Most people will agree that being an old git is a bit of a downer, things start going haywire or just dropping off completely. However, one awesome upside to being on the wrong side of forty is that I grew up in the 1980s. This decade was magic for so many reasons but one, in particular, was the treasure trove of classic films that were made around this time. Back to the Future, The Lost Boys, The Thing and hundreds more. Coming of age flicks were also in something of a golden era at this time with films like the excellent Stand by Me. However, there probably isn’t a film closer to my childhood than the Goonies, a fact my worn out Betamax can attest to. It just so happens that this classic is one of the main influences for a new game coming out this week.
Knights and Bikes is a story-driven adventure game from developers Foam Sword and published by Double Fine. This is the first game out of the gate for this new studio but don’t make the mistake of thinking they are wet behind the ears. The two main developers at the helm are industry veterans Rex Crowle and Moo Yu, both previously of Media Molecule fame. Rex actually worked on Tearaway, one of my favourite games on PS4 and also the first game I bought for my son.
The original design was to have a large gang of kids, a la the Goonies, but in playtesting, the team felt the connection to each member was diminished due to the size of the group. So they picked the two team favourites and rolled with that: enter Nessa and Demelza
Spirit of Adventure
The game opens with Nessa arriving on the windswept island of Penfurzy as the tourist season nears its end and the inhabitants settle in for the long winter. Demelza finds Nessa sheltering in her Caravan/Den and the two quickly become best friends. It soon becomes clear that Demelza’s dad is going to have to foreclose on their property due to a lack of tourists, so the two girls decide to set out and seek the treasure said to be hidden on the island (all very Goonies esk). As you explore the island in the opening few scenes, things take a turn for the worst and a mysterious force starts possessing the adults of the island. I won’t elaborate much more than that because the story in a game like this should be experienced yourself.
Islands (especially ones in perpetual autumn/winter) are great a great setting for any tale of mystery and rum doings. One reason is that the central characters are usually trapped and isolated with whatever dark forces that have been let loose. Oxenfree (an amazing game worth checking out) also nailed this feeling of loneliness and latent threat. However, while I wouldn’t let my eight-year-old play Oxenfree just yet, Knights and Bikes is a perfect game for both adults and children.
So let’s get the easy stuff out of the way, I am in love with the visuals in this game. The world looks like it has been cut from paper and infused with every form of art known to man. As you move through different locations the camera will pan back and forth depending on the situation, so sometimes you will be tucked snug inside the cosy caravan of Demelza and other times you will be able to see an entire peninsula. The camera does a decent job of keeping the action visible with the occasional bit of scenery blocking the view. Each area of the island is beautifully illustrated using two-dimensional assets that are set within a three-dimensional space and this gives the impression of playing across a pop-up book. The game is animated in a stop-motion style which has two major advantages, it gives the world a vibrancy that would be impossible to achieve with realistic assets, but also feeds into the overall style of the game.
One of the goals of the art style was to represent how kids look at the world and they have succeeded on this front. So many times there is a shifting balance between the reality the girls are presented with and how Demelza (the younger of the two) interprets this information. In one scene you must open a door by messing with an electrical junction box, Demelza sees this as the box needing biscuits in order to work. There are also pencil sketches that appear around some objects, like horses superimposed over cars etc. Seeing as this game is set on a fictional island in Cornwall, you can start to see how the game also delves into Arthurian lore with dragons and of course knights. Interestingly the team have also produced two actual books based on the adventures of Nessa and Demelza, which I ordered for my son and I to read. I genuinely think if the team keep up a good momentum this world they have created could become something even bigger.
Goonies Never Say Die!
You are free to move around the various environments and there is a good amount of things to poke and prod. Some of these objects help build the story (like photos), some offer loot and some are just fun distraction (who wouldn’t pet the cat in the bike shop?). There are also cheeky interactions like ringing doorbells and running off laughing (known as Knock-a-door-run in my neck of the woods).
I love how loot isn’t something that adults would find at all valuable (stickers, bits of string, bugs etc) at all but for a child, these are treasures worth more than any gold or jewels. While exploring the island and solving puzzles is a big element of the gameplay loop, there are also some situations that the girls must roll up their sleeves and get scrappy.
Each of the main characters has their own fighting style, Demelza, for example, will use her wellington boots to kick muck at her enemies and this damage is multiplied when she splashes in puddles. Nessa is first given a frisbee (a deadly weapon in the right child’s hands I can attest) and can bop enemies from range. As you progress both girls will pick up new objects such as water bombs, plungers and VR game controllers. What is very cool is that these attacks can combine together which makes co-op play all the most satisfying. There is also dodge/roll which turns into a run if you hold the button. All of the game's systems feel light and carefree which in turn never gets in the way of the storytelling. There are no real RPG mechanics to delve into, save for those trusty bikes that get you around the island.
On Yer Bike
When I was growing up owning a bike was a huge deal and acquiring one meant getting a degree of freedom to explore the world around you. In my ragtag bunch of pals, we had a whole range of bikes from racers, BMX’s (with the obligatory mag wheels) and even the famous chopper with its central gear stick. Going ‘on a bike ride’ was our de facto way to spend the endless days of summer holidays, good times indeed. I love how this essential institution is a core pillar of the experience in Knights and Bikes.
Once both girls have their own ride you can explore the entire island while on your two-wheeled speed machines. Each bike can be upgraded at the local bike shop with various different cosmetic changes and the occasional upgrade which changes how a bike performs. Flying down a steep hill with the wind blowing in your hair and hearing the girls yelp with glee just brings a smile to your face.
Is it PC?
The sound design in Knights and Bikes easily matches the high bar set by the visuals. After playing games like Tearaway and Little Big Planet extensively the same lively set of sounds are unmistakable as you play. The two main developers have also been assisted on this front by Kenny Young and Daniel Pemberton (who worked on Spiderverse no less). As you move from place to place the music changes perfectly, sometimes with fast-paced drums and at others you will hear a creepy piano score in mysterious dialogue sections. As for performance and settings, this is a game that just runs perfectly right out of the box. I did have once crash but given I was playing a review copy this doesn’t concern me at all, framerate and graphical performance are all top-notch.
Knight and Bikes is a wonderful story that shows both a passion for the subject matter and a deep understanding of good storytelling. There is also a clear emotional resonance here to a very real place where Rex grew up and spent his childhood. I have also seen old industrial towns in decline in parts of the North West of England, once-thriving but now fading away and struggling to survive. The coastline and indeed the whole area that this game is based on (Cornwall for those real adventurers out there) is one of the most beautiful in the world and I would urge you to visit if you ever get the chance.
It is true that gamers will often put up with a subpar gaming experience for the sake of a burst of nostalgia, however, in the case of Knights and Bikes, we have a game that stands firmly on its own two feet. I will admit that the game was also bigger than I initially thought it would be which was a nice surprise. While there isn’t any real change in the route through the game, it is such a charming story I would happily play it many more times (and I suspect I will once my son gets his copy) For a two-man studio this game is fantastic first game which I cannot recommend enough and I hope we see more adventures from Nessa and Demelza in the future.
This copy of Knights and Bikes was provided by the kind folks over a Double Fine. I will be purchasing a copy to play on our PS4 on launch day as my son has been looking over my shoulder and can’t wait to play it entirely in co-op! I hope you enjoyed reading my review which was played on PC, you can hear about all my work by following me @riggedforepic and adding us to your favourites.