by Matt Porter
reviewed on PC
Shovel in need of a Shield
“Shouldn’t a knight have a sword?”
“Not if you’re Shovel Knight.”
“So what’s his back story? Traumatic childhood shovel horrors?”
These are the kinds of important conversations that you have every day when you talk about games for a job. Shovel Knight is an action platformer with a classic 8-bit style. That’s what roughly 85% of games are these days, but hear me out, this one is worth your time.
You play as Shovel Knight himself in a story that’s so simplistic it’s endearing: Your girlfriend, Shield Knight, completed the shield and swo... er... shovel combo. However, you become separated thanks to the evil Enchantress. In order to reach the Enchantress and be reunited with Shield Knight, Shovel Knight has to make his way through the world, defeating the eight knights of the Order of No Quarter along the way.
The game wears its influences on its sleeve proudly. Touches of Mega Man, Zelda, Mario and even Ducktales are plain to see, but that is no bad pedigree to have. What’s more is that it delivers on each and every front in a way that those classic titles would be proud of. It’s not a shameless reproduction of those games either. Shovel Knight is heavily influenced, yes, but it stands up on its own magnificently.
Nailing the Genre Basics
You are treated to a large world map, complete with distinct zones as well as a couple of hub areas. In these areas you can talk to villagers, buy items, upgrade your health, shovel, armour and magic and so on. It’s well worth talking to everyone too, as despite the basic, and at times corny references to how games used to be written, the game knows what it’s doing and it’s funny too.
It would all be for nothing if the platforming and action wasn’t good, as that is ultimately what games like this stand up on. In terms of movement, Shovel Knight nails it in the same way that Rogue Legacy did last year. Although you’re not given pinpoint accuracy a la Super Meat Boy, you can rarely blame the game if you screw up. I say rarely, but we’ll get to that later. Early levels ease you in with simple jumps and enemies that die in one hit. You learn how the basics work, and from there it slowly starts throwing harder challenges at you.
Defeated enemies spit out gems, as do the various blocks of dirt and stone you can destroy by whacking or performing a plunging attack just like old Scrooge McDuck used to do. You’ll find chests with gold and secret rooms containing more treasure and song sheets which you can take back to the Bard in town. Ask him nicely and he’ll play some for you. The developers know they’ve got a great soundtrack, and they’re certainly not afraid to show it off.
Levels are checkpointed, but you can actually break the checkpoints to get yet more money. However, if you do this you won’t be able to spawn back there if you die. Death brings me to Shovel Knight’s next influence: Dark Souls. Yep, you read that right. When you die, part of your treasure gets left behind at that location, and you’ll have to go back to collect it. Die again before you get there and it’ll be gone forever. It’s a cool little mechanic, apart from when your money bags are floating in some impossible to reach location, meaning you’ll never get it back.
End Bosses and Mismanaging the Difficulty Curve
At the end of each world is one of the eight bosses. All of them are Knights, named after their theme. We’ve got Polar Knight, who throws giant snowballs at you, Tinker Knight, who throws spanners and eventually jumps into a giant mech with a drill, Specter Knight, who is a spoooooky ghoooost, and so on. Each boss fight is different, and well made for the most part. You’ll have to learn their ability rotations and adapt accordingly. Simply mashing on the attack button won’t help you here.
Everything is close to being perfect for the first three quarters of the game. But from there it seems the Difficulty Curve Handbook has been thrown out the window. Instead of making enemies harder, you have to deal with all manner of things that will instantly kill you. An abundance of spikes, auto-scrolling screens and deadly falls litter the final stages, making it a chore to get through each level while just minutes before it was a delight. The final boss in particular is a pain, as she destroys the floor you’re standing on, and since you get knocked back and can’t perform any actions for a moment after being hurt, there’s sometimes nothing you can do but fall to your death.
Funny and Touching Experience
Gripes with the latter stages aside, Shovel Knight is still a fantastic game. Unlike so many other games of its type, it knows exactly how to bridge the gap between the great games it’s trying to emulate and the present day. It’s funny, touching, a pleasure to look at and listen to, and most importantly it plays really well. Who said that summer was a slow period for great games? Be sure to dig out your wallets for this one.
Great aesthetic, tight platforming and good action
Difficulty curve very steep towards the end