Chess is a centuries-old game that has translated well to the gaming scene, with early examples delivering a top-down board as players went up against the AI. But in recent times that same chess experience has altered slightly, and whilst the likes of Battle Chess are still strong in our hearts, and the purity of Pure Chess is able to ensure a suitably great-looking take, it’s the more unique takes on the age-old classic that are of most interest.
Making a move into that unique chess scene is the Chess Knights franchise, a series of games which have you utilising the movement of the Knight (up 2, across 1 or up 1, across 2) as you work your way towards an end goal. We’ve previously had Knights Retreat and Chess Knights: Viking Lands arrive on console. But now we get the chance to move in majestic ways like that of the Shinobi.
Chess Knights: Shinobi is the end product and if you’ve played either of the two QUByte Interactive titles which have come before it, you’ll know exactly what to expect.
The basic premise consists of navigating your Knight piece around a series of well-designed levels, working the Knight’s iconic move structure as you go. Reach the end point and you’ll be thrust into the next, slightly more challenging of scenarios.
It’s a simple idea that is more than capable of providing what a puzzle fan will desire, with difficulty levels increasing with the arrival of opponent pieces. For the most part these come in the form of the Bishop, the Rook and the Queen, with each moving around as you would expect; on the diagonal, on the horizontal and vertical planes, and with a combination of the two.
As with normal chess, find yourself in line of sight of these pieces and you’ll lose your Knight, and then be taken back to the start of the stage to plan a different tactical structure.
It all starts off fairly easy if we’re honest, with the need to navigate past single foes pretty straightforward in terms of gameplay. But then multiple opponents crop up, ramping things up considerably. Thankfully then your Knight army can soon expand as well and it isn’t long before your lone warrior stands proud in and amongst friends. With the goal staying the same – get one Knight to an end square – further strategy comes to the fore, letting you sacrifice certain pieces in the hope that it allows for a more simple route to glory.
Throw in teleporting squares which transport you swiftly across boards, and special hidden levels that crop up every now and then, alongside variations in level heights to take into account, and what is in place is most certainly a test of the mind.
The levels themselves are pretty decent too. 50 in all – excluding the hidden secret levels – these are split across Shinobi’s Dojo, Sakuras Trail, Plebeians’ Vale and Shogun’s Castle, each coming with a variety of visual and mechanical ideas. Honestly, even though there has been an effort put in to mix things up a bit in terms of how these stages play out, they could all well roll into one giant scenario without any fuss. But what’s there is decent enough.
What isn’t decent enough though is the control scheme. Utilising the right thumbstick to move camera angles is dodgy at best, and rarely do you ever feel comfortable zooming in and out with the triggers and then working the sticks to best suit the situations at hand. This is further compromised by the other stick which points out the squares your knights can move to; again this is finicky and choosing specific tiles is a pain.
There are also occasions when stages come across as just a bit too dark, leaving the player struggling as they try to pick out detail and the best moves. This is certainly the case with much of what is found in the Plebeians’ Vale stages as darkness descends on the tactical lands. The rest of the visuals are solid enough though; bright, colourful and with backgrounds that play on the Edo era of ancient Japan.
If you’re a fan of the age-old game of chess but don’t have the skills to play on a Grandmaster level, Chess Knights: Shinobi is worth a look. The stages are well-designed and the tactical nous required to find success in the Japanese lands is high. Issues with the camera and control scheme aside, this chess game – without any chess – may be of appeal to some, especially when you consider the low asking price.
Chess Knights: Shinobi is now ready for purchase on Xbox Series X|S and Xbox One