Yeah, I know I’m late to the party on this one, as Shovel Knight’s heyday wherein it received copious amounts of praise was nearly three years ago. However, it was recently rebranded as Shovel Knight: Treasure Trove and given additional content just shortly ago, so now is as good a time as any to revisit the game and go through its three fully fledged campaigns… at least that was my intention, but I’ll get to that.
Shovel Knight: Treasure Trove Review
Platforms: PC(Reviewed), Wii U, 3DS, PS4, Xbox One, Switch
Developer/Publisher: Yacht Club Games
The first campaign, Shovel of Hope, features the titular Shovel Knight as they set off on a quest to rescue their beloved Shield Knight from the clutches of a rising force of evil, and must stop them and their army of opposing knights in order to restore order to the land and be reunited with their lover. It is a simple setup that manages to exceed its seemingly superficial exterior by placing a lot of personality in every character featured.
Whether that be the varied and colorful opposing knights that serve as the bosses of the game, the numerous NPCs who occupy the explorable villages, or the miscellaneous side characters who serve as optional bosses. There is a level of characterization and expressiveness present here that was absent in many of the older titles that Shovel Knight is clearly taking inspiration from with both its visuals and core gameplay.
It is easy to compare Shovel Knight to classic NES titles like Zelda II, Castlevania, Super Mario Bros. 3, Ducktales, and most obviously Mega Man. The game takes clear inspiration from all of these titles with regards to the game’s structure, core mechanics, and general feel, but never does it feel like it is derivative of those games. If anything, Shovel Knight feels like a polished refinement of that type of game. One that manages to capture some appreciated modern sensibilities while retaining a retro charm and contains enough unique abilities and stage-based mechanics in order to feel like a wholly original title.
As a whole the game is very polished and features top notch level design, while also unsurprisingly packing a decent challenge. It is a step back from many of its inspirations, and is largely beatable by people of lower skill levels due to a generous checkpoint system, a large number of health and magic upgrades, invaluable relics that can make parts of the game vastly easier, and two carriable potions. It is largely manageable thanks to this, but certain sections can still pack a potentially obnoxious challenge, the best example being a section involving enemies who push Shovel Knight backwards into bottomless pits while the player moves around a floating platform.
There is also no lives system in Shovel Knight, thankfully, and instead the game handles death similarly to Dark Souls of all things by having Shovel Knight drop some of their gold upon dying, and needing to retrieve it after respawning at the last checkpoint. The process seems simple, but unlike Dark Souls, the gold does not always reappear in an easy to access place. This resulted in me being unable to retrieve lost gold without dying, which was a bitter pill to swallow, but by the end of the game, I was still drowning in a pool of money that I could do nothing with due to the limited inventory carried by shops.
Aside from shops, new equipment can be found throughout select stages in the form of relics. These function as subweapons that expand Shovel Knight’s admittedly limited repertoire, and allow for a far more intricate way of progressing through stages, dispatching enemies, and most notably fighting bosses. They are truly immensely useful tools, yet the game strangely does not emphasize them as I would have assumed, as the only time they are extensively used is in brief stages build around a single relic.
If anything, the end of the game seems to task the player to rely mostly on Shovel Knight’s basic movesets, as emphasized in a Mega Man-esque boss rush against the eight primary bosses. With health refills after every battle yet very limited magic refills, the player is tasked to use relics sparingly and fall back on everything they learned through the challenges they overcame in order to demonstrate their skill once more and earn the ability to face the true final boss. It was incredibly rewarded and served as a prime example of well handled challenge which, as I mentioned previously, Shovel of Hope is a very good example of.
Beyond the rock solid gameplay, Shovel Knight also boasts retro-inspired sprite work that mimics the limitations and style featured in many classic games of the 8-bit era, while not being truly marred by technical limitations. Thereby allowing for some more elegant animation, a less restricted color scheme, and a higher level of detail in some cases. The only negative thing I have to say about the visuals is that there are a too many pure black backgrounds, which I always considered to be more of a result of technical limitations than anything aesthetically attractive.
As for the soundtrack, Jake Kaufman has routinely shown himself to be one of the best composers in the industry for his energetic and catchy scores, and Shovel Knight is among his best work with a score that feels appropriately retro, while not barred by technical limitations, allowing the tracks to reach a higher level of complexity and enjoyability.
After putting in my time with it, I can easily call Shovel Knight: Shovel of Hope a truly excellent action platformer that incorporates many of the best elements of the genre, only hindered by a few negligence details that annoy me because I am anal like that. However, it is not the only game part of this game, as it contains two additional campaigns, with a third one currently in development. These campaigns, Plague of Shadows and Spectre of Torment, follow parallel stories to the main game, centering around boss characters as they go on their own adventure through repurposed and altered levels, complete with entirely new skillsets and playstyles.
However, I only played the Plague of Shadows campaign, and in contrast to the joyous and rewarding experience that was Shovel of Hope, this just made me sad as I tried to make the more of the campaign before giving up after the fourth level because I simply could not take it any more. The reason behind this is centered solely on the character of Plague Knight, who defies many conventions of the main character in a traditional platformer.
Plague Knight’s main form of attacking is to use explosive vials that themselves can be customized to a rather insane degree, and allow for a variety of potentially confusing playstyles on there own. To further complicate things, by holding down the attack button, they can propel themselves throughout the air with a customizable jump that may be used in conjunction with their existing double jump. While the arsenal of subweapons is both impressive and surprisingly useful, primarily due to their regenerating magic meter. Further differences include a new health system that gives Plague Knight a small number of hits by default, but allows them to carry up to five potions that can be used to give the character an additional two hits via a health node that breaks upon death, along with a far greater amount of knockback to more effectively send the character down a bottomless abyss.
In the four hours I spent playing the game, I died more than I did in my nine hours in the Shovel of Hope campaign. This is because of how difficult I find Plague Knight to control, as they don’t abide by the traditions of playable characters in platformers like this. Instead, they are a floaty character with a complicated means of attacking and movement controls that I honestly found hard to execute reliably and comfortably.
I’ve brought up in some of my prior reviews and rundowns that I have autism, and one of the ways it affects me is that my hand eye coordination is not very good. It is good enough to get through games that require simple single button inputs for actions, but I struggle with more intricate stick motions, aiming in shooters, some precise movement, time based button presses, and so forth. In the case of Plague of Shadows, I had immense difficulty reliably entering the commands of hold X, A, A, release X in order to do a triple jump, which the game requires the player to do several times per level. Once the game introduced a quadruple jump by sticking a Y to the end of that combo, it became too much for me to handle.
The process of moving my hands in such a manner while also avoiding obstacles, noting the patterns of enemies, and trying to time my jumps in accordance to the game’s wishes provided to be a shockingly challenging process in its every iteration, and no matter how many times I did it, it did not feel good or even right. Combine this with the complicated methods of customizing Plague Knight’s bombs, and I could not stand to put myself through this any move, and ultimately gave up on the game, not even glancing at the Spectre of Torment campaign, as I feared it would be about as frustrating, if not more.
So in conclusion, Shovel Knight: Shovel of Hope is a truly excellent action platformer that incorporates many of the best elements of the genre. While Shovel Knight: Plague of Shadows is a frustrating action platformer that left me feeling utterly inadequate due to my inability to perform conceptually simple actions.
Oh, and the Body Swap mode was very appreciated, as is every time a game allows me to change the sex and gender of characters.