Review by MTLH

Reviewed: 04/08/16

Shovels and bombs make for a fine pair in this excellent platformer.

The history behind Shovel Knight can be classified as a success story if there ever was one. Formed by several former WayForward employees, Yacht Club Games went to kickstarter to fund their 8-bit inspired project and racked in more money than they could have expected. The game was released in 2014 for the Wii U, 3DS and Windows and went on to be ported to nearly every device under the sun. The game was successful enough to eventually warrant a physical release and it's protagonist even got it's own amiibo, of all things.

In 2015 the studio came up with a free expansion centred on one of Shovel Knight's bosses. Plague of Shadows was initially released as an update for the main game but is already included on the disc of the boxed version. Seeing that I'm basing this review on that physical version, I consider it to be part of the complete package. As such, Plague of Shadows will be given it's own section in the following text.

Shovel Knight's visuals go for an 8-bit look and succeed in replicating that style perfectly. At first glance, you're forgiven for thinking that the game was running on a NES with the pixely nature of the graphics and their overall design both harkening back to that era. Look closer though and you realise that more is going on here than the humble NES could ever have hoped to handle.

Although Shovel Knight employs an 8-bit aesthetic, it doesn't use it as a crutch to hide away any deficiencies behind a wall of nostalgia. The game truly looks lovely, with well animated and detailed characters running and jumping through equally well detailed and varied surroundings while the nuanced way colour is used also deserves a mention. Some of the areas are furthermore quite beautiful, such as the artic level with it's own aurora borealis, and I liked the way the game's final destination occasionally makes an ever growing appearance in the backdrop the closer to it you get. Such details really add a lot.

As with the visuals, the music too harkens back to the 8-bit era while not being beholden to it's limitations. These tunes would have felt right at home in any action title from back then and are a perfect fit for Shovel Knight. The soundtrack is in general upbeat, boisterous and the sheer energy it brings to the game can not be underestimated. These tunes are furthermore memorable and hummable to boot. The sound effects are perfectly implemented, both adhering strictly to the 8-bit style and providing the right amount of heft.

Once upon a time Shovel Knight and Shield Knight roamed the land together, exploring and defeating evil as they went along. It was a happy time until one day, while braving the Tower of Fate, the duo got separated from each other and Shield Knight disappeared. Stricken with grief, Shovel Knight quit the adventuring business altogether. During his absence the Enchantress rose to power, founded the evil Order of No Quarter and unlocked the Tower of Fate. Thinking that this is his chance to find out what has happened to Shield Knight, Shovel Knight takes up his shovel again and sets off for the tower.

The story itself isn't particularly original but is told with some flair, which goes a long way, and possesses both humour and some unsuspected genuine depth. While not all twists and turns come as a surprise, some do and pack quite a punch. Furthermore, the members of the Order of No Quarter and some of the other enemies Shovel Knight encounters display a good deal of character while the various townsfolk our hero meets tend to be rather lively as well. All in all, the narrative possesses an adventurous streak that grants the proceedings a large amount of heart and soul.

In a nutshell, Shovel Knight is a platformer where our hero travels the land, visits several levels, defeats their bosses and finally confronts the game's big bad, all the while jumping between ever trickier platforms while smacking enemies around the head with his trusty shovel and a plethora of special abilities.

The game's world is presented as a map on which Shovel Knight can travel between locations which do not only include the main levels themselves but also some additional ones as well as towns. The former offers the opportunity to collect vast swathes of treasure if you posses the proper power-up while the latter are areas where our hero can then spend it on new gear and other improvements. He can furthermore listen to the soundtrack there and speak with other characters while the towns also hold their own secrets to find and uncover.

The level design is rarely anything less than inventive and varied. Although the genre tropes are present and correct, there is a slippery ice world for instance while spikes, descending ceilings and suchlike also make an appearance, the levels also come up with their fair share of surprises. We have a large moving insect with an elastic carapace for Shovel Knight to bounce on, for example, platforms that can be controlled by hitting them and areas that are shrouded in darkness. The game tends to introduce such fare to use it once or twice before moving on to the next one, ensuring that there is always something new just around the corner. The levels are also filled with secret rooms to uncover which will usually yield a lot of treasure and other collectibles. All this leads to Shovel Knight feeling fresh and exciting from beginning to end.

To a certain extent, at least. The issue is that, especially later on in the game, the levels tend to drag on a bit. It's all good and well offering one surprise or clever piece of design after another but even that can become tiring when it goes on for just a few screens too many and you begin to wonder when the next checkpoint or that boss will finally show up.

The boss fights deserve a special mention. The aforementioned Order of No Quarter acts as the game's bosses while Shovel Knight will also encounter a few other characters who have a bone to pick with him. Such fights are of the decidedly old school variety, offering enemies that can make short work of our knight unless you learn their patterns, after which they will be simpler to beat. Battling them is very satisfying and forms one of the highlights of the game. When Shovel Knight delivers that final blow, the music stops, the action slows down and the boss keels over, this will invariably lead to that welcome sense of a job well done.

During his quest, Shovel Knight will encounter a merchant who will sell him certain relics which act as the game's power-ups. These allow Shovel Knight to, for instance, shoot a fire ball, create fast moving platforms, dash through the air for a short while and go fishing. Not all of them are equally practical but most are fun to use and a few are necessary to access the earlier mentioned treasure filled bonus areas. Using a relic depletes a meter and some can really guzzle it up. Still, replenishments are rather abundant so that doesn't have to become a big problem. Besides these items, Shovel Knight can also upgrade his armour and shovel and lengthen his health and magic meters. Experimenting which upgrades suit your playstyle best is quite a rewarding and enjoyable thing to do.

Shovel Knight controls very well. He is responsive and moves accurately, has a good deal of heft and acts predictably. Simply hitting an enemy feels good as does smashing into them from above and using this unfortunate foe to bounce to a higher platform. What could have been handled better though, is selecting Shovel Knights special abilities. This must be done by entering a menu which takes you out of the game and, when you have to do so a few times in a row, it can become somewhat annoying. Having said that, when playing Shovel Knight on the big screen this isn't an issue as the Gamepad's touchscreen can then be used to select those abilities on the fly without having to pause the game.

The game features about twenty levels, including both the main and additional ones, and as mentioned, some of these can be quite large. Furthermore, Shovel Knight can be rather challenging. While it's true that the earlier levels are relatively simple to traverse when you keep your wits about you, the later ones can be punishing at times. Aiding the player are the power-ups, which can be real lifesavers, and a generous system of checkpoints. Death also means little as the game doesn't use lives but instead detracts some of Shovel Knight's precious treasure as a penalty instead. It can be retrieved though which is a nice touch.

Concerning that last statement, the monetary penalty is rather indicative of the interplay between risk and reward that features quite heavily in the game. Shovel Knight tends to die more often during the game's more challenging parts which makes picking up those floating moneybags all the more dangerous. Will you risk losing more money to retrieve what you have already lost? On the same token, consider the glass bulbs that act as checkpoints. You can smash them for treasure but that will also negate their use. Is it worth it? And then there are the numerous instances where our hero can leave the beaten path in order to enter areas filled with more gems and other trinkets. Those are usually either difficult to reach or traverse which, again, asks the player to take a chance. This aspect of the game has been handled very well.

After completing the main adventure an additional campaign becomes available called Plague of Shadows. It stars Plague Knight, one of the main game's bosses, and sees him commencing on a quest of his own that runs parallel to that of Shovel Knight. Plague Knight must defeat his fellow members of the Order of No Quarter so he can steal their essence which he needs for a potion that will grant him his every desire.

Although the main game does have it's fair share of humour, Plague of Shadows ramps it up considerably. This is mostly due to Plague Knight himself. Compared to the much more aloof Shovel Knight, he not only displays more of a personality, it's also a rather awkward one. The way the world in general reacts to him can occasionally be priceless. The narrative's tone in general is also quite bittersweet, lending this expansion it's own distinct character.

Generally, Plague Knight's adventure sees him traversing the same levels as Shovel Knight, albeit slightly tweaked to accommodate his different moveset, and facing the same foes. The most noticeable difference in that regard is that Plague Knight can not enter the same settlements as his nemesis and therefore must visit a separate underground town. Still, what he can do there also doesn't differ all that much.

What sets Plague of Shadows apart from the main game is it's protagonist. Plague Knight really is a different character to control than Shovel Knight, a less precise one who relies strongly on his bombs for most things. For starters, even with a double jump at his disposal, he can't leap as high and must use explosives to compensate. Attacking his enemies is also a rather different affair. While Shovel Knight must get close to whack things with his shovel, Plague Knight is more about long range attacks. Yet, even throwing a bomb can be done in various ways based on the power-ups he collects. In his own way, Plague Knight is quite a versatile character but you do need to get a good grasp on him to fully appreciate the changes and nuances.

The issue with selecting a power-up is exacerbated in Plague of Shadows due to the need to constantly swap around Plague Knight's abilities. When playing the game on the big screen, doing so couldn't be easier due to the menu being located on the touchscreen. Playing Plague of Shadows on the Gamepad itself though can become quite a hassle as the game then needs to be paused frequently.

In essence, due to the similarities, playing through Plague of Darkness will last approximately as long as playing through the main game. Still, Plague Knight's quirks makes him a more challenging character to control which does have an impact on the game's overall difficulty.

What Shovel Knight offers isn't the kind of experience that could be had during the 8-bit era but rather the idea of what the experience was like back then. The presentation perfectly captures that 8-bit style but polishes the whole to an extent that simply wasn't feasible on a NES while the old-fashioned looking gameplay is rife with more modern design elements such as the way checkpoints are handled for instance, and the lack of lives.

Shovel Knight is a joy to control, his special abilities are fun to use, the bosses are satisfying to beat and the level design manages to keep the game feeling fresh until the very end. Furthermore, the way risk and reward are balanced deserves a special mention as does the game's plot which, while not being very original, is still surprisingly engaging, adventurous and even quite comical.

Despite everything that the game does so very, very right, there are still a few issues. Although Shovel Knight continuously bombards the player with novel and clever little gameplay mechanisms, that sense of joyous discovery can take a hit when a level starts to drag on, however slightly. Especially the later levels tend to feature just two or three screens too many before reaching a boss or checkpoint which has an impact on the game's flow. Selecting abilities too can have this effect. While this isn't an issue when playing on the television, having to frequently pause the game to enter the menu during Off-TV Play can hamper the pace.

Still, in light of Shovel Knight's overall achievements, such annoyances don't do too much damage. This is retro done right resulting in a game that everyone, from the old fogies who owned a NES back in the day to the newer generations, can enjoy. If a physical release can be seen as a badge of honour for an indie title, than it's an honour that Shovel Knight has fully and truly earned.

That this edition comes with the Plague of Shadows expansion is the cherry on the cake. Effectively doubling the overall content, playing through the campaign again from a different perspective and with such a different protagonist is a lot of fun. Plague Knight as a character may not be nearly as accessible as Shovel Knight to control, he is an interesting one to get to grips with. That his story furthermore manages to find it's own tone in spite of the similarities is in itself no mean feat. Shovel Knight on it's own is already worth picking up, with Plague of Shadows in tow that recommendation only becomes more pressing.

OVERALL: a 9,4.

Rating:   4.5 - Outstanding

Product Release: Shovel Knight (EU, 10/30/15)

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