Knights and Bikes carries such a strong, bittersweet vibe that I find myself thinking about it in idle moments, walking home in the cooling evenings or as I inevitably start thinking about the start of fall. It’s bringing me back, if not all the way to my actual childhood, then at least to the slightly simpler days about ten years ago. It’s an era I do find myself longing for, though I didn’t really know how badly until I booted up the game.
Knights and Bikes, developer Foam Sword’s new adventure game that is out this week, harkens directly back to the vibe of elder Double Fine games (think Psychonauts or Costume Quest or Stacking). To be clear, it's published by Double Fine but made by Foam Sword, a tiny team putting out their first game together, so the parallels here are noteworthy. It's an action-adventure game with plenty of gameplay quirks supporting a colorful, twee (but not cloying) world and story. It’s a tiny bit janky, but somehow earnestly so, and it stars cute-as-a-button characters dealing with the bad shit in their lives by, well, going on cool adventures.
Knights and Bikes stars Demelza and Nessa, two girls whose shared adventure can be played co-op with another player, or with an AI companion in single-player. The setting is a depressed 1980s British island, once a delightful tourist town, now a sad remnant, complete with beaches and wild golf courses and theme parks. Demelza is a native, having grown up on Penfurzy her whole life, but things aren’t looking so good. Her dad, clearly a loving figure, is dealing with looming financial ruin and a recent loss that’s shaken the family.
Nessa is a bit more of a mystery. She’s a stowaway who ended up on the island from a routine shipment of supplies, and she befriends the imaginative and lonely Demelza almost immediately. There’s a beautiful tone to their friendship here: Two kids, both clearly dealing with SOMETHING very difficult, taking on the world (and an evil curse—there’s some wild stuff going on here) together, sharing their struggle despite the gaps in age and circumstances that might have made them strangers to one another in a more conventional life.
You take off on a loosely Zelda-style adventure, solving simple environmental puzzles solving with your growing arsenal of abilities and plenty of hack-and-slash brawling. Demelza begins with a butt stomp and melee moves at first, while Nessa prefers a ranged arsenal, with a killer frisbee and later grenade-style water balloons.
That gameplay is nowhere as tight as a proper 3D Zelda: it forgives a much more brawling, button-mashing style. But it works across plenty of massive stages that are rewarding to explore, fight, and puzzle your way through.
An 80s flavor permeates each of those stages, from the general Goonies vibe of the adventure to the specific details of setting and characters, like the new wave/industrial metalhead who runs the record shop, to the space-themed or Rainbow Brite knockoff accoutrements you can deck your bikes out in. There’s a nostalgia and a sadness that underscores the over-the-top antics of our heroines, and the story beats feel appropriately sensitive to what the girls are going through. There’s a way in which the whole game just feels like the last days of summer (appropriate for its release timing), the last hurrah or fun and adventure until it’s time to grow up or at least settle down for the new school year.
This is where that bittersweet nostalgia gets me, and where the game succeeds most. Both Nessa and Demelza have a vague sense that their own rich imaginations may not be able to compensate for their real-life problems for much longer. There are hints, in the text, that both know they are participating in a kind of magic circle, that aspects of this adventure are a shared (and fun) fantasy that keeps out the fact that losing a parent is a tragedy, that your home and your comfortable life may not last much longer. There’s a hint of that autumn wind that reminds you that the bite of winter exists too.
That’s part of what makes this time of year so intoxicating and emotional, the heady sense of loss that comes with the exciting change. The anticipation and sadness in equal measure. I don’t know if Knights and Bikes will have the same seasonal pull as Costume Quest (a game I replay nearly every year around Halloween), but it’s even more pointed in its tone and subtext.
Things are about to change. But there’s one precious week of summer left. Knights and Bikes seems to say “You don’t have much time. Make the best of it.”