Genre: 2D Platformer
Original Release: June 26, 2014
Developer: Yacht Club Games
Publisher: Yacht Club Games
Platforms: Wii U, 3DS, Microsoft Windows, Amazon Fire TV, OS X, PlayStation 3, PlayStation 4, PlayStation Vita, Xbox One, Nintendo Switch, Linux
Played On: Nintendo Switch
It’s both a new year, and a new decade. And it was as good a way to end the decade as any with the release of the final Shovel Knight expansion.
Shovel Knight, for those unfamiliar with the title, is a first offering from Yacht Club Games and was funded via Kickstarter. I personally didn’t end up playing it until maybe two years ago when I first got my Switch, but I’d heard so many great things about it from people up to that point that, after seeing a little bit of gameplay from a streamer I frequent, I decided to take a chance on it.
Let me tell you, I am so glad I did. Shovel Knight is a game that invokes nostalgia for the NES era through both aesthetic and challenge. A friend of mine tends to be particularly iffy when it comes to games with a pixel art aesthetic, but Shovel Knight has so much love and polish behind it that everything is beautiful and clear. The character sprites, the backgrounds, even things as mundane as the wall detail look fantastic. I’ll explain that a bit later, but for now I think it’s important to discuss each of the four stories and their similarities and differences. Let’s start with Shovel of Hope.
While all four stories are available from the start, Shovel of Hope’s story is the main game for obvious reasons. In it, you play as Shovel Knight. Lamenting the disappearance of his partner Shield Knight, he turns from knighthood and shovelry to a life of solitude, but before long an order of knights called The Order of No Quarter rise to power and take over the land under the guidance of The Enchantress. It’s up to Shovel Knight to take them on one by one and free the land of evil.
Shovel of Hope’s gameplay is reminiscent of early Mega Man games, but with a shovel instead of a Mega Buster. It sounds silly, I know, but Shovel Knight’s gameplay is designed with a focus on getting close enough to smack things with your shovel, so it makes sense. And it’s not just used for attacking directly. As shown above, you can use your shovel to bounce on enemies or obstacles in order to either reach heights you might not be able to otherwise or just dispatch certain enemies or bosses more effectively. In addition, you can acquire various relics to facilitate getting around some of these obstacles more effectively. Need to hit something above you that’s blocked by a wall? Try an anchor! Need to navigate some spikes or having some trouble getting past a certain point because of projectiles? Try the spooky locket! I’m not making any of this up, either. I swear.
Unfortunately, I can’t say much more about gameplay without risking spoilers, so I’ll leave it there. Instead, let’s talk about level design.
So like Mega Man (yes, there are going to be a lot of comparisons), each level has a particular aesthetic to it and a number of gimmicks and monsters to accompany that aesthetic. In the above shot, there are a few rooms that are only illuminated by sporadic lightning flashes, making platforming more difficult. However, that difficulty fits because it works with the theme of the level. You’re in a haunted graveyard protected by ghosts, skeletons, and electrical frogs. The pitfalls are numerous, but Shovel Knight’s silhouette appears when you’re standing in front of the brick wall, and the camera stays focused on Shovel Knight when you’re not sitting on the edge of the screen. And even if you do fall and die, each level has a number of checkpoints that you’ll return to (provided you haven’t destroyed them for more money, in which case you’ll return to the next most recent checkpoint), and you’ll have a chance to recover any of the gold you lost in the process if you’re able to get back to it.
Shovel Knight is a challenging game, but also much more fair than some of the titles that inspired it. And you can even purchase new armors that have different effects!
So that’s basically the gist of Shovel of Hope: confront each of the eight knights of the Order of No Quarter and make your way to The Enchantress’ lair. A lot of work for one guy (or girl if that’s your cup of tea. There’s a gender swap option that’s pretty neat), no? But what if he weren’t acting entirely alone?
As it says in the text box, Plague of Shadows happens parallel to the story of Shovel of Hope and follows a member of the Order of No Quarter: Plague Knight. While he may belong to a company of evildoers, Plague Knight has his own goal. Namely, he plans to steal the essences of his fellow knights in order to concoct a potion of ultimate power.
So where Shovel Knight is more of a close-quarters fighter, Plague Knight is a little more hands-off. Instead of fighting with any sort of melee weapon (at least until you acquire some arcana), he prefers to throw bombs and deal damage from afar. He can also charge up and perform a bomb burst, providing him with extra vertical and horizontal distance, the latter depending on whether or not he’s moving left or right when he performs the burst.
Since it’s an alternate quest, Plague of Shadows utilizes the same maps as Shovel of Hope, but with a few new areas tacked on that only Plague Knight would be able to reach thanks to his alchemical talents. These areas tend to hide something that Plague Knight can use, typically a relic that can be traded in for something more useful to him, like a larger bomb or an explosive vat. Plague Knight really likes explosives and I can’t say I blame him.
Plague of Shadows has a lot of similarities to Shovel of Hope thanks to its reuse of the overworld and maps, but it’s also different enough due to Plague Knight’s unique mobility and equipment layout that it’s a worthwhile investment of time and a lot of fun to play. Also, I know it’s probably not a deliberate nod to Trio the Punch – Never Forget Me, but does anyone else see Santos’ victory pose here?
So that’s Plague of Shadows out of the way, let’s move on to my favorite spooky edgelord!
Specter of Torment’s story is a sad one, but it’s not without its comedic moments. Since it’s a prequel, the story this time around focuses on the events leading up to Shovel of Hope. Namely, the formation of the Order of No Quarter. Specter Knight is ordered to recruit knights into the order by The Enchantress in exchange for his life.
Since Specter Knight’s story takes place before either Shovel of Hope or Plague of Shadows, it makes sense that the world would feel radically different. Instead of traversing an overworld, Specter Knight utilizes a magic mirror in the Tower of Fate to visit each of the locales of the previous two stories. Additionally, each stage is remarkably different from both Shovel of Hope and Plague of Shadows. The already amazing music is redone for a completely different feel, each of the stages has new challenges and gimmicks, and the knights all have new mechanics in their fights. Also, Specter Knight can climb walls and use his momentum to slice through things above or below him to get closer to walls or platforms.
I love Specter of Torment so much. Wall climbing is awesome. Being what’s basically the grim reaper is awesome. Being able to grind rails with your scythe is awesome.
Specter Knight is edgy, but awesome. I don’t know what else I can say about him. At least without spoiling the plot anyway.
So in that spirit, let’s move on to our final story that came out just before the end of 2019!
That’s right, the Decadent Dandy himself finally has a story. And if you don’t believe me when I call him that, let’s consult an expert.
I’m not sure exactly when King of Cards takes place in relation to any of the other stories, it seems like it’s both before and during Specter of Torment, but I could be wrong. Hard to say.
Anyway, we’ve had a shovel to strike down our enemies, bombs to blow up anything in our way, and a scythe to slice through cannonballs. What sort of new mobility does King Knight bring to the table?
A shoulder bash. I’m not kidding, you can see it right there. King Knight literally shoulder checks all of his problems away. The moment I saw it in action, I couldn’t help but laugh. Lighter enemies like Beeto go flying and others get stunned while King Knight somehow gets launched upwards and starts to corkscrew, allowing him to bounce along obstacles like Shovel Knight would, or even dig into piles of treasure.
King of Cards is remarkably different, even when compared to Specter of Torment. And it’s that difference that really explains why it was in development for as long as it was. You see, King Knight’s adventure includes a card game by the name of Joustus. I’m sure that this won’t come as much of a surprise for some of you, but I am awful at card games. Or anything involving strategy, really. I’m a person of action, not thinking.
Anyway, the goal of Joustus is to acquire the majority (or all) of the gems on the board by pushing cards onto them while also preventing your opponent from pushing your cards into the inactive play area or off of the gems. Or both, depending on the board layout.
So while it’s not strictly required that you play Joustus, you’re encouraged to do so if you want to collect all of the merit medals for heirlooms and upgrades. And if you’re not great at strategy like me, you’re probably dreading that part. Luckily, the good folks at Yacht Club Games have a solution: cheat cards! King Knight can hold up to three cheat cards at a time, and can use them to either play all of the cards in his hand before his opponent, steal all of the currently occupied gem spaces on the board, or turn his opponent’s hand into weaker cards. I personally took a liking to stealing gems over the other choices, but I know that everyone has their own preferences, so I like that you can load up on three of one card or one of each. Or any combination, really. The choice is yours.
I can’t really complain about the strategy aspect of Joustus, it’s a reasonably well-balanced game and I never really felt like I was in an unwinnable situation. I kicked myself a lot because I didn’t see a better move until after it was gone, but each match can be won if you have the right deck set up.
However, I did run into a glitch that required me to close the game completely in order to do anything, and this is specifically addressed to the developers if any of them are reading this piece: While going through the dialogue leading up to the second Joustus puzzle in the Joustus Crag, I somehow activated King Knight’s Bubble Frog heirloom (possibly by hitting the A button a few frames prior to the dialogue window opening) and was unable to move after opting to start the puzzle. After a little bit I was able to open the dialogue window again and accept the prompt again, but the Joustus board wouldn’t load and I couldn’t move anymore. Somehow I managed to hardlock myself and I’d say that I’m surprised, but I’ve also been told that a game needs to be on-rails for me not to break it. So uhh…sorry about that guys and gals at Yacht Club. Closing the game out and reopening it did fix the issue for me if that’s any consolation. I wish I had documented it better for you, but I went into a sort of panic once it happened and didn’t think about it until after the fact.
Anyway! Let’s King of Cards has one more significant difference that sets it apart from the other stories, and that’s the world.
King Knight’s overworld is massive compared to Shovel Knight’s or Plague Knights. To the point that three to four of King Knight’s levels cover one of the latter’s. The trade-off here is that King Knight’s stages are significantly shorter, with only one or two checkpoints, depending on the area. Additionally, some inspiration seems to have come from Super Mario World, as some levels contain a secret exit, noted by the red line on the above shot of the map. When you find the pathway in each stage, you’ll find a red sign accompanied by a quick jingle. Make your way to the exit ring and you’ll unlock the alternative path. It’s a neat touch that I didn’t expect, but really enjoyed.
So that’s a little bit about each of the games that makes up Shovel Knight: Treasure Trove. They’re tough, but fair. I’ve had a blast revisiting the world multiple times, but at times I’ve had to take a break for a little bit just because I wasn’t quite in the mood for more 2D platforming. If you were to ask me whether or not to check it out though? I’d say absolutely! I laughed more than I expected, the characters are great, and the music stuck with me way more than I thought it would. Seriously, go take a listen if you haven’t. Just steer clear of the comments section on YouTube if you’d prefer not to get spoiled.
Now get digging. For Shovelry!