Strategy RPGs have been a bit overdue for something to reinvigorate the genre, for the most part it's been a game type that suffers from being too repetitive with nothing coming even close to topping the current king of the hill, Final Fantasy Tactics. I think that's about to change thanks to Atlus' Knights in the Nightmare, a strategy RPG that is currently unlike any I have seen before. Combining a deep strategy component with the frenetic pace of a bullet hell shooter, Knights in the Nightmare will have you scrambling to keep up the pace against hordes of enemies who are constantly on the offensive who want nothing more than to end your journey. Suffice to say this is a title that anyone with a PSP should own, and by extension anyone with a Nintendo DS, since DS owners have had access to this game for well over a year now.
Knights in the Nightmare has quite the convoluted story, and the presentation is probably the weakest aspect of the game. An armored maiden named Maria is out to revive the Lion Heart King of Aventheim Castle, but initially you'll not be clued in to this in an effort to keep the story mysterious to hold your attention, and unfortunately this carrot is held away for quite a while with your character, the 'Wisp,' blindly chasing after Maria. Every level is preceded with a bit of story exposition and then after the battle you are clued in to the former members of the Aventheim army in their desperate struggle for survival while serving the missing king. These constantly intertwining story lines are initially difficult to follow but as you proceed you'll uncover Maria's true motives along with the inner workings of a corrupt kingdom out to suppress the Lion Heart King. The game clocks in at a respectable 20 hours and that's really only if you want to blaze through the game as quickly as possible, which means you'll more than likely miss out on some party members and special weapons.
As you progress through the game you'll find the souls of those lost in battle and by presenting them with a key item from their past life you'll recruit them in your ever growing army. This is key because it allows you different capabilities in battle, for instance each class is only allowed to attack in two predetermined directions, and their placement on the battlefield is for the most part static. So while archers might be able to attack in one direction, priestesses will be able to attack in a different direction entirely. Each class also has different attack ranges depending on the weapons you bring in to battle. If for some reason you have not drafted a specific unit in to your army you are granted one for use for one battle. You are allowed four weapons per round of combat and these weapons are affected by the fields of law and chaos. Initially this system is a bit confusing, but once you get the hang of it you'll have an army that will be feared across the land. Thankfully there is a really in-depth tutorial system that will teach you everything you need to know about how to play the game, and without that this game would have been extremely to play and review.
Once it comes time to fight the game is where you find that those tutorials really paid off. Initially you will place your characters in predetermined spots on the map and will then give them weapons to fight with. Your army doesn't require you to have weapons on hand as they can still attack, but they will not be able to do much damage. What you will do is generate MP that is collected by the Wisp which in turn will power the weapons brought in to battle. Eventually enemies will stop generating MP, and in order to keep generating MP you'll need to switch between the sides of Law and Chaos, when enemies stop dropping MP in the Law setting, you will want to switch to Chaos and vice versa. This in turn will also affect the weapons that can be used, with certain weapons only being available in the Law or Chaos setting and a few rare exceptions that can operate on both sides. These weapons also have elemental affinities that will allow them to deal extra damage to enemies. If by chance you happen to bring the wrong elemental weapons in to battle you can actually change the enemy's affinities by hitting them with fully charged strikes.
It bears mentioning the very unique way in which commands are issued once the battle begins. You control a Wisp that acts as a pointer, it is with the Wisp that you will direct your troops to attack and also dodge enemy attacks. You are given one minute in order to complete a round of combat, and enemies don't attack your hit points in this game, but they attack your time, and thankfully it's quite easy to tell what will actually harm you. You are given ways to reduce the amount of time lost when you get hit, and you can also gain experience points by having close calls with enemy projectiles. The bosses in the game have some massive attacks that will nearly fill up the screen and take off great chunks of your precious limited time. Victory is achieved by defeating enemies that are rotated out each round, and as you defeat them they will fill out a grid on the bottom of your screen. By making a straight line up and down, left and right, or from corner to corner you will finish the battle. This needs to be accomplished within a certain amount of turns which will at times prevent you from collecting all of the items available for a given map.
Items earned in combat fall under three categories, items, synthesis materials and weapons. Items will allow you to recruit soldiers provided you have the item that is tied to them and these items can be found by opening chests, destroying objects, or from defeating bosses. Defeating regular enemies will typically produce materials necessary for powering up the weapons found in battle. Materials are also obtained by disassembling weapons that can also be dropped by enemies. Powering up weapons is a simple matter, simply use the required materials, but as weapons become more powerful the chance of increasing their power further shrinks more and more, and will cause the durability to suffer. Thankfully you can revisit old stages to pick up weapons to replenish your armory. You can also revisit past levels to gain more experience points to distribute to your troops. You are also able to combine units to produce a more powerful unit, which is quite useful when a unit is on the verge of being lost due to losing vitality. Or you can simply kick the unit out in exchange for weapons. I wound up growing far too attached to my units which actually made it more difficult for me, so let this be a notice that it's worth it to combine your units for the extra power they will receive.
Knights in the Nightmare is a fairly good looking game, with attractive looking 2-D sprites and well drawn character portraits. This is pretty standard fare for a Sting developed title, and actually looks quite a bit better than the DS version released last year. Audio also seems significantly improved thanks to the extra space afforded by a UMD/install process, although at times it can get a bit chaotic since every action on the battlefield is accompanied by some form of commentary.
Atlus and Sting have done a fantastic job in porting Knights in the Nightmare to the PSP. The control system works out just fine using the analog stick as the pointer as opposed to the stylus used for the DS. Gameplay is solid and does a great job of turning the genre on its ear, which may sound a tad cliché but I've really never played a strategy RPG like this before, and it works out fantastically. Gameplay is perfectly tolerable in small doses and marathon sessions, especially once the story gets rolling. For anyone out there that is a fan of Disgaea or any other NIS strategy RPG I highly recommend Knights in the Nightmare.