Greed can ruin a Dungeons and Dragons adventure. Wizened adventurers of the pen-and-paper era all have stories to tell about how they lost a favourite character by delving too deep into a dungeon, springing a trapped treasure chest, or grabbing a golden idol on a conspicuous pedestal.
Greed can also ruin a video game. Knights of Pen and Paper is a title with a marvellous premise and great execution foiled by its obvious attempts to squeeze a few extra dollars out of its players.
Knights of Pen and Paper is a turn-based roleplaying game. The player assembles a party of heroes and sets forth on a grand adventure to quash evil in a land of swords and sorcery.
The gimmick of the game is that it is framed within a session of Dungeons and Dragons (or a non-copyright infringing equivalent, to be precise). The heroes in the player’s party are in fact friends, neighbours, and relatives, and their grand adventure is being narrated by an obese pony-tailed comic book nerd.
I am in love with the premise of Knights of Pen and Paper. You can owe it to my background as a pen-and-paper enthusiast, but with these types of games oozing their way into mainstream media thanks to shows like Community (and to a lesser extent, its inbred half-brother Big Bang Theory), the core concept is bemusing enough to appeal to a wide audience.
It’s impossible to play the game without smiling. The characters that populate your table are humourous archetypes, running the gambit from generic nerd, to Queen Street hipster, to dishevelled metal enthusiast, to hyperactive younger brother. Assigning them classes that compliment (or contradict) their core personalities is a fun exercise; my party’s front-line fighter was a grandmother with an explosive scorning voice.
The retro aesthetic only adds to the charm of the game. The artists at Paradox Interactive are savants with pixel art, succeeding in creating characters that are both easily identifiable and memorable. Visual flourishes, such as the cinematic transitions between locations and the dozens of pop cultural easter eggs hidden in each backdrop, demonstrate an attention to detail lacking in many other throwback titles.
It’s a shame that the excellent premise and graphics are squandered on lacklustre gameplay. Although the concept behind Knights of Pen and Paper is rooted in the mythology of classic pen-and-paper games, the mechanics are entangled within the impenetrable tradition of Japanese roleplaying games.
The game is a grind, plain and simple.
Each of the six classes only has four abilities to choose from, and the majority of these abilities merely inflict damage or heal it in very samey ways. Coupled with the colossal piles of hit points that monsters sit on, the turn-based battles tend to involve gratuitous amounts of button mashing.
Although it may arguably betray the old school simplicity the developers were aiming for, Knights of Pen and Paper would benefit from a subclass or perk system of advancement to keep the classes feeling fresh after prolonged play.
These spartan battle mechanics are exacerbated by the agonizingly slow accrual of wealth. Monsters drop an amount of gold entirely disproportionate to the price of simple curative items, character resurrection, and equipment upgrades.
The latter operates on a truly diabolical act of accounting. The blacksmith can upgrade your equipment for a steep fee, but his success rate is abysmally low. You have to supply him with grindstones in order to incrementally improve his success rate. Grindstones are, of course, bought from the store, costing you even more money. The craven nature of this mechanic completely perplexed me until I made a startling discovery.
There is an in-game store.
That’s right. In this simple throwback roleplaying game, there is an in-game store. At any time, you can click on the top-right corner of your screen to sacrifice real world money to the game developer gods for a pittance of in-game gold.
Regardless of my opinion about pay-to-win games, the blatant way that Paradox Interactive tethers the pacing of the game to this store is shameless.
Additional characters cost a hefty amount of gold and can only be added to your table once you’ve bought an expensive cosmetic item. Experience and power boosters are offered as an obvious panacea to the sluggish battle system. And good luck affording equipment upgrades at the blacksmith’s casino with the paltry change purses monsters mete out.
It’s an agonizing design decision: not simply because it’s corporate and cutthroat, but because it clips the wings of what could have been an amazing game. Knights of Pen and Paper has all the ingredients for success: an ingenious premise, charming graphics, and tried and tested mechanics. But the concessions made to monetize the title bleed all the fun out of it.
Even at the price tag of $9.99 on Steam, I can’t recommend picking up Knights of Pen and Paper. If you’re fishing for a retro roleplaying experience, you’re better off trying Cthulhu Saves the World or Penny Arcade‘s On the Rain-Slick Precipice of Darkness sequels.