The Knight Witch is a heady brew of bullet hell, Metroidvania, and tactics game. Developer Super Awesome Hyper Dimensional Mega Team tell us all about it…
From the moment a gigantic mechanised boss rears up in front of you, firing off a kaleidoscope of burning projectiles, it’s clear that The Knight Witch isn’t your typical Metroidvania. You’re just a few minutes into the prologue, and you’re fighting Emperor Erebus, the tyrannical ruler whose relentless pursuit of wealth has brought the planet to the brink of environmental collapse. But you’re a Knight Witch, a member of an elite band of warriors who have the power to knock Erebus off his perch. Doing so means dodging waves of bullets and returning fire with your standard shots and card-based magic system.
The Knight Witch offers an engaging mix of genres, then: there’s the gradual unfurling of new areas and powers you’d expect from a Metroidvania, the pulse-racing action of a twin-stick shooter, and a smattering of the RPG-style progression and strategy seen in deck-building games. Spanish developer Super Awesome Hyper Dimensional Mega Team is no stranger to blending genres – 2016’s Rise & Shine was a winning combo of shooter and puzzle-platformer – but The Knight Witch is arguably its most ambitious project to date. “We tend to mix genres that supposedly wouldn’t work together very well,” admits artist and studio co-founder Enrique Corts. “But they usually go together like peanut butter and jelly or beans on toast. I was a big fan of games like Enter the Gungeon, for instance, or The Binding of Isaac. And I thought, maybe we can mix the top-down, bullet hell gameplay, but without too much [emphasis] on the hell.”
Indeed, while the swirling waves of bullets and aggressive enemies might imply that The Knight Witch is for hardcore players only, its developers have been careful to ensure that its action remains approachable even for novices – key to this is its targeting system, which locks onto the nearest enemy when you press the fire button. Meanwhile, using the right stick allows you to manually pick out enemies with stronger attacks. It’s a system that rewards skilful players without penalising newcomers. “Accessibility is pretty important,” says game director Kevin Sardà. “We kind of broke the concept of the twin-stick shooter because you don’t need the right stick to play the game… I’ve seen a lot of people playing the game with the auto-aiming system. They don’t need to use the right stick, but sometimes when there’s a final boss that’s vulnerable, you can use the right stick to increase the damage a little bit. Then you feel like you’re putting all your own strength into the shots.”
There’s a similar flexibility to The Knight Witch’s card system, which Sardà introduced when he joined the studio in 2020. In essence, the cards provide a set of special attacks or shields that can be collected and chosen according to your play style. “The deck-building has received the same treatment as the bullet hell [mechanics],” says Sardà. “It’s been adapted into something that matches the genre, so it’s really light. When you use a card, the effect is immediate. It’s not like League of Legends’ abilities, where you click once, and then you have to move an arrow and then click again. There’s a little bit of strategy, but it’s not slow-paced – it complements the shooting.”
Given that card systems aren’t exactly a common sight in action games, Sardà and his team have also been careful to introduce the mechanics gradually, so players figure out the rule system as they go. Says Sardà: “When you play a first-person shooter, you know by intuition that clicking on the right stick is gonna be a melee attack – you know what you’re playing, right? But in our case, we know we have to teach players how to use the cards progressively, so you can focus only on shooting if you’re not comfortable with the cards, and you can equip only cards that change your weapon so you can shoot with different types of bullets. Sooner or later, as you start to get more used to the cards, you’ll start to get the most out of them.”
Making a Metroidvania where the central character can fly rather than jump, meanwhile, represented something of a design challenge for the team: Sardà points at a game like Hollow Knight, where enemies act as natural barriers – if the player wants to exit the room, they’ll have to defeat the enemy to get to the door. If the player can fly, then there’s always the option to fly straight over them. “When you can’t use any of the rules from all the Metroidvanias you’ve ever played, that’s really hard,” Sardà says.
“Yeah, you’ve been complaining about that for the whole development,” Corts observes.
To combat this, the studio came up with ambushes, where the player’s suddenly trapped and assaulted on all sides by enemies. “Ambushes aren’t a new concept, but it’s not used in Metroidvanias often,” says Sardà.
Those challenges notwithstanding, it’s impressive just how well The Knight Witch’s creators have blended all these various mechanics. The Metroidvania genre may have gotten crowded in recent years, but The Knight Witch’s hybrid of shooting, exploration, tactics, and sumptuous hand-drawn visuals help set it apart. Sardà is certainly aware of how competitive the indie space is in 2022, and his team have worked hard to ensure their latest game is as polished as it can be. “We always feel the pressure,” says Sardà. “There are so many high-quality games – I look at YouTube channels and discover indie games I’ve never heard of. When I see that level of polish, I get scared because you’re working really hard on a game that you feel looks good, everybody’s trying their best… making games is easier than ever, but making games that can compete is hard. But we’ve tried to put all our experience on the table. We’re really proud of the work we’ve done.”
The Knight Witch is packed with lore, with its central narrative, introducing a young heroine named Rayne, picking up several years after the action-packed prologue. Sardà previously worked on the story-heavy RiME and GYLT at Tequila Works before he moved over to Super Awesome, and he’s brought his affection for narrative with him: The Knight Witch deals with such themes as the environment, chasing fame, and the importance of gratitude. The latter came about as the world came out of the pandemic, says Corts. “It’s about the importance of saying ‘thank you’,” he reveals. “I thought, when we were coming out of lockdown, for some reason everybody was angry and rude.”
“Grumpy,” Sardà agrees.
“…which is understandable,” Corts continues, “but it’s still like that today, I think. So we thought that being thankful should be part of the gameplay – that you actually level up when someone says ‘thank you’.”