Yacht Club Games’ indie darling Shovel Knight just released on Sony platforms as part of the Spring Fever promotion on PSN. Influenced by games such as Zelda II and Ducktales, Shovel Knight has a lot to live up to. Does it strike gold, or does the game leave something to be desired?
Shovel Knight begins with relatively little backstory. In only about five or so static screens, Yacht Club Games sets up the story for the game: Shovel Knight and Shield Knight were once legendary adventurers that roamed the land. More importantly, they had been the best of friends. One day, however, Shield Knight is captured by The Enchantress and the Order of No Quarter, forcing Shovel Knight to pick up his handy shovel and go rescue his dear friend.
From here on out, the player must travel from level to level over a world map akin to Super Mario Bros. 3 in order to progress towards the ultimate destination: the Tower of Fate. Along the way, the player will dig up treasure, find and purchase hidden items, and defeat each end-of-level boss. And while the process has been well carved out by game series such as Mario, Megaman, and Castlevania, Shovel Knight feels fresh in its approach.
While the story is certainly light on dialogue, it is surprisingly emotional. At the end of each level, Shovel Knight sleeps at a campfire and dreams of Shield Knight, adding a sense of urgency and high stakes to the overall gameplay.
This somber mood at the end of each level helped achieved through the game’s fantastic soundtrack, composed by Jake Kaufman, whose haunting and expressive melodies will have the player looking up various tracks long after completing the game (you can name your price for a digital copy of the soundtrack on Kaufman’s Bandcamp).
However, this is not to say that the game is all sad and serious. For the majority of the time, Shovel Knight is a gleefully delightful romp through a retrospective call-back to the 8-bit era. Levels ooze style and plenty of variety, from the relatively plain intro level, to the haunted Lich Yard, and even to a flying ship. In fact, the simple process of hopping from enemy to enemy on the shovel, à la Duck Tales, stays enjoyable throughout the 10-12 hour campaign.
Another reason why Shovel Knight is so successful is its brilliant level design. While sections of levels can be downright difficult to the everyday player, death never feels cheap or unearned. Skill (or lack thereof) is the sole reason for death in this game, and the consequence of dying will be to lose a solid chunk of the money currently on-hand. Thankfully, the difficulty of the game is well-balanced by frequent checkpoints placed throughout each level. And for the most hardcore of gamers, players can destroy checkpoints to earn additional gold, at the cost of losing said checkpoint and risking losing more progress upon dying. It’s an extremely smart system, and more games should incorporate an element like this in the future.
Given how great the overall gameplay and story are, its a shame that the actual upgrades the player unlocks over the course of the game are a bit underwhelming. While the items that players can buy, such as the fire rod (reminiscent of the item from the 2D Zelda titles), are unique and add variety to the overall gameplay, the armor and shovel upgrades in particular leave something to be desired. The effects of buying new armor range from having less knockback to simply looking flashy–however, in reality, switching out armor does little to change the actual gameplay. Most players will likely stick with the one that decreases the amount of cash lost upon death, or avoid buying the armor pieces altogether.
Shovel upgrades, while useful in making the game less challenging for novice players, are sadly scarce in number: there are only three in the entire game.
Additionally, the two hub towns that the player will encounter during the game are fairly limited in scope. There are only a few vendors to buy things from, and will likely be seen as a bit of padding to an otherwise lean game. Having said that, there are a lot of NPCs that roam each town, each with unique and often humorous dialogue, which makes up for the actual lack of exploration to be done in the towns themselves.
The PS4, PS3, and Vita versions of Shovel Knight benefit, however, from the addition of a new piece of armor known as the Armor of Chaos. Awarded from beating Kratos from the God of War franchise in battle, the Armor of Chaos adds new combo abilities to Shovel Knight’s arsenal, while granting him a super meter and also changing health and magic recharges mid-level to the typical orbs found in the God of War games. While seemingly a small addition to the game at first glance, the Armor of Chaos does a lot to make the game feel fresh for players who may have played Shovel Knight before on Wii U or 3DS, and is without a doubt a cool addition to the game. Consider it icing on top of an already sweet cake.
Even sweeter, perhaps, is the fact that Shovel Knight on PSN comes with Cross-Buy and Cross-Save capabilities. This means that buying one version for $15 nets you the other two, free of charge, and that your saves will carry over from device to device (provided you update every now and again to the Playstation Cloud Service).
Having played through Shovel Knight on both the Wii U and Vita, the graphics and controls have ported over seamlessly to the portable machine. Customizable controls will ensure that every gamer’s need is satisfied, and the ability to play on the Vita’s gorgeous screen is certainly an upgrade from that of the 3DS. Of course, item selection is now a bit harder without second-screen capability, but players should feel right at home with Shovel Knight on Sony platforms, regardless. And ultimately, regardless of which platform you use to play the game, you are guaranteed gorgeous visuals, from detailed sprites with a surprising amount of emotion shown, to colorful backdrops and diverse animations for an 8-bit game.
Overall, any cons for Shovel Knight are simply nitpicks for what is ultimately a fantastic game. Shovel Knight manages to pay homage to the games of old, while simultaneously remaining fresh and accessible to gamers who may not be used to the grueling difficulty of games such as Mega Man or Dark Souls. All in all, if you own a PS4, PS3, or Vita, and don’t mind a few tough levels, you’d be silly not to pick up Shovel Knight for the $15 it’s being sold for.