There are plenty of great side-scrolling beat’em ups to go by, be it the excellent Streets of Rage 4, the ambitious Dungeons & Dragons-titles by Capcom or Konami’s take on licenses such as The Simpsons, TMNT, and Batman Returns. So, out of all the games I could have chosen within this genre, why did I decide to look at Knights of the Round? I honestly have no real answers to that except for curiosity, as I have always enjoyed the tales about Merlin, King Arthur, and Excalibur. While this is far from a story-driven game, it is intriguing to see Capcom taking a swing at this mythology with a hack & slash approach. Good gameplay should be the focus for this media after all!
This title starts out with King Arthur having just pulled out the sacred sword Excalibur from its rock. Soon after, Merlin tells him that it is his destiny to become the king of the Britons and unite the land, but in order to do so, he needs to find the Holy Grail and overthrow the evil king Garibaldi. He might not have to do this alone or even at all though, depending on if Lancelot and/or Perceval takes on the journey. Yes, this is a hack & slash for up to three players and this intro is all the reason you need for going to war against hordes of enemies!
Being a traditional beat’em up, Knights of the Round follows standard procedures overall. You go through seven multilayered stages in a linear fashion, take out anything that breaths until a cursor appears to showcase that you can continue towards the right, and fight a boss at the end of each level. It is all simple enough to grasp, but this hack & slash provides enough solid mechanics and some unique implementations to stand strong amongst the other titles within this genre.
While characters having unique stats were nothing new for such arcade games when Knights of the Round was released, it did this perfectly if traditional. Arthur is the well-rounded one, Lancelot provides speed at the cost of weaker attacks, and Perceval brings on the carnage while being quite slow. They all feel balanced to make each worth using, yet different enough to complement preferred playstyles. Their abilities are also very familiar, with hits leading into simple combos, being able to jump, and attack in mid-air. However, there are many subtle details added in to the combat that are some truly smart design-choices.
For example, the spin attack which affects all opponents around you and costs a bit of your health to be used, might not be anything new either. However, the developers implemented this so that the fiends will be thrown in the direction your character is facing towards, not just to the opposite way of where you are standing. This works greatly as a means of getting out of tricky situations, but also to get enemies on one side in order to not be overwhelmed again right away.
Another neat idea, is that you cannot grab or throw people around due to you constantly holding a weapon. Instead, all characters have a strong attack and the ability to briefly block. These elements make the fights more tactical, since the strong attack can throw fiends backward or even stun them, while the block will of course negate an attack and if timed well, give you slight frames of invulnerability. Both are hard to pull off, as you must hit forward and attack simultaneously for a strong attack, and backward and attack at the same time to block. However once you get the hang of it, it adds a fantastic sense of strategy and skillful requirements to the gameplay.
Which you are going to need, as the enemies come in packs and can be overwhelming. There is a healthy variety of them, such as archers, heavy armoured soldiers, and fire mages to name a few, despite that they are all easily defeated in similar manners. Really, it is not the diversity of fiends that makes the battles entertaining, but the amount of them as they are very aggressive. The boss fights unfortunately shows this too, as while they come with devastating attacks, these encounters boil down to you attacking and stepping out of the way. They are still fun opponents to take on, but the amount of strategy is lessened, and the recolouring of the regular fiends is not enough to provide some much needed variety in the last part of the game.
Luckily, due to your own diversity in moves and how challenging this title can be, I was never bored throughout. In fact, while this is a hard game, it does not feel like a quarter-stealing cabin due to the abilities you have, clever design-choices, and solid health bars. Another element that will keep you invested, is that you can level up in this title. Yes, Knights of the Round has some RPG elements included. Whenever you kill a fiend, take treasures, clear a stage or eat food at full health, you gain points which are basically your XP. Whenever you have met a required amount, you will go up a level and upgrade your stats in either attack, defence or speed automatically, which is a nice way to reward the player.
Though this can be a hassle in multiplayer, right? Not entirely, as while you do want the delicious points, you can slice up health refilling food or other treasures into tinier pieces in order to share. This will not give you as much as a full amount, but it is a nice way to test your friendship. You also keep your points and level after each continue, with only a number showcasing how many quarters you have used. The only items you cannot split, are sceptres for instantly levelling you up, orbs for a screen nuke, horses for riding that makes you harder to hit and able to cause devastating attacks, and extra lives. Though these are incredibly rare, making the fights over who gets what infrequent.
With seven long stages, Knights of the Round clocks in comfortably between 30 or 40 minutes. It might not have huge variety in enemy designs, but the playthrough offers enough to make every ability you have worthwhile thanks to the amount of opponents you will be facing. With smart implementations for multiplayer and crowd control, you are in for an entertaining and engaging hack & slash. Just remember: sharing is caring.
Gameplay Score: 7/10
A magnificent, but not magical kingdom
Colourful and beautiful is something I feel can be described about any 16-bit game made by Capcom, and it is no different here. Areas are wonderful with diverse settings, like the battleground with people fighting in the background or the simple road by the ocean with a landscape in the distance that adds a sense of scope to this title. A lovely touch, is that each stage is represented on a map before they start. It is a charming game that shows every transit, such as going from a busy festival to a harsh beach and onward to a road that leads to a new village.
With animations being conveyed in the backgrounds, it is a gorgeous game to look at! Speaking of, the characters are also impressively animated with strong attacks and good amounts of frames to their moves. Some enemies will be recoloured as stated, but it is a minor complaint when the huge forces of fiends to fight against comes with decent enough variety. My actual problem with this title visually stems from making this into a believable version of a medieval kingdom, when the developers clearly could and even wanted to go further.
Besides the mages, we have ginormous tigers, birds throwing knives, a red samurai, and a giant mechanical armour controlled by strings like a puppet to confront. It really feels like a missed opportunity to not go further with this abstract concept by adding in more magical and surreal elements, especially due to the inclusion of RPG mechanics and the cartoon art style. However, this is the only gripe I have with the visuals, as everything else is great with beautiful details. I even love how the enemies lose armour when being hit or how you gain better equipment as you level up. Even the fire is mesmerising!
The music is an interesting titbit. It is an action-packed soundtrack that fits the setting by using an organ, trumpets, and even an el-guitar for providing rocking tunes alongside with classical instruments. All are fast-paced with clear notes that are mixed beautifully with those in the background, giving each track a rich sound, especially for the technology at the time. It might not be authentic to the style known from medieval time, but rather an updated and energised version of it that has the distinct tone Capcom can provide. Besides this, the swings of weapons, screams, clashes of steels, and blazing fires, all sound satisfying and deadly, as they should in a hack & slash.
Presentation Score: 8/10
With some smart design-choices, Knights of the Round elevates from just being a solid beat’em up into a game worth coming back to. Diverse fighters with plenty of moves, smart implementations for co-op, RPG elements, and hordes of enemies to take on, makes this small journey a good time. It could have gone further with more creativity in visuals and enemy variety, but what is here is great and with an awesome soundtrack and world to venture through, it is simply fun to take on Arthur’s quest.