*Review based on Knight Lore’s Release as part of Rare Replay*
The third installment in the Sabreman series, Knight Lore is often considered a technical milestone in gaming for its use of isometric gameplay making for a much broader adventure than gaming had seen up to that point, and it is widely regarded as a defining moment in British video game design.
It’s also really boring.
Now, I can understand the game’s technical leaps for the industry, and can appreciate the impact in had on gaming history. But that doesn’t change that, in terms of playability, Knight Lore is very much a product of its time. Though it may not feel as fundamentally broken as its predecessor Underwurlde, Knight Lore has definitely felt the affect of aging, and without the historical context, provides very little reason for a revisit.
In all fairness, Knight Lore actually has a pretty interesting premise: series’ protagonist Sabreman has been bitten by the Sabre Wulf, and has now become a werewolf himself. To break this curse, Sabreman must traverse an ancient dungeon and seek out special items to brew the cure he seeks. But he only has forty days to do so, or else he will become a wolf forever.
Knight Lore features a day and night cycle, with Sabreman being in human form during the day, and wolf form at night. Each cycle only lasts about thirty seconds, meaning an entire game day takes about a minute. Of course, this means the game can (and must) be beaten very quickly, but in order to do so, you’d really have to know what you’re doing. Sadly, much like its ZX Spectrum predecessors, Knight Lore doesn’t exactly help the player out, as once again everything seems incredibly cryptic.
The game features a total of 128 rooms in the dungeon, with a nice twist being that you’ll start out in a different room in each playthrough. The player may have to solve puzzles to get passed certain rooms (usually by pushing objects and platforms), or they may have to avoid obstacles and enemies. Of course, that’s much easier said than done.
The only real gameplay difference between Sabreman’s forms is that the wolf jumps higher, and that certain enemies will take a particular disliking to the wolf. So if you thought maybe at least the wolf would have some kind of attack…sorry, no dice.
Another problem arises with the control of Sabreman himself. He moves far to radically, and he always has to move forward whenever he jumps. Combine this with the prototypical isometric view, and the platforming sections are nothing short of disastrous. It’s even hard to navigate past traps and enemies, what with Sabreman’s clunky controls and the sheer difficulty in differentiating the space and perspectives of objects.
There’s also a pretty notable graphical limitation in that what you see isn’t always what you get. By that I mean you may find in some rooms you can walk through all available space, while other times it looks like you should be able to walk around something, but just can’t. While some might defend the game as simply being limited due to the hardware, it doesn’t change the fact that the inconsistency really throws off the player.
I have to admit I feel guilty. I can understand the impact a game may have had back in the early 1980s, and knowing a game had such influence makes you want to say nice things about it. But if we’re just talking about a gameplay experience to play today, Knight Lore just isn’t fun. It feels downright archaic in not just its graphics and sound, but in its gameplay.
Knight Lore was released on the ZX Spectrum in November of 1984. For the record, Super Mario Bros. was released ten months later, in September of 1985. The latter is, of course, proof that 80s games can still be a lot of fun today. There’s a night and day difference between a timeless classic and a relic from the past. If Super Mario Bros. is the obvious timeless classic, well, you can imagine what that makes Knight Lore.