Knights and Bikes – Nintendo Switch
Developed By: Foam Sword Games
Published By: Double Fine Productions
Category: Story-Based Adventure
Release Date: February 06, 2020
We are in a golden age of storytelling in videogames. Never have we had it so good and the good news is, the only way is up. Many developers, game mechanics are the core of the experience with story secondary, often to provide justification to what you do and why you do it in game. Most of the renowned games from the 1980s may have been emotionally gripping, but not because of the story. The 1990s was when story started to come centre stage, and Nintendo’s own Legend of Zelda LTTP was one of the earliest releases of the decade that combined a stirring story with a strong gameplay experience. Square took it further with Chrono Trigger, Final Fantasy VI then VII’s (for the time) groundbreaking FMV cutscenes to tell it’s story. But the biggest leap forward was Valve’s Half-Life which told most of its story during the gameplay. Using in game scripted scenes rather than using cutscenes to tell the story that interrupted gameplay was revolutionary at the time.
More and more games are focussing on making story the standout element of the experience with gameplay that serves the story, and the results have been great for gamers looking for experiences with strong and engaging storytelling. The latest game to fit this description comes from British developer Foam Sword Games who have teamed up with American developer, sometimes publisher, Double Fine Productions. This combination is a melting pot of talent, with Foam Sword Games comprised of ex-developers of LittleBigPlanet, and heading up Double Fine Productions is the legendary Tim Schafer who worked on the iconic Monkey Island games and Grim Fandango.
Knights and Bikes is a game about exploring, set to a story of friendship, family, love and loss. Set in 1987 across 6 days, a mysterious young girl called Nessa arrives on a fictional English island called Penfurzy and immediately befriends local girl Demelza. From here, the girls are inseparable as they tour the island together in their quest to find treasure which might help save Demelza’s father’s troubled caravan park business.
You start the game on foot initially in this lovely hand drawn world, with gorgeous pastel hues adorning every surface from the waves slapping against the cliff faces to the paint work on the accurately angular Volvo estate car and the shades of ginger in Demelza’s hair. You initially are restricted to a couple of areas to explore, but as the story progresses, the world opens up and the opportunity to acquire bikes makes exploration easier and more fun. You can play as either Nessa or Demelza if playing solo, and switch between the both at will, or play co-op with a single Joy-Con each. You are joined by a goose named Captain Honkers, who will sometimes lead the way to the next destination and follow you around the rest of the time.
Each character has their own abilities to defeat enemies or solve puzzles. Mild metroidvania elements are employed, so new abilities or items that are unlocked as you progress can lead to entry to a previously inaccessible area. Enemy combat is quite simplistic, taking place in real time as you navigate each area.
The game is seen from the perspective of the young protagonists, much in the same way as Bill Waterson’s excellent Calvin and Hobbes series, with the world filled with ideas from Demelza’s imagination. Adults feature, but are mostly peripheral in Knights and Bikes’ story. There are storytelling techniques used that add extra layers to the world, such as ‘Thatcher out’ spray painted across a wall, which refers to the British Prime Minister at the time, or an abandoned amusement park with fast food boxes left strewn everywhere which suggests times of hardship.
The enemies you face are mostly inanimate objects that come to life, such as flesh eating golf balls from the golf course that adjoins Demelza’s caravan park, or souvenir swords from the local amusement park that become ablaze. A path to a new area will be blocked because of the mud puddle which is impossible to get through, but Demelza explains to Nessa that a Hippo is blocking the way. And later a large trash compactor is encountered which Demelza insists is actually a mythical dragon, with a white outline of a dragon overlayed on top.
Throughout you can collect currency found throughout or dropped by slain enemies, to spend on upgrades to your bikes. Currency comes in the form of collectible pin badges, stickers, trading cards and worms found by the girls which surprisingly the bike shop owner Oba accepts as legal tender. Upgrades are mostly cosmetic, but you do get the opportunity to upgrade your bikes with the occasional new ability.
Knights and Bikes portrays the joys of being a child very well. When you hold the run button, Demelza runs and lets out a long gleeful yell like she is pretending to drive a car. There are times when your characters on screen will impulsively challenge each other to a foot or bike race, as kids do. It also champions the wonders of pasties and scones, which Foam Sword even provides recipes for on their website.
While the visuals and storytelling are spilling over with style and charm, there are gameplay elements that can grate. The simplistic combat becomes repetitive, with many of the enemy types being reused again and again as you reach the game’s conclusion. There are also times across some of the 6 chapters where it can feel mildly tedious at times, usually when you’ve completed a chapter and the next chapter can take too long to get going.
Some of the puzzles can be a little obtuse, and other times the CPU controlled character (when playing solo) will start solving a puzzle for you before you get the chance. While the game isn’t ever too challenging, it can be difficult to know where to go next if you miss something that’s said or if you pick up again following a break between play sessions.
Knights and Bikes portrays the fun and excitement of exploring on your bike during school summer holidays. The protagonists view the world with a sense of wonder and imagination, a reaction itself to what’s really going on in the world around Demelza. The story is the core of the experience rather than the gameplay, and the strength in the storytelling is enough to propel Knights and Bikes forward past some of it’s kinks to make this worthy of attention.