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Knights of Pen & Paper review

Devs use high concept. It's super effective!

This came out last summer, but I'm ashamed to say I'd never heard of it until a festive App Store sale and snazzy icon tempted a punt. It turns out to be a rare treasure, a high-concept hybrid role-playing game that manages to pack an epic and funny quest into the most unusual of structures.

The concept is that a group of friends are playing an old-school pen-and-paper RPG, like Dungeons & Dragons, and they along with the Dungeon Master make up the centrepiece of the screen - the latter facing the player from the other side of the table, while the friends sit with their backs to you. The table is a constant on-screen presence in Knights of Pen & Paper, and the fantasy world the friends are playing through is represented by everything outside of it: a series of beautiful pixel-art backdrops, all of them crammed with tiny details and movement.

Many battles are pre-set, but specific missions let you choose how many monsters to fight at once, up to a maximum of seven. The more you fight, the bigger the XP bonus.

Travelling from place to place changes the backdrop as well as the quests available, and is controlled through a simple map overlay. It costs in-game dollars to travel anywhere, which limits your initial movement, but before very long you'll have a truckload. Now seems as good a time as any to mention that Knights of Pen & Paper includes in-app purchases for more of its dollars, but you'll honestly never need them - every fight, more or less, rewards you with currency, and every quest yields even more.

There are many types of quest, all of which are bookended in full D&D mode by our narrator, the Dungeon Master. This is a game that's not only beautifully written but has a great gimmick to play with and does so. The Dungeon Master and friends are sometimes talking 'in character' and sometimes like buddies playing a game.

There are so many little nods here, particularly to the 16-bit era of RPGs, but the game it's most reminiscent of in terms of atmosphere is Earthbound. I always loved that homely ease Earthbound has with contemporary culture and society (as it was) combined with a surreal sense of the everyday. The world of Knights of Pen & Paper is a little more geeky, a little less mainstream than that of Shigesato Itoi's Super Nintendo masterpiece, but it's that same slightly skewed sense of humour and shared reference. By the time the developers themselves turn up as kind of clumsy arch-nemeses and you're bustin' ghouls on behalf of a lazy Mill Burray, you can't help but be swept along with a smile.

What really seals the deal with Knights of Pen & Paper, however, is the battle system. You begin the game with two friends at a table that can seat up to five, which after an hour or so of play will be full. Each friend is a combination of a base character and a class, which is by far the more important aspect. I've no idea how many classes total there are, because I keep on unlocking them, but there are a lot: Knights, Druids, Paladins, Bards, Mages, Rogues, Barbarians, Shamans and Warriors so far.

The game's filled with references to '80s and '90s geekdom, which for a certain target market (i.e. me) is manna from heaven. Splinter's calling me a noob! My 10-year-old self dies of happiness.

Each of these have core skills that are learned through levelling, and these are critical. The set-up I used for a long time had a Paladin, who would aggro enemies as a tank, then cast a shield spell and heal as he took all the hits. He's next to a version of John Wayne (really), a Warrior who hits for big damage that also blunts the opponent's attack while doing a bit of tanking on the side. Next up, the Rogue and Mage, the big damage-dealers - the former uses Vanish to avoid hits and land big crits with dual attacks, the latter setting enemies on fire for massive damage whenever they move. Finally I had a Druid who could put enemies to sleep for six turns, regenerate allies' HP, attack with feral claws and cause bleeding, or simply refill my team's magic bars a bit.

Battling is an intricate turn-based system that's hugely fun to master, with enemies always surprising in how they deal with your ever more explosive army. The only drag in Knights of Pen & Paper is getting attacked occasionally in low-level bits of the world, where you smash everything instantly for little reward, but it doesn't happen too often. Special mention too for the look of the enemies: beautifully crafted and animated pieces of pixel art with several grotesquely amusing stand-outs.

The structure and the battle system dovetail to create a rich, deep world filled with reasons to criss-cross and backtrack. The odd quest may see you spending a little too much time on the road, but then there are always a few loose ends to tidy up in every corner. The quests also do a good job mixing up their length; some are near-instantaneous fights, while others spiral from small beginnings into map-wide gauntlets, with no way of knowing before you undertake them. The final level of polish is a shop where you can buy accessories for the room the friends are playing in (all of which add minor buffs to the party), or new Dungeon Masters including 'Karate Rat', AKA Splinter from the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. I don't think I've ever spent pretend money so fast.

If you're an RPG fan of any kind, you'll love Knights of Pen & Paper. It's one of those rare cases where an offbeat premise is executed with such winning aplomb you can't help but get sucked in. One of my regrets is that I've never actually played Dungeons & Dragons for real. If it's anything like Knights of Pen & Paper, it must be incredible.

9 / 10

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