By Patrick Murphy
Each time the little noble hero of Wind-up Knight 2 stands ready at the beginning of a stage, fully-wound and poised to be released, there exists a great deal of potential.
Bouncing up and down in idle against a colorful medieval setting, optimism abounds in this endless runner-ish 3DS downloadble, but an often unbalanced gauntlet of clawing enemies, perilous pits, and deadly booby-traps will quickly take that pleasant feeling away and expose the grueling nature of the genre.
Wind-up Knight 2, previously available on Wii U, iOS and Android, contains all the usual nonstop running, jumping, and dying these games typically offer, but with some extra complexity to make things a bit more interesting/maddening. In addition to Sir Sprint’s natural athletic abilities, he also comes equipped with a sword and shield, the former of which he cuts through adversaries like butter, and the latter of which can be raised to block death from above, which comes in the form of catapulted boulders, fiery showers, and numerous other diabolically-timed attacks. Rolls that find passage under spiked walls and a double-jump that helps reach greater heights round out the automated cavalier’s complement of capabilities, and if it sounds like too much to worry about, well, it both is and isn’t.
After a couple of breezy tutorials, Wind-up Knight 2 turns on the player rather quickly, forcing them to master switching between moves in rapid succession. Early on this is very doable, and quite enjoyable as well. Levels contain enough variety to remain engaging, and deaths (for the time being) seem fair, certainly avoidable by paying attention. Your knight responds well enough, and there is some forgiveness in the timing. It doesn’t take long, however, before the developers begin throwing everything but the kitchen sink at poor Sprint, piling on trap after trap and combining dangers from above and below. The dexterity required to pass through a stage unscathed upon first try gets to a point where it not only seems unimaginable, but unfair.
In fact, there were moments I’m not sure I ever would have gotten through without some help, and so the well-placed checkpoints that inflict no penalty for a restart were quite welcome. Of course, they would have seemed more generous were it not for the numerous cheap deaths occurring after a good number of them. Too often I ran into spike pits that were obstructed by the foreground or hidden out of the camera’s view, only to lose a life and whatever momentum had been building. Endless runners imply a certain amount of memorisation, but there’s little fun about forced restarts brought on not by inadequate skills but a developer’s prank, especially when an established rhythm is interrupted in the process. Haha, very funny, jerks.
These sources of frustration are compounded by the visuals, which while pretty at times, are often repetitive and difficult to discern now that they have been brought to the 3DS’ small screen. Certain stages have our dashing warrior leaping through colored portals and taking his path to the background, where unfortunately the already difficult-to-see tells of many traps become nearly impossible to sense. When multitudes are placed one after another, these areas become start-and-stop messes that only patience and perseverance of rote learning will allow for crossing that victory flag.
As such, there were few levels I ever wanted to repeat, but Wind-up Knight 2 forces players to do so regardless, requiring the completion of side quests, three of which are available in each and revolve around tasks as ordinary as collecting diamonds to bizarrely knocking over bowling pins, in order to pass roadblocks set up along the game’s main route. There is no way to progress to the end without finishing around a third of these, and so instead of feeling like extra challenges for those seeking a true test of their reflexes, an air of punishment hangs over them. There are some items to be bought by earning coins that mitigate the difficulty, like armor that protects against falling objects and fire, but wearing it and running through obstacles untouched feels like a cheat code, defeating the purpose of the game.
For all the eye-rolling curses, however, when a stage comes together with just the right amount of clever construction and fair fights, one can see the promise inside Wind-up Knight 2. Though there is a bit of lag to the controls, Sir Sprint’s moveset is satisfying and varied enough to make one forget the limitation of not stopping, and when the developers get over the need to bombard the player with traps, some inventive level design occasionally has creative uses for double jumps and rolls. And while there isn’t much of a story to speak of, Wind-up Knight‘s silent protagonist is complemented by a cast of characters who express themselves non-stop through a humorous Twitter-like format, both furthering the “plot” and mimicking real-world social media by spouting their own inanities. This, along with suitably knightly music, gives the game a lighter vibe that admirably, though in futility, tries to defuse the exasperation. Still, I appreciated the effort.
Despite that potential and the occasional glimpse of imagination, Wind-up Knight 2 ultimately winds down to a sputter, never truly exploring its interesting mechanics beyond the usual endless runner grind via pounding assault. Those who love a reflex test may enjoy its particular tortures, but players looking to be rescued by an interesting twist on the genre will have to wait for a different knight in shining armour.