The concept of pairing players with AI companions is all the rage at Namco Bandai pitch meetings. From Ninja Theory's sleeper success Enslaved: Odyssey to the West to Games Republic's boy-and-his-beast adventure Majin and the Forsaken Kingdom, the publisher has experimented with the extended-escort-mission idea that helped Ico achieve cult status.
Game Republic’s new take on teaming protagonists, Knights Contract, puts players in charge of the Heinrich and Gretchen, the former an executioner, the latter the witch beheaded by his ax – an undeniably appealing set-up. Indeed, Knights Contract's narrative is its most appealing feature, and it gets better.
Before the ax fell, Gretchen cursed Heinrich with immortality, but the crotchety old killer just wants to die. In order to break the curse, he must join forces with the resurrected witch to defeat her human-hating, black plague-spewing sisters. The story, told through multiple but never intrusive cut-scenes, is paced well and packs plenty of surprises, even beyond the already absorbing initial premise.
While following Knights Contract's well-woven yarn is a treat, reaching its conclusion is a chore. Saddled by uneven design and one enormous, fun-sapping flaw, the title's gameplay highs are too often undermined by its lows. But before dwelling on the bad and the unforgivable ugly, let's focus on the good ingredients mixed into this witch's cauldron.
The action-intense combat can be a blast. Heinrich is based on the super-stylized, over-the-top approach of Devil May Cry and Bayonetta, but a pull of the right trigger switches to Gretchen's button-mapped spells. You don't directly control Gretchen’s movement, but the cool-down period on her excellent array of powers is forgiving enough to keep her in constant use.
When you're not reaching into Gretchen's bag of baddie-eviscerating tricks, she does a decent job of supporting Heinrich on the battlefield. Sadly, the rest of her behaviour leaves a lot to be desired. Most notably, she goes out of her way to piss off the bad guys when Heinrich is incapacitated - he can't die, but he can be struck down until 15 seconds of button-mashing brings him back to his feet.
Indeed, button-mashing is at the heart of Knights Contract's most soul-sucking, F-word-eliciting flaw: QTE-riddled boss battles. You are given a strikingly small window of opportunity to complete a QTE to finish each encounter, and if you fail your adversary's health bar receives a dispiritingly large boost. This not only makes boss battles unfairly difficult, it forces you to focus on - and fear - a dumb button prompt rather than the cinematic action unfolding around it.
Knights Contract's blistering combat, absorbing story, and dark fantasy setting are enjoyable, which makes it all the more difficult to see it sullied by one bad idea. If you can get past this suffocating shortcoming, you'll discover a decent third-person action romp with an interesting dual-protagonist twist. However, most can expect their hair to be as gray as the century-old Heinrich's after suffering the QTE curse.
Next page: Our expert verdict