Sometimes you find out who’s behind a newly-announced game and you know you’ll be in good hands. Knights and Bikes developer Foam Sword consists of Moo Yu and Rex Crowle, both ex-Media Molecule staff with experience on titles such as LittleBigPlanet and Tearaway. Who better to make a game about two girls who explore the nooks and crannies of a small Cornish island in search of a mythical treasure?
Welcome to Penfurzy Island, the place you’re going to spend the next six in-game days on, taking control of the red-haired Demelza and her new friend Nessa. Knights and Bikes has been designed very much a co-op experience, either locally or online, and while you can play it just fine by yourself, there is no better way to emulate two kids having an adventure together than by playing it with a friend. Right from the beginning, the story captures the spirit of Enid Blyton’s timeless Famous Five series of books, or an Astrid Lindgren novel (there is also a two-part Knights and Bikes novel by Gabrielle Kent that makes for a perfect accompaniment).
On Day 1, Nessa lands on Penfurzy Island all alone, looking for a place to stay. Demelza, who has just lost her mother and who has to spend a lot of time by herself since her father now is mostly busy working on the island’s caravan park, makes her a simple offer – Nessa can stay in her caravan, but she has to be Demelza’s friend. For kids, it’s often that easy, and so the two immediately start scouring the island together. While on the golf course that tells the story of Penfurzy Island’s long-lost treasure, the two of them release a curse by accident. Suddenly the adventure they have created in their minds until then is real – Demelza and Nessa not only need to find a way to stop the curse from wreaking havoc, but also begin looking for the treasure in order to use its riches to save Demelza’s beloved home.
Each day introduces you to a different part of the island, from its scrap yard by the beach to windy cliffs and the local town. Everything is rendered in Crowle’s vibrant, kinetic art style reminiscent of crayon drawings. The humour of Knights and Bikes is mostly visual, as every character has a cartoon-y, lovable style, but some lines throughout also made me laugh out loud.
In order to get around the island, Demelza and Nessa of course acquire bikes early on in the game. You can customise each bike in a myriad of small, mostly cosmetic ways, by spending treasure the girls earn in combat or find all around the island. That treasure isn’t hard currency, but brilliant things such as slimy eyeball keychains, trading cards, worms and so on.
Knights and Bikes has a very good balance between combat and puzzle-solving. Over the course of the game, each girl will gain items only she can use, which will both be necessary to solve environmental puzzles with or to get through combat encounters. Items include a frisbee, a toilet plunger and more that I don’t want to give away for how absolutely brilliant they are. In order to be enjoyed by adults and kids alike, combat, which takes place mostly against cursed Penfurzy souvenirs, is on the easy side, but it’s enjoyably chaotic. Healing is done by the girls high-fiving each other with plasters, and the game celebrates successful hits by words such as “rad!” and “tubular!” popping up. Add to that great sound design and a thoroughly fitting soundtrack by Daniel Pemberton (driving drum beats during combat! A kid’s punk band!) and every successfully solved puzzle or finished encounter in Knights and Bikes left me feeling more satisfied than an Apex Legends win.
The puzzles in Knights and Bikes aren’t particularly challenging – except for a couple of head-scratchers – but they make great use of your inventory and the fact that two players have to work together. Like combat, puzzle-solving is more fun with two, especially since when you play by yourself, the AI may show you the solution. Now and then you come across opportunities for Nessa and Demelza to have friendly competitions, whether that’s racing each other or collecting scrap with bulldozers (don’t ask). As a single player you will likely win these mini battles – with a friend they can involve an awful lot of cheerful shouting.
All this, and there’s a story with nuance. While predominantly a happy affair, Knights and Bikes manages to depict the tense latter half of the 80s in Britain through the eyes of a child. Penfurzy Island is clearly one of many places affected by the economic downturn following the shutdown of coal mines all across the UK, and both she and her father still suffer in their own way from the recent death of Demelza’s mother. The contrast between Nessa and Demelza is interesting, because Nessa isn’t only slightly older, she’s also less sheltered, and more difficult to impress overall. Watching the two girls deal with setbacks along their journey is just as uplifting as witnessing childhood joy. I’ve no doubt that Crowle and Yu still remember very well what it’s like to be a child, both in the good and occasionally difficult ways, and I’m glad they reminded me.