Shovel Knight is a game that originally started with a Kickstarter campaign on 17 March, 2013, accrued over $300,000, and released on 26 June, 2014. The game has a relatively simple story that involves the titular Shovel Knight on his quest to rescue his beloved Shield Knight. However, to accomplish this task, he must go through a series of bosses not too unlike the Robot Masters who call themselves the Order of No Quarter. The game itself was developed by Yacht Club Games, a video game studio whose head, Sean Velasco, was the former director of Wayforward Technologies. Shovel Knight is a game that touts itself on its influence from retro video games, taking influences from the likes of Mega Man to Ducktales and it honestly delivers as being a game that near flawlessly takes these mechanics and turns them into a fantastic game for retro fans and new players alike.
The game’s over-world is extremely reminiscent of Super Mario Bros. 3 with each stage being selectable and enemies occasionally roaming the map. If one were to scroll over to one of these wandering enemies they will either find themselves in a mini-stage or in a boss fight. The gameplay itself is incredibly smooth and the controls are tight, it never makes the player feel as if it is the game’s fault that they died. It will either be because of human error or the sheer difficulty the game can reach in later stages, a feature that is both gradual and welcomed. Speaking of difficulty, the game has one of the best modern adaptations of retro video game difficulty so far. Rather than forcing players to start again at certain checkpoints or start the level from the beginning, the choice is in the player’s hands. Instead, players can actually destroy checkpoints within game to create their own difficulty, they are also rewarded with in-game currency for upgrades in reward for choosing a more difficult path without these checkpoints.
The actual stages within the game are both varied and exciting, each one of them having different mechanics which consistently keep the game fresh without every feeling too gimmicky as a result. Shovel Knight’s primary method of attack is, well, a shovel, which has an upgradeable forward slash as well as a Scrooge McDuck-esque bounce that is perfect for platforming on enemies. This shovel is also paired with numerous relics which can also be used in innovative ways within the stages, such as a gear that can travel across spikes and a blade that propels Shovel Knight forward in mid-air. There are no puzzles to be solved or mysteries to be explored and that is perfectly fine because the game is excellent at what it does, and that is being a platformer.
Characters in the game are not only diverse, but intriguing as well, with NPCS varying from a talking frog named Croaker who enjoys telling jokes, to a giant trout-apple hybrid king. Every NPC has a unique line of dialogue and because there are so few compared to games in a much larger scale, it feels doable to hear each one of their single lines or stories. It also helps that the actual landmarks within the games are vivid and incredibly detailed, even locations as simple as the town are extremely impressive.
The only categories that Shovel Knight really falls flat in are the music and the story, each of them feel as if they needed improvement throughout playing the game. While some tracks like “Waltz of the Troupple King” can stay in the player’s head for a day, others such as “La Dense Macabre” do not fit in as well as a background song. Meanwhile, the story is extremely bare bones, there is not much to explain besides talking about Shovel Knight fighting the Order of No Quarter in order to save Shield Knight without any spoilers, but there is not too much more to talk about aside from that. It is not as if Shovel Knight needs a flawless and captivating story in order to be successful, but it would not have hurt to add a couple more story-based scenes in the game if not solely for more world-building. Overall though, these are minor complaints for what truly is a great game, and possibly one of the greatest games from the past year.
Shovel Knight: Plague of Shadows
Although this is a review of the main game, gamers should also be aware of the recent expansion that was released on 17 September, 2015, especially since it will be shipping out with physical copies of the game in the upcoming months. Shovel Knight: Plague of Shadows is a free expansion to the base game that stars Plague Knight, who was previously a boss in the main game. Plague Knight plays considerably differently than Shovel Knight, which is the main flaw of the expansion as a whole. Aside from a couple new screens, the game is for all intents and purposes, Plague Knight playing Shovel Knight’s stages, which does not end up working on because of how differently the two play.
While Shovel Knight is blessed enough to have a bouncing mechanic, Plague Knight instead attacks with customizable potions using a new system that can change the fuse time, attack, and angle at which the potions are thrown. This system eventually becomes more trouble than its own good as it does not feel natural to drastically change the way the player can attack for one specific boss or enemy. However, the category in which the expansion excels is the story, which is much more fleshed out than the main game and shows a level of thought put into it. The ending especially blows Shovel Knight out of the water and the new boss fights that tie in with the story also work very well. Plague Knight is revealed to have been on his own mission while Shovel Knight was busy trying to save Shield Knight, but to not give any spoilers away, the story details in this review will cut off there. The only other point worth noting is that the game has a new collectible known as “Cipher Coins” which lead to more in-game upgrades, and once all are collected, the player can receive an exclusive ability which makes the battle system in game a lot more riveting. Sadly, these factors are not enough to improve what is in total, a bad expansion pack with a couple exciting ideas, to an otherwise excellent game.