For fans of classic 2D side-scrollers, the last year or so has been quite a treat. Games such as Rogue Legacy and Super Time Force have been met with high praise, but none have been more anticipated for current gen release like Shovel Knight.
Developed by indie game group Yacht Club Games, Shovel Knight originally released last June on the Nintendo 3DS, PC and Wii U and instantly became a hit. Now more than 9 months later, Shovel Knight brings its retro charm and hair pulling difficulty to the PlayStation 3, PlayStation 4, PlayStation Vita and Xbox One.
The plot is simple enough, you are Shovel Knight, a cerulean plated knight who as the title suggests, wields a shovel as his weapon to smite evil. Shovel Knight and his friend Shield Knight (who yes, has a giant shield) travel the world together, exploring caves and protecting the innocent, until one day you come across a giant, ominous tower dubbed the “Tower of Fate”. Events transpire, and a strange amulet takes control of shield knight, leaving poor Shovel Knight locked out of the tower and unable to save his friend.
Feeling defeated, Shovel Knight quits adventuring and secludes himself from the world, until one day he hears word that a dark and powerful enchantress is the one responsible for locking his dear friend in the cursed tower, and he decides to take up arms once again and save Shield Knight, but doing so will be no easy task.
Shovel Knight plays as an 8-bit side scroller that is heavily inspired by classic games like MegaMan, and if you are familiar with the little blue bomber, playing Shovel Knight will feel like picking up an old book and diving right in. If you are like me, however, its a very unforgiving game that requires expert control, muscle memory and above all, extreme patience, to gain any ground. One false move can mean instant death, and the boss battles at the end of every stage are some of the most infuriating I’ve played in any game.
Those boss battles come in the form of the “Order Of The No Quarter”, who are under employment of the evil Enchantress to keep the tower of fate sealed. These 8 knights lie at the end of their own respected stages, and all feature unique locations and game mechanics you have to master in order to reach them.These include things such as ice covered paths where you will slip and slide with no control, a giant wind filled airship that pumps random gusts at you from all directions, and lava pits that cause instant death if you come into contact and many more. It becomes a battle to just try and make it to the next checkpoint and inch your way to the end.
Thankfully, there is SOME help in all of the madness. Talking to people in the two villages you unlock as you progress through the game allows you to spend some of your hard earned riches on health and magic upgrades, new armor and special attacks, and powerful relics that become available as you defeat the 8 knights that block your progress. These relics are often signatures of the boss’s that you defeat, and become crucial to use in the later stages to even progress through the stage.
The game has a very simplified control scheme which is great because the game is hard enough as it is, like seriously tough. Tough enough for me on many occasions when I would just have to just put the controller down and walk away for a few hours, or my beautiful Xbox One controller would have suffered a terrible fate. There’s only really 3 buttons you need to be concerned with during the game, the left stick to move Shovel Knight around, X to attack, A to jump, and pressing Up and X together to use a special relic. The simplicity of the control scheme is perfect, as you can master things quickly, its the level design and how you navigate around them that really ends up being the back breaker
As said before, unless you are prepared for this style of game, and know exactly what you are getting into, Shovel Knight is not for the feint of heart. You will find yourself dying hundreds of times until you have the exact layout of each passing screen down to a science and can move through with ease, and in doing so you feel a real sense of accomplishment that’s rarely found in big AAA games, so kudos to the development team, because while Shovel Knight is hard, it’s not entirely impossible with a little patience and a lot of luck.
Visually, Shovel Knight beams in all it’s Nintendo era glory. 8 bit sprites fill the screen, tower over you in beautiful environments, and blast through the speakers with blips and bloops that make up a fun and charming score that has many memorable themes for suit each of the different stages you visit. Shovel Knight is also written gloriously well, and filled with written banter from townsfolk and quirky characters you encounter on your journey. I found myself chasing down villagers as they scurried across the screen just to simply see what they had to say, which is always a good sign for any game.
The game is beautifully deceptive in terms of value, as the game itself can be beaten in a few hours, getting to that point where you can beat it and unlock the trophy/achievement by finishing in an hour and 30 minutes is going to take some brutal dedication and skill, and the rest of the feats aren’t much better. The amount of times I died makes achievements like “finish any stage without dying” and beating a boss without even being hit, makes me feel pathetically inept in this style of game, but also wanting to practice and hone my skills for the possible sequel.
At the end of the day, you’ll be playing a true gem, a game that is certainly not for everyone, but also welcoming enough to encourage newcomers to enter into the fray and give the game a chance. It is beautifully stylized, romantically nostalgic and devilishly fun, which are all the core ingredients in making a top notch experience.
This review is based on a Xbox One copy of Shovel Knight provided to 3GEM by the publisher. Shovel Knight is also available on Nintendo 3DS, Mac, PC, PlayStation 3, PlayStation 4, PlayStation Vita and Wii U.