‘Shovel Knight’ Review

Platforms PC/Mac/Linux/Wii U/3DS/Xbox One/PS3/PS4/Vita

Developer/Publisher Yacht Club Games

Genre Action Platformer Platform Played PlayStation 4

Over the last few years many games have been inspired by legendary retro titles, either in visual style or gameplay system. Though a great deal of these games haven’t come close to creating a blend of in-depth gameplay, gorgeous visual presentation and memorable music.

With Shovel Knight developer Yacht Club Games has been able to create a beautiful love letter to old school platformers. Shovel Knight isn’t just an excellent platformer by today’s standards; it’s an amazing experience when compared to those icons that paved the way for its existence.

Shovel Knight’s main campaign has players taking control of the aforementioned knight, as he looks to return to the tower where his mistress had previously vanished. Following her disappearance Shovel Knight has been in despair, during which time the evil Enchantress and her Order of No Quarter have taken over the lands. It’s a simple tale of a noble knight wanting to find his beloved, while trying to stop evil. Impressively this story is presented beautifully, allowing me to truly invest in these silent characters. There were times where I felt genuinely moved by this tale, as Shovel Knight continues to press on till the very end.

The campaign is made more entertaining due to the array of characters and boss encounters. Each boss is a member of the Order of No Quarter, and each feels drastically different in ability and personality. Like the classic retro boss battle each boss has their own variety techniques that must be learnt in order to take them down. These encounters provided the same intense feeling I get from delivering a fatal blow to a towering enemy in Dark Souls, providing challenging and memorable encounters that require skill and technique to conquer. Mini-boss encounters also occur when progressing through the Super Mario style map, and even these succeed in creating the same excellent experience. These encounters strongly showcase that the boss battle is not dead, merely that it needs to be done right to be successful.

Shovel Knight also succeeds at providing pinpoint platforming controls, throughout some challenging level designs. Shove Knight is challenging, but never feels overwhelmingly difficult. Instead most deaths are from trial and error, or as I learnt many a time – your own mistakes. Each level in Shovel Knight has a selection of lenient checkpoints, which rapidly increase in difficulty as the level continues. I felt these checkpoints were perfectly placed, allowing me to master portions of the level before moving on. But even though these checkpoints exist, that doesn’t mean players have to use them. Players can smash checkpoints (which I learnt the hard way) in order to get more money, by sacrificing the checkpoint itself. This decision is certainly not for the faint of heart, but the fact the player can decide how masochistic they want to be is appreciated.

Players originally only have a shovel in order to fend off enemies, but that quickly changes with new items provided constantly. Although I could always go back to Shovel Knight’s DuckTales inspired pogo-shovel attacks, I was constantly trying out new items and finding new ways to use them in battle and traversal. Take for instance the Phase Locket which can allow Shovel Knight to avoid damage for a short span of time. Utilise this correctly and spikes will not instantly impale you to death, and instead Shovel Knight can carry on his merry way. Each item has its own set of pros and cons and it’s interesting to experiment with these abilities.

Aside from the array of items, Shovel Knight himself can also be upgraded, with health, magic, armour and weapon improvements available. Players must put on their best display in levels to earn the coin available to purchase these upgrades, as each death will leave Shovel Knight’s wallet a little lighter. Like Dark Souls players can risk picking up their dropped loot, but if they die again that coin will be lost for good. Shovel Knight also has a selection of hidden items that can be traded for more coin, alongside a plethora of secret chests and areas throughout levels. These items offer a major payoff when obtained, but securing them can be tough. Fortunately due to Shovel Knight’s excellent controls I found myself always pushing to find every secret; not just to test my own skills, but simply because securing these hidden items felt like a substantial victory.

Shovel Knight also contains an entirely new campaign called the Plague of Shadows, in which players control one of Shovel Knight’s enemies – the Plague Knight. Plague of Shadows takes place on all the same levels (with a few added areas) as the original campaign, which is a slight drawback as I would have loved exploring some new locations. But each level feels greatly different due to the array of unique movement and gameplay abilities Plague Knight possess.

Instead of precisely timed jumps and a shovel, Plague Knight is able to utilise charged jumps and throw bombs. Impressively these alterations make a drastic difference to each level due to the vast array of option. For instance Plague Knight is able to upgrade his charged jump to offer a slow floating down ability, allowing for an easier landing on difficult platforms; or perhaps you’d prefer to drop ice shards as you fly through the air to damage enemies below. The same level of variety, if not more, is offered with Plague Knight’s bomb set-up. Players can alter how bombs are thrown, and how and when they explode. Figuring out the best bomb technique to tackle different enemies, as well as during boss encounters is a great thrill.

Plague of Shadows also offers a completely new story, one that has Plague Knight hunting down the essence from each member of the Order of No Quarter to create an unlimited power potion. The new narrative does an amazing job at making each member of the Order feel like genuine characters, with their personality and goals further explored. Not only that, but the plot is an entertaining tale, that mixes emotional scenes, uncertain twists and memorable moments. When looking at both campaigns side by side, I may have even enjoyed Plague of Shadow’s narrative more than the original campaign; which is an impressive feat. Plague Knight’s campaign also adds a wealth of bonus collectables, new items to hunt and upgrades to purchase. Alongside the fact both campaigns offer New Game Plus options, the campaigns alone offer dozens of hours of replayability.

Have I mentioned that Shovel Knight looks and sounds amazing? The beautiful old-school art style looks gorgeous on PlayStation 4, with the variety of unique locations looking absolutely stunning. Shovel Knight also has a quirky personality, from the flamboyant bosses to unique characters, such as an apple-like whale that loves to dance. The quirky nature of Shovel Knight is made even better due to the excellent art style. This praise also has to be given to the selection of 8-bit tracks throughout both campaigns. These tracks are exactly how old-school retro music should be – addictive. Most of the songs are still stuck in my head since completing Shovel Knight, and will most likely be making their way to my music library very soon.

One of Shovel Knight’s drawbacks is the Challenge Mode, which is soundly lacklustre. There are challenges for both Shovel Knight and Plague Knight, but a majority of these simply have both characters re-battling bosses with less health and with a pre-set variety of items. Although the Challenge Mode was added as a free update for Shovel Knight, I still have the express my disappointment that it didn’t provide greater challenge or even online leaderboards to compare your victories against others online.

Shovel Knight is one of the best games I have played in a long time. With precise gameplay that contains layers and layers of added depth due to the array of items at your disposal. Shovel Knight also has a beautiful pixelated art style, and an addictive 8-bit soundtrack. Boss encounters are also a highlight with these challenging battles requiring skill and technique to overcome. Although the addition of new levels during the Plague of Shadows campaign and improvements to Challenge Mode would have been appreciated; though as free additional content it’s really hard to genuinely criticise these omissions.

Yacht Club Games has been able to create an outstanding ode to the legacy of the industry, one that is able to easily stand beside those legends with its head (and shovel) held high.

The Good

  • Challenging boss encounters.
  • Precise controls.
  • Plague of Shadows content.
  • Retro art style, soundtrack.

The Bad

  • Lackluster challenge mode.
  • Lack of new locations in Plague of Shadows.

The Score: 9.0