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Bahnsen Knights is the third entry into what LCB Game Studio has dubbed their ‘Pixel Pulps’ series. The game promises an 80s-inspired grungy story and chunky graphics, all wrapped up as a love letter to pulpy novellas of yesteryear. This tale about cultists in cars delivers on this promise, however, it often bites off more than it can chew.

Hell yeah, they do

The tone of Bahnsen Knights is its strongest aspect. Sent to investigate a religious cult/gang in the American midwest, the story is told from the perspective of covert agent Boulder. After the disappearance of a fellow agent and friend, this time…. it’s personal. The game’s main antagonist is Toni, an ex-used car salesman turned preacher, who is the head honcho of the titular Bahnsen Knights. Taking credit for tornadoes of biblical proportions, the Bahnsen Knights have become infamous for their ‘Route Exorcisms’, in which their victims are suspended by ropes between four cars that travel down Tornado Alley at a breakneck pace.

As far as Southern Gothic crime settings go, it does the job. The game opens with Boulder undercover as an established, but low-level, member of the group, with Toni cautiously interrogating him after one of his famous sermons. From there, the player takes control of Boulders’ actions and must try to gain the trust of other Bahnsen Knights, snoop through their personal effects, and match discovered evidence to religious-themed tarot cards to solve crimes.

For a game with a runtime of less than three hours, Bahnsen Knights manages some pretty decent character work. Most of the characters feel like they have a purpose and an angle on what’s going on, with Toni being the absolute highlight. Featuring wicked charisma and a pinch of Southern charm, Toni is an entertaining villain to be up against. In one of the player’s first interactions with him, Toni tasks Boulder with being his chauffeur, which leads to a coy, yet tense interaction. Reminiscent of a conversation out of True Detective, things feel on edge during the drive. At one point, Toni quips: “Stay in your lane, Boulder.” with both meanings sharply intended. It’s good fun.

Unfortunately, the protagonist doesn’t complement the story almost at all. Throughout the entire game, Boulder laments being on this case. His cover story for being in the gang is centred around his deceased wife and child. However, in reality, they are both back home, alive and well. Boulder frequently bemoans the fact that he isn’t with them, but does so with a level of grief and sorrow as if they are dead, which doesn’t quite square. They feel largely disconnected from the happenings of the story and seem only to serve Boulders guilt for taking a case far away from them. It’s a confusing narrative choice that ultimately just feels awkward, especially when Boulder evokes their passing when they’re actually home safe.

This leaves the narrative of Bahnsen Knights in an awkward place. There’s some fascinating character work from Toni, as well as Kevin, the bartender at the local dive. His story is full of heart which juxtaposes the rest of the cast quite strikingly, but due to the length of the game overall, the story ends just as it feels like it is getting started. As such, the characters start in interesting places but barely have the chance to change by the time the final act is closing. While the game is clearly and lovingly inspired by the genre, it doesn’t make much of an effort to explore it in any meaningful way.

True Detective S1 Vibes

Primarily, Bahnsen Knights is a choice-focused narrative game. The game regularly forces the player to make choices that don’t have a clear ‘correct’ answer, leading to members of the gang either trusting you or staying wary. This is expressed by a sort of ‘trust’ meter that is displayed below the characters’ portraits. However, instead of building off of that and presenting different lanes of dialogue and story, if one too many wrong decisions are made in a conversation, the trust meter will plummet rapidly, causing the gang members to clue into Boulder’s true identity, kill him, and display a game over screen. This seems to happen frequently, and when the ‘correct’ choice is somewhat grey, this results in a pretty frustrating experience. That frustration is compounded by the outdated save system, which might mean replaying some dialogue options repeatedly if mistakes continue.

Furthermore, where the gameplay ultimately falls apart is in the minigames. A few times throughout Bahnsen Knights, the gameplay will switch from a standard narrative ‘visual novel’ style menu system to an active minigame that requires no small amount of reaction time. Bahnsen Knights has a strong commitment to retro-feeling video games from the DOS era, but that isn’t a good enough excuse to place top-down car controls into a list menu at the bottom of the screen. In a particularly egregious section, Boulder must search through an entire room of drawers and wardrobes for clues before one of the cultists returns. This becomes not an exercise in actually sleuthing, but in how fast the player can navigate menus in a short period. In a game focused on pulpy narrative, it was neither rewarding nor engaging.

Bahnsen Knights has a distinct visual style that does a great job of setting the story’s time and place. While the game is in widescreen as most modern games are, the ‘visuals’ of the world, where the characters and story actually take place, is displayed in a 4:3 aspect ratio in the centre of the screen. The edges are reserved for character portraits for Boulder, as well as other characters, items and other UI elements. The colours are striking, composed exclusively of sharp neon blues, oranges, and reds. This limited range of colours is used to great effect, as the pixel art used to depict the characters and scenes in the story has excellent framing and uses shadows superbly. The sounds too are decidedly low-fi, with sharp chirps and intense reverb, as if the speakers are barely able to handle the range of sounds crawling through a low-voltage PC speaker.

At its best, Bahnsen Knights is an expressive tone piece that wraps itself up in a palatable couple of hours. The art is evocative of the setting, and the music will keep you there. Unfortunately, it often gets in the way of itself with mediocre gameplay segments and ultimately isn’t strong enough to escape the trappings of the genre it emulates.

Xbox Review Copy Provided By Sride PR / Chorus Media

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VIAImages Via Stride PR + Jeremy Bratetich
Managing Editor of MiniMap. Contact me: Jeremy(at)
bahnsen-knights-review-speeding-to-a-red-lightBahnsen Knights has a boot-full of great ideas, but awkward gameplay moments and strange story decisions puts the breaks on greatness.