Shovel Knight has been in the works for over a year and a half by the fantastic Yacht Club Games. An ode to classics like Megaman and Castlevania, Shovel Knight resurrects and perfects a style of game that feels almost dead. I’ve been sure, since backing it on Kickstarter, that this game would make me fall in love instantly. The closer to release we got, the more information we got, and the more hyped I became (if that’s even possible).
We’re still waiting for the EU release on Nintendo consoles, but the PC version is now available for purchase on Steam internationally. I have a Wii U and PC, but this review is only based on the PC version since I’m yet to be able to access and play the Wii U one. In all fairness though, the developers are handling the issue of EU localisation very well and deserve much credit for dealing with the mass confusion from EU fans.
The game has Steam cards and achievements already, and promises multiple content updates for all the extra rewards unlocked through the Kickstarter, including more playable characters, game modes and an option to gender-swap the characters.
The game is also a testament to how effective Kickstarter is, but that’s a topic for another time. For now, let’s get right into this. Steel thy Shovel!
Shovel Knight’s story is a very small part of the game, but each level and area has hints of it throughout. For example, during the first boss battle with Black Knight, both characters refer to their history, possibly that they were once friends. Little things like this all build up and add to a great finale that genuinely brought tears to some gamer’s eyes – admittedly it even got me a little teary-eyed. I’m going to avoid spoiling any of the plot besides what’s told to you in the first 2 minutes of the game though, so have no fear!
Shield Knight, my love.
Where are thee? I won’t stop searching. After that cruel moment in the Tower of Fate, I haven’t stopped dreaming of you. I’ve lead a life of solitude since that day. The townspeople say the Order of No Quarter have seized the land, led by the fearful Enchantress atop the Tower of Fate. Could this be connected to you? I can’t stand by idly and let this happen. I have to stop them. The Tower is unsealed, and I will dig my way back there to you.
In my sleep you fall from the sky. I will catch you, no matter what evil force stands in my way.
I must steel my shovel once more.
P.S. That wasn’t part of the original game, I just got a lil weird with telling the plot.
Gameplay-wise, the controls are exceptionally tight and responsive. I played using a wired Xbox 360 controller, which I sincerely recommend, and I had no problems whatsoever. There’s one stage in particular where you have to traverse exceptionally small platforms during a segment of it, which I feel is a true testament to how fine-tuned the controls are. Shovel Knight doesn’t slide, his jump is quick and accurate, his Duck Tales-like ability to bounce off the top of an enemy works perfectly and is even required for puzzles and extra treasures.
There are two towns in the world that contain upgrade shops, allowing you to buy relics, items usable in stages that can give you an advantage, ichors that refill health, grant invincibility, or turn Shovel Knight into a treasure magnet, and even upgrades to your health, armour, magic and shovel. Towns also offer a variety of NPCs and mini-puzzles that allow you to acquire music pages, which can be sold to the first town’s bard for 500 gold a piece and the ability to listen to whichever music pages you find. These pages are all from the game’s soundtrack, and can be found through your travels as bonus treasure.
On the (musical) note of the game’s soundtrack, I can safely say that Jake “Virt” Kaufman did a fantastic job. Each level features a beautifully crafted chiptune track that is often reminiscent of classic NES tunes, with bosses featuring sped-up and remixed versions of the level they’re in. The soundtrack is actually available on Virt’s bandcamp page, so lap that up and fulfil your hidden desire for awesome music. My personal favourite is the Starlit Wilds, a track that plays as Shovel Knight rests by a campfire after a level.
The level design. Oh boy, the level design. I’ve genuinely never seen a game with such perfectly crafted levels. Everything is designed to teach the player what to do without a boring tutorial. The first area literally teaches you the essential aspects of playing the game in under 2 minutes. You’re taught that you can kill enemies by attacking from above, how Shovel Knight’s jump works, basic tactics for killing enemies and how to find secrets before you even come across the tougher enemies or areas that actually require these skills. This gives you time to perfect, understand, and even learn more about how to play right from the start. I honestly think this may be one of the best designed games I’ve played in a long time, comparable to platformers on the NES, that often had to teach the player how to play without text to save space on the game’s cartridge.
Shovel Knight himself is a simple hero. He’s merely a man in blue armour with a shovel, designed to look and feel underpowered because at heart, he is. He wins because the player learns how to, not through brute force. Every level introduces new elements and items that can change the way you play through all the levels and it’s up to you to understand and utilise these aspects to your advantage.
Shovel Knight is also tough as balls, and I love it. It’s not tough as in unfair though. It’s tough as in if you mess up, it’s your fault – and it’s easy to mess up. You’ll be shouting “FUCK!” or “GODDAMNIT!” as you play, but you won’t be putting the controller down. It’s this difficulty level that hooks the player and keeps them shovelling away until the final boss. After the final boss? Well then there’s the ultra-hard New Game+ which makes all enemies do double damage, and gives you less checkpoints to use. The only advantage is that you’ll have access to all your equipment thus far.
There’s not much more to say about this game. Its simple genius is what makes it such a flawless classic, and I feel my score is completely justified by how great the game feels to play. I couldn’t recommend a game more. The developers definitely put a lot of time and effort into creating it and it totally paid off. Well done Yacht Club Games. Well done.