It’s not impossible to get somewhere taking two steps forward and one step back, but it sure will take a lot longer. That’s the way it often feels playing A Knight’s Quest, an ambitious attempt at capturing the sense of adventure and scope that the Zelda franchise seems to convey so effortlessly. While this story of a goofy explorer to save his land from the impending doom brought on by the accidental release of a purple crystal certainly has its moments, it’s also hard not to walk away from the sluggish combat, imprecise platforming, and overwhelming world design without an appreciation for just how hard it must be to make this type of game.
Things start innocuously enough, with a dopey guy named Rusty engaging in a bit of spelunking in a search for buried treasure. This opening underground segment allows for a nifty and stress-free tutorial that shows off various platforming abilities — which let players know that A Knight’s Quest is about more than just sword-swinging. Naturally, after leaping over chasms and dashing across certain walls a la the Prince of Persia, Rusty gets a little more than he bargained for, and causes the aforementioned evil purple crystal to rocket into the sky. The residents of a nearby town panic and demand he seek out three legendary knights, who surely must be able to save the world from the certain, ambiguous destruction the purple crystal will bring.
And so A Knight’s Quest begins in earnest; before he’s finished, Rusty will have clumsily killed monsters in lush forests, arid deserts, snowy mountains, and tropical beaches, among other places in a colorful, vast land that reveals itself zone by zone. With areas sectioned off and subject to loading times, the way the ‘open world’ operates here feels less Breath of the Wild and more Twilight Princess, but it’s still a massive place that truly imparts a sense of scale with gaping canyons, epic fortress ruins, and expansive peaks. Even dungeons come off as enormous, with grand hallways and cavernous, multi-exited hubs. Everything in A Knight’s Quest seems to want to impress the player with big, big, big — which it sometimes succeeds in. However, that mentality is also why the game often falls short.
The best Zelda games subtly guide the player through their large spaces by limiting not only accessibility, but also visibility; see too many unreachable areas too early on, and suddenly it can feel like a game is requiring players to form a rapidly growing mental checklist right off the bat. And after running past countless glowing mounds or orange twisters or crystal warp zones for hours on end (the last of which unlocks much too late and dishearteningly involves revisiting each warp point), one starts to wonder whether they will ever get the items needed to utilize those mysterious occurrences. A Knight’s Quest throws a lot of visual information at the player as soon as they set out from town, and rarely lets up, as if gleeful in showing just how much there is to do in this place. That smorgasbord comes at the expense of elegance, however, and that means some players will likely wind up spinning their wheels on occasion while trying to find main routes that feel like hidden side paths, or combing over dungeons for necessary puzzle solutions that are tucked away like Easter eggs.
Those moments might lead to wishes that less time was spent on quantity and more quality. Sure, A Knight’s Quest is an epic game often stunning in its size, but it’s also drawn out in how it unfolds. Everything takes longer than it should. Epic treks that feel like they should culminate in the discovery of a dungeon sometimes instead just lead to more epic treks that involve backtracking over previous, time-consuming platforming areas or well-worn thoroughfares. Dungeons go on forever, and without the ability to save at any time, they can feel like a war of attrition as yet another berry must be discovered to unlock yet another area that contains yet another switch to be pulled before one can finally get to the boss — and a merciful save point.
A history of adventure games will likely have instilled an internal clock in players that A Knight’s Quest consistently goes over. That may not sound so bad, but that it does so via additional and/or retreaded awkward platforming is where things get frustrating. Early on, Rusty’s running and jumping feels loose, but hey — when has Link ever leapt gracefully? Besides, catching ledges works fairly well, and most early areas are fairly forgiving in their layouts — none of the jumps are very long — leading to some clever fun. However, as the journey progresses, the unresponsive gameplay of A Knight’s Quest just isn’t up to the tasks at hand. Whether swinging a sword or hopping over a rock while grinding a rail, there is a considerable amount of time passed between the push of a button and the initiation of an action. This leads to an uncertainty of timing, and doubt of Rusty’s ability to perform tricky, precise maneuvers under pressure.
Yet perform these feats players must if they want to press on, even if at times the requirement to overcoming the obstacle seems like a glitch exploit rather than the intended method. Those fountains that must be turned to ice? Yes, that’s the actual way, and you’re going to have battle a wonky camera while hoping that after twenty tries it will finally cooperate enough to get you to the one around the corner. Those battles with spinning skeletons surrounded by a protective barrier? Good luck aiming the wind blast and not getting destroyed by their annoying regenerating spin. And as those jumps to ledges get longer and longer, look forward to seeing the animation for falling down bottomless pits. A lot. Because of the lack of precision in the way Rusty handles, trial and error — and patience — plays a big role in A Knight’s Quest.
Add to that an all around lack of polish (ranging from getting stuck on geometry, to bizarrely collapsing and taking damage during a conversation, to completely crashing during a boss fight) and the experience just keeps taking hits. What’s so unfortunate about the rough edges is that it’s nice to see a smaller developer swing for the fences. A Knight’s Quest isn’t trying to be some watered-down version of this genre’s greatest entries — it goes for an all-out epic feel, with loads of side quests, tons of hidden loot, multiple villages filled with quirky inhabitants, and grandiose boss fights. Those that can look past some of the more maddening sections of combat and platforming will find plenty of bang for their buck in the amount of content, even if much of that could be called padding.
With a bright, beautiful world and a fun sense of adventure, A Knight’s Quest makes an admirable go at chopping its sword through the old-fashioned, 3D exploration-platforming path that many revered franchises have cut before. With sluggish controls, unfocused design, and an overall lack of fine-tuning, that journey is unfortunately and unnecessarily longer and more frustrating than it probably should have been. But while the developers may have bit off a little more than they could chew, A Knight’s Quest is an achievement nonetheless — a massive effort that can’t quite overcome its technical flaws, but can be appreciated for its attempt.
*Reviewed on Switch, but also available for PC, PS4, XBox One