Adventure and co-op action in a dazzling suit of armour. Here’s our review of Knights and Bikes…
Knights and Bikes is ridiculously charming. The charm begins with the little girls at the heart of this coming-of-age story and extends to the setting they call home. Co-op heroines Demelza and Nessa buzz their lips and let out adorable yells as they sprint around the fictional British island of Penfurzy, represented here in the visual style of a pop-up book.
The characters they encounter speak with Banjo-Kazooie-style effects in place of dialogue – Demelza’s dad, specifically, sounds like a rusty can tumbling down the stairs, albeit in a fun way. Demelza and Nessa are funny, honest, and filled with a sense of wonder and a desire for adventure, even as Demelza deals with a deeply painful event in her recent past.
As the two youngsters criss-cross Penfurzy on customisable bikes, Demelza and Nessa visit a miniature golf course, a scrapyard, a mountain top, and more. Each environment is rendered with care, while a muted pastel colour palette effortlessly captures the feeling that summer (and childhood) is nearing its end.
Knights and Bikes is set in the eighties – there’s a definite Goonies energy to Demelza and Nessa’s quest – but it rarely adopts the neon and synth shorthand we’ve come to expect from period throwbacks. Instead, Knights and Bikes presents the era as it truly might have been for two British kids living in a village.
Yes, the game has charm and atmosphere to spare. That’s a good thing, too, because it’s a bit lacking in other departments. Knights and Bikes is, at once, a story-driven adventure game and a co-op title with light action RPG-style combat and character-specific abilities. That mixture, unfortunately, leads to both portions feeling slightly watered down.
The game begins with Nessa, a homeless stowaway, arriving at the Penfurzy docks. Demelza, a bored local with wild red hair, is visiting the harbour with her dad, and after an awkward meeting (Demelza knocks some lobster traps onto Nessa) the two become fast friends. Demelza’s father owns a caravan park, and Nessa begins staying the night in Demelza’s camper (where they can compete in a very simple Rock ‘Em Sock ‘Em Robots-style off-brand NES game).
During the day, they explore the island, uncovering a story about the order of knights who inhabited Penfurzy centuries before. They embark, like many bored kids before them, on a quest to find the hidden treasure they left behind.
It’s a fantastic hook, but this great setup never quite gels with the game itself. I’d hoped for meaty characterisation and an ever-deepening mystery, but Knights and Bikes’ story feels thin; an almost skeletal outline scaffolding the puzzles and combat sections.
In those action-puzzle segments, Demelza and Nessa have a variety of tools at their disposal. Early on, each gets a simple attack – Demelza kicks and stomps; Nessa throws a frisbee. As the game progresses, though, each heroine unlocks a toolkit of four abilities. These are conceptually interesting, to be sure.
Demelza can drop plungers on the ground, where they wait to pop like timed explosives. She can also charge this move up to throw the plunger, pulling enemies closer or moving barriers out of the way. Nessa, meanwhile, can chuck water balloons to put out fires (whether on burning enemies or in the environment).
As waves of bouncing baddies advance toward you, you’ll need to shuffle between abilities to manage them. As Nessa, you might throw water balloons to extinguish an opponent, then use the right thumbstick to toggle to your basic attack to pelt your (now room temperature) foe with flying discs.
All of this sounds fine in theory – using different weapons for different scenarios is pretty standard action game stuff – but Knights and Bikes never feels like an action game. The process of switching abilities doesn’t feel snappy. Over the course of my six-to-eight hour playthrough, I couldn’t get used to selecting moves on the thumbstick.
It just didn’t feel as natural as, say, pulling up a weapon wheel in a shooter. The combat sections are simple, I never died, and there are no boss battles (though there are some clever feints in that direction). To engage with the combat in this game is to spend hours doing something that doesn’t quite feel right.
The puzzles fare slightly better, though they’re often marred by a few design quirks here and there. The pop-up book aesthetic is certainly gorgeous, the dioramic, zoomed-out presentation sometimes makes it frustratingly difficult to see a path or solution.
Knights and Bikes’ more significant issue, however, is that its two-player approach to puzzle design is rarely well-used. Progression mostly just involves both co-op partners standing on pressure plates. In single-player, you won’t even need to figure these puzzles out, either, because your AI companion will often automatically solve them for you.
Despite its shortcomings, though, I enjoyed Knights and Bikes’ tale of wonder and grief. It tells an at times impactful story (which, to an almost comical extent, has a lot in common with 2018’s God of War). If only the mechanics used to tell that story were just a little better employed.
I would absolutely spend way too much time at the Penfurzy Island history-themed putt-putt course that Demelza’s dad owns. The round of minigolf that the girls play here early in the game is a highlight of interesting design choices, quirky theming, and the best of Knights and Bikes’ gorgeous hand-painted aesthetics.
Despite some missteps, Knights and Bikes tells an impactful story of grief and friendship.
Genre: Co-op adventure
Format: PS4 (tested) / PC / Mac / Linux
Developer: Foam Sword Games
Publisher: Double Fine
Release: Out now