Knights in the Nightmare

oh hai

Knights in the Nightmare is the third entry in the Dept. Heaven series, although in-universe it’s chronologically second and IRL it’s titled ‘IV’ because who knows (wiki does, don’t tell me about how everyone knows I too know).

KitN (kitten?) is different from the previous two games, Riviera and Yggdra Union, in a few important ways. First, it’s a much more conceptual game, with the story told so far out of of chronological order there’s no way to simply explain it. Second, it’s nihilistic as hell, where the other two were a bit more nuanced and had more a ‘people are flawed but will overcome’ kind of stance. I don’t think it’s grimdark or even unrealistic, but it’s very bleak, and as a result (I thought) philosophically weaker. It’s also neither turn-based like Riviera or a tRPG like Yggdra, but something else entirely unlike anything I’ve ever seen before.

I still really liked it overall, but unlike the other two it’s not something I’d rec generally for people, or even for people who like jRPGs. You really will get the most out of it if you’re specifically looking for a kind of out-there experience.

Spoilers inside; ye be warned.

The game starts with a woman breaking out of a castle with a canister containing a soul, which she frees. The soul, or Wisp, is the protagonist and player-character. From there, the story unfolds in 47 ‘scenes’ that contain three parts: a present-day cutscene, a battle, and a past cutscene. The only real constant is that the Wisp is involved in the battles. The present sections take place across the continent, and the past cutscenes can be from as far in the past as decades ago to as recently as after the start of the game but before the current present-day cutscene (I think there’s one case where the ‘past’ is like a few hours before the last battle). The past cutscenes also have no chronology to them; instead, they’re told with an eye to how they disseminate the information; certain aspects are up in the air until the very last scenes.

The result is that the early-game is incredibly disorienting, but it’s like that on purpose, and the new information changes the old so quickly that I actually restarted a few times an hour or so in to give myself more context. The game begs to be replayed in its entirety, which it knows — in fact, the New Game + isn’t actually a NG+, but an AU of the game that follows the same plot but switches the roles of two characters, drastically affecting the Wisp’s perception of events.

Importantly, I thought the game was very good at knowing exactly what information it had given the reader, when, and what effect that would have on how certain events that were perceived. Algiery’s plotline is the best example of this. I also appreciated that the game wasn’t going for SUDDEN REVEALS GASP but just wanted to dole out information in a way that felt right tonally; or, to put it another way, the identity of the second Tiamat was a huge deal, but it didn’t come up until late because there wasn’t really any true need to know it earlier. The game was meticulously plotted and very tightly written.

It did have some issues, though, and they were mainly the same complaints I had in Riviera (and to a lesser degree, Yggdra) about the greater lore of the universe being really obtuse. In fact, based on some things I read, it looks like they had to release a companion book to this to make the lore clear. The stuff about the Rule, the Arbitrator, the Unwritten Law — that’s never explained well. To quote my Riviera review:

Basically the higher-up in the universal hierarchy you go, the murkier everyone’s motivations, purpose, and position become, so it’s just not possible to care about the plot, even if you really want to. I was invested in the well- being of Riviera itself because I cared about the people there, but I didn’t know what it was, how it was effected by the events of the prologue, why it was being attacked, or what my immediate goals would do to prevent that attack. The discrete motivations were obvious enough, but as soon as you ask about how the world functions there are no answers.

This is the exact situation in Kitten. The cosmology is obtuse to the point of being nonsense, but the real meat of the plot — the relationships, the people, the motivations — was fleshed out enough so that it ultimately didn’t really matter.

Like the other games, the weight of this is on the characters and societies, and this the game did really well. Everyone has their reasons, and even the worst people are still people. Even the best intentions can go awry. Even the tiniest of decisions can plunge the world into chaos. I thought there was some real sublimity to how things only fell apart in the end because so many people did exactly the things they did. If Yelma hasn’t been born into poverty, if Capehorn had never been exiled, if the Tiamat had destroyed the Written Law instead of shoving the responsibility onto their descendants, if generations ago the King’s ancestor hadn’t angered the gods, if if if. There were so many things that had to happen exactly the way they did and so many chances to happen any other way but people kept being people and making mistakes and being irresponsible and being selfish and so this was how it will always happen again and again.

This game does not have an optimistic view about peoples’ ability to overcome innate flaws in nature; it’s a game that ends with two exhausted, ravaged lovers in the ruins of a castle on a dead continent with the message that these mistakes will be made over and over. The good end is still one of dead societies and the oppressed being driven to extinction. But at the same time, I thought it was really interesting that the Lovers do see each other again and, further, the Tiamat aren’t extinct and the Arbitrator and Tiamat lines will end up as one after all. Wilmgard and Algiery sit in the ruins of their world but they sit together, and so even in its own bleak way the game is willing to say we’ll make it through, if by the skin of our teeth.

On a more meta note, this series may be the Dragon Quill winner for most female sidecharacters. In every one of these games I’ve been floored at how random knights running around and mooks getting offed get to be women, which is so unusual. Women again fill every plot role in various capacities, get to be good and evil, right and wrong, just and flawed. The worst thing I could say about it is that there’s a smidge of Evil Is Sexy going on with Melissa but you have to go to outside materials to find it so that’s some pretty crazy nitpicking. In fact, the series continues to be extraordinary in how nonsexualized even the ‘sexier’ costumes are. I also just generally find the art really appealing (TVTropes whines about how awful it is the character art can be gender-ambiguous, to give you an idea of the artist’s aesthetic).

I should talk about gameplay because the battle system is insane. It’s some bizarre mix of bullet hell, action RPG, turn-based, and some reviewers say FPS so sure why not. The tutorial is long and in-character so I rec just watching one of the many good YouTube battle tutorials instead because the learning curve is steep. On the other hand, once it clicks it’s actually quite fun.

So basically every battlefield is a grid with mobile monsters and set places you can put your characters. Only certain character classes can move and even then only in certain directions. You have an arsenal of class-specific limited-use weapons you get from killing monsters and looting objects on the grid, and each class’ weapons has two attack patterns. Each battle is divided into a designated amount of ‘turns’ that last for a certain amount of seconds, but the clock only runs when a) you charge an attack or b) you’re hit by an enemy’s attack. At the bottom of the screen is a colored grid, and killing an enemy fills in an associated tile, and you win by making a bingo of kills before you run out of turns. Your stylus point is the Wisp, who commands characters and dodges attacks on the battlefield.

I played the game on the DS, and I honestly don’t know how it’s possible to play on the PSP. The touchscreen is absolutely essential to the system; it’s how to do everything with the Wisp and I can’t imagine having that fine control with just a joystick. Additionally, the dual-screen setup was 100% essential for all the info you needed during the battle as well. If anyone has played this on the PSP I’d love to know how in the world it worked because this game seems so perfectly suited for the DS that it couldn’t possibly work right anywhere else.

There’s more complicating factors in the battling, like the Vitality system and weapon enhancement and recruitment and the story aspect where the Wisp, being a soul, can recruit dead people to fight and there’s no way to possibly cover it all here. I doubt the in-game tutorial could even cover it all. It’s absurdly elaborate and obtuse and somehow it works, but it’s also a really great reminder that we stick to certain forms of gameplay not because we’re unoriginal but because not everyone wants to invest days of their lives into learning and entirely new skillset just to play a game and innovation is a huge barrier to entry.

A few stray thoughts:

  • I thought the subtheme of letter vs intent of the law was… undeveloped? To the game’s detriment? Like, it comes up with some frequency that people will break both rules and Rules knowingly if they believe it’s truly right, and while sometimes this has awful consequences (Marietta), sometimes it’s just desperate people asking for help (the Tiamat tower), and applying blanket condemnation to everyone isn’t the way to run a society. But the game doesn’t really offer any thoughts on this. Does it believe following the law, no matter what, is the right course of action? I don’t get the sense it does, but it also punishes everyone who pushes against their lot, and I’m ultimately not sure exactly what it was trying to say.
  • On one hand Marietta’s actions caused the apocalypse, but on the other hand I think what happens to her is waaaaay too much. I think her end misses the whole point of there being so many contributors to things happening the way they do. Marietta’s crime ends up not being her own weakness, but that she was sent to Midgard at a time when there was someone in Zol who could take advantage of her, and blaming her entirely and punishing her so harshly doesn’t feel to me like it fits the crime. On the other hand, the world ended, so maybe I’m justifying her too much. Then again apparently she’s much less sympathetic in the Blue Route so idk.
  • Was Piche Capehorn’s biological granddaughter? Who was her grandmother? Her parents? Is she a quarter Tiamat, or once you’ve been dehorned are you just human and so are all your descendants?
  • What was Alier’s deal? When she convinces her crew to retrieve the body, I thought her whole logic was that saving the king was for the good of the world even if they still hated him for what he represented, but then she acts like she’s trying to keep the body from him… which would stop him from saving the world. Was the implication she couldn’t go through with it? Did she change her mind? I thought this was the weakest point, plot-wise, of the whole game. It felt like she was missing a scene.
  • I wish Yelma had more explicit motivation. I know that early on we find out she was basically an abused orphan so it makes sense she’d take her innate talent and be driven toward creating a world for her instead of one against her, but I was disappointing we never really got a look at her as a person in the same way as the other major characters. She wasn’t really as relevant to the backstory as the other villains, but I liked her and I wanted something a bit fuller.
  • The Western decrepit people subplot felt a bit random, though I get why it was there in the sense that it was another oppressed people that died because of everything.
  • I really liked how the game constantly reminded you how many people were dying and how little choice you had.

I think I’m done now. I have absolutely no idea what to expect from the next (and currently final) game, which is for some reason marked at Part IX, because what even.

One Comment

  1. Arcturus says:
    Oh wow, I wasn’t expecting this. I have huge nostalgia for this game; it was one of my first games ever and barely left my DS until the console finally broke. Really, this was a great write-up, especially regarding the plot/themes. And you reminded me of the great art direction (IIRC the non-localized Union spin-offs are the ones with different art directors, and for Blaze Union, it shows. It really, really shows) – all in all, you really make me want to go back into this game.

    From what I remember from an ancient interview, the Dept. Heaven series, initially, was put in order based on how much the gameplay systems innovated on their genre – so Riviera is closest to its genre, and then the ninth episode would be completely out there. But then episode 3 never happened (IIRC it was going to be an MMORPG and it got cancelled very early on), which threw off the director’s plans, so Gungnir is episode 9 just because.

    Break the letter and intent of law: More than just this game, I think the series kind of waffles on this theme. I’d have to replay the games to understand, but for as much as this theme occurs, I can’t grasp a solid thesis that it’s trying to convey. I mean, one beyond “breaking rules is sometimes right and sometimes wrong, which, idk. Maybe it’ll get cleared up if another Dept. Heaven game ever comes out.

    Marietta’s punishment: This is one of those “muddled cosmology” things where you have to read the side materials to fully understand, but the gist is that you’re right in feeling that way. It’s meant to reflect badly on Asgard/heaven/Absolute Law. As reference, blue route Marietta represents the Asgard ideal (that no one can accomplish without making a deal with the devil, evidently, which condemns you, so, catch-22). In any case, I think one of Gungnir’s characters soooort of touches on this?

    Piche: From what I understood, she’s his biological granddaughter, quarter Tiamat, and the blood dilution made her lose her horns.

    Alier: I’ve played this game more times than I can count and I still don’t fully understand what was happening. I think it’s because she wanted to keep the body away from the demons/Yellma so they don’t get Cool Arbitrator Powers, but I really have no idea for sure.

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