspiring Knight Witch called Rayne. Akai, Rayne's husband, informs us that she didn’t get accepted into the Knight Witches, in an exposition dump that leads to an invasion, thrusting her into the hero role. From there, a mystery unravels and we’re en route to save the world and become a real Knight Witch or die trying… and then try again from the last checkpoint.
The games’ premise is relatively simple - albeit slightly harrowing - as far as video game plots go, but it perfectly fits the “Magical Girl” trope that anime fans will be used to, and works as a fun vehicle to explain the main character’s backstory.
The game is a fun, yet challenging experience that feels more forgiving than most shoot-em-ups, with checkpoints appearing before bosses and dying having little to no real repercussions for the player. We have a health bar which already makes us spongier than other “shmup” characters, and with a game-style that blends Metal Slug with Child of Light. You also have a lot of freedom to explore the environments as you can pretty much fly anywhere where there’s not water, walls or a floor blocking your path.
Mobility is key in this game, and being able to fly about as we please is our main defensive option until we unlock a dodge. Dodging avoids any incoming damage for its duration, and if you do get hit, enemy bullets are wiped from the battlefield. This can be used tactically, but mainly functions as a helping hand.
When it comes to combat, holding the ‘R’ button fires instinctively at the nearest enemy, but deals minor damage. Using the right stick with ‘R’ lets you aim your shots, which deals additional damage, but the most interesting approach is using Spells.
In the prologue, we have a set of spells randomly assigned to the ‘X’, ‘Y’ and ‘A’ buttons. These are all cards with a number on them denoting their mana cost. Our mana is represented by a blue bar, which fills as we damage and destroy enemies. Robyn has a set deck featuring shields, a weapon upgrade, homing darts and her own bullet hell move. Rayne also has this mechanic, but it’s a little different. We build Rayne’s deck and can make it as offensive or defensive as we can afford, which means we get a lot of variety and a lot of strategy added to the bullet hell gameplay.
Our protagonist; Rayne, isn't as strong as the prologue character Robyn. She starts off with less health, a slower standard shot and no dodge. In a way, it harkens back to games like Mega Man X, where we’re shown a cool character that is much more powerful than us in the prologue, whom one day we’ll match or even surpass in terms of skill and power.
In line with many modern games, The Knight Witch also has a risk/reward trade-off with its checkpoints. Your spell cards get reshuffled and defeated enemies respawn, but you regain health and can use this to farm crystals to spend on snacks, armour and Spell Cards. The Deck Building is flexible, with a multitude of cards each belonging to one of four archetypes: ‘Destroyer’, being damage oriented spells, ‘Weapon’, which replaces your default shot, ‘Conjurer’, which mainly include defensive options and bombs. Finally we have ‘Trickster’, which has random effects, such as removing spell costs and pulling 3 cards randomly from your collection. Do you go for low mana cost, low damage homing spells, or bombastic explosions that cost 4 mana to cast? How confident are you in your skills and patience to not spam fireballs or lightning at every hunk of metal in your way?
The Knight Witch is a Metroidvania title at heart, and it's important to remember this in case you forgo exploration and miss a valuable health or mana upgrade. As a Knight Witch, you are a hero to the people, and you draw your power from their trust. Completing side missions and performing your witchy, or rather, your knightly duties, increases your trust or "Link" level, which allows you to upgrade your bullet or spell damage. In both cases, the player is allowed to choose their upgrade path, be it creating the body of a knight, or enhancing the magic of a witch.
One feature I adore is a classic “Cheats” menu. My face actually lit up when I saw it, giving me a warm feeling of nostalgia for the games of my childhood. I didn’t figure out any of the cheats during my review playthrough, but I later found out they have the old favourites, including invincibility, infinite mana, infinite weapon durability and so on. If you fancy an ultimate challenge, use the "Glass Rayne" cheat, where a single hit means death!
The Knight Witch is one gorgeous looking piece of software, with backgrounds that would fit in well with any 2D animation, and vibrant character designs that stand out strongly against the environment. The enemies are easily distinguishable and danger is clear to see. Big red bullets often fill the screen and though it can be visually noisy, the characters stand out well even in the bigger boss fights. Each of Rayne’s Spells possess a unique style to them, including different weapon spells modifying the projectile sizes and shapes. One thing I will say is that sometimes the hitbox for our protagonist seems slightly larger than her sprite, but that may be an issue of me not always giving my full attention to the situation.
The game uses multiple layers of scenery to give the illusion of depth, with all interactable objects, NPCs, cover and enemies occupying the main layer. The backgrounds have a good depth to them and I think it would have been interesting to explore the 2.5D visuals a bit, but I don’t know how well that would translate in regards to the gameplay. Either way, we’re treated to several charming character portraits and some strong character variety, not only in terms of scale, but also the myriad races that inhabit Gaia.
The Knight Witch has a sublime soundtrack, thanks to composer Damian Sanchez. It encapsulates the themes of Knight Witch’s story so well and reminds me of Darren Korb’s haunting guitar chords from Supergiant Games' "Bastion". A personal favourite track would be "Golem Army", which merges a crunchy guitar riff and thudding drums together with the sounds of heavy boots marching. It really made me feel like a sole rebel, sneaking through enemy territory in a huge war.
Similarly, the games’ sound design pulls no punches. The bullets have a unique sound, almost like a jingle on contact, and we can tell how hard it hits when environmental props like barrels and crates explode. The enemy golems sound like a tin can being smashed, and the spells and item pick-ups each have their own distinctive sounds to them. In the more visually busy areas of the game, I was identifying what I was picking up by sound alone. It’s hard to describe some of the sounds, but they're distinct enough to be a useful aid.
Performance is stable on Switch whilst Docked, with almost no stuttering, even in busy rooms. I didn’t experience any frame drops, and the loading times were relatively fast. It’s definitely not a game that pushes the hardware too hard. It holds up perfectly well in Handheld mode, and the text is well-sized and legible on the smaller screen. I experienced no crashes or errors in my time playing it. The field of view is also very player friendly in both Docked and Handheld, though in the larger rooms it can be tricky keeping an eye on Rayne’s positioning while in Handheld mode.
The Knight Witch is a really fun and ambitious blend of genres that really suits the portability of the Nintendo Switch system. It’s got a good level of challenge that doesn’t let up, and a strong and captivating opening! There’s a surprising amount of charm to be found in this bullet hell MetroidVania, and it never feels really unfair or overly difficult in the way some game’s of this genre are. Playtime is around 10 hours or so, which makes the modest price tag all the more pleasing.
Super Awesome Hyper Dimensional Mega Team have brought a wonderful multi-genre game to our consoles and it’s a fantastic addition to any gamer’s catalogue. The Knight Witch is a game I can easily see myself coming back to even after completion, if not to just suffer a bit at the difficulty.
Where to Buy
Written by Luke Young
Edited by Mark McAllister, Paul L. Russell and Jen Griffiths
Graphic by Paul L. Russell