Shovel Knight ReviewKurt Horsting
Shovel Knight is the closest thing I can think of as a genre game. Where the stylistic choices and deliberate restrictions are used to bring out the core engagement of the game. Unlike a lot of indie games that take the simplistic gameplay to be a medium in which to explore their world, Shovel Knight is a celebration of the NES games of yore. It really feels like a game I wish was around back in the day. Although technically different, the blocky sprites, the old chirps of the ancient sound board, and the willing to embrace the absurd evokes all the great nostalgia for the NES while being its own beast.
One thing that veterans of old will take notice is how many mechanics from other NES platforms have been practically stolen and sewn together like a beautiful Frankenstein monster of perfect platforming controls. The elegant movement system of MegaMan classic, the spike move from DuckTales, the weapons of Castlevania, and the level design of Mario all combine to give you a nostalgia overdose. It made the smart move to not include everything from those days.
First points are replaced with money which is used to pay for health, mana, armor, and weapon upgrades. Money is also used to buy the â€œrelicsâ€ which are spells cast like Castlevania and selected like Zelda. The balance of the upgrades for the armors is particularly unique in that they have different attributes instead of just more HP or damage resistance. For instance one of the armors gives you 50% more mana and relic damage and causes mana restore items to be more common, at the cost of taking 50% more damage. The armors feel like they have different strategic choices behind them and give unique ways to approach the game's challenges.
Another thing tactically omitted was the use of lives or continues which have been entirely obsolete concept since consumers owning their own games. So the death penalty borrows from Dark Souls where your death leaves a sum of money behind in the form of floating bags of cash and you can get it back if you make it to where you died last. It's just that I'm not too much of a fan of the implementation. Since if you died to falling into a pit-o-death or some other platforming mistake will leave the money dangling in an area almost guaranteed to kill you, making it a Sisyphean task of endlessly trying to get the money you dropped and dying immediately upon success.
Speaking of dying immediately, that was the main cause of death for my run of the game. Whether it be by instant kill spike ala MegaMan, bottomless pits, or crushing platforms, it brought me back into the childish temper tantrums of those days as well. It's not all unfair and the game is very good at teaching you new elements of the stage in nonthreatening ways only to tie them into a big challenge later. It's just that getting damage boosted into a death spike by a medusa head wannabe is just frustrating rather than challenging.
By contrast, the regular combat is relatively unchallenging. The spike attack trivialized a lot of the enemies, some of the relics are straight up broken for combat scenarios, having something damaged removes their hitbox so you can combo certain bosses to death just by damage boosting into them and mashing attack, and another boss can be permastunned just by doing jump attacks. Also, aside from the purple suit, you absorb damage like a tank being taken down by BBS. It's just surprising that the only thing I'm worried about is being damage boosted into death rather than anything actually able to kill me. Although the enemy designs are very interesting and the bosses all have great personality and flare to them, they are surprisingly easy to beat.
The story is pretty basic, but oddly compelling in its implementation. You are Shovel Kight who is a knight who fights with a shovel (shocking, I know.) You were a part of a duo of adventurers with the love of your life Shield Knight. One day an evil thing attacks and Shovel Knight gets separated and is never heard from again. Demoralized from his loss, Shovel Knight retires and lives in isolation until an evil enchantress and her evil knights start besieging the land.
I really think that the relationship between Shovel Knight and Shield Knight might be one of the best relationships in videogame history. It might be silly on the surface, but many things in the game really make you experience the desire to reunite through gameplay. There are dream sequences where you fight off hordes of enemies to catch her as she is falling, the dialog makes you understand how desperate Shovel Knight wants to be reunited and (with as few spoilers as possible) when you reunited with her, You can feel how much they work with each other to accomplish new feats that would be impossible without each other. She isn't some damsel to save, she is someone that completes you as a character.
A minor shoutout to the soundtrack as it is one of the best soundtracks I have heard in a long time. Serious work and passion was put into this and the tracks feel like they personify the stages and characters to a T. I found myself downloading this and grooving to it even when I wasn't playing. Amazing work from composer Jake Kaufman and guest composer Manami Matsumae. The soundtrack alone is worth the price.
It's a little flawed, but its charm and its understanding of what makes games then and now so engaging makes it a modern classic. Its challenge is a little unbalanced, but it never gets in the way of the fun and charm of the game. It understands enough about what people want from old games without depending on its nostalgia and has so much passion and fun just bleeding out every pixel. It is one of the best games I have played in a long time and I can't recommend it enough.
Disclosure: We are provided copies of games from the game companies for some games that we review.