Shovel Knight is one of those really interesting games that for all the awesome things it does right, it makes a number of other questionable design choices.
Coming from this, it was a rather difficult game for me to judge. Even though the precious few opening moments of gameplay had me won over instantly, I was only left confused and unsatisfied in the end.
That is not to say that the people at Yacht Club Games did a bad job. Shovel Knight is most certainly a good game, the problem is that this game is only good because it was modeled exactly off of other gaming masterpieces that came before it. Believe me when I tell you that Shovel Knight bleeds the colors of the games that inspired it.
Imagine, if you will, the unholy fusion of Castlevania (this game has got wall chickens!) with Mega Man. Sounding like a pretty amazing game already eh? But wait, there’s more!
Add a little pinch of Zelda and even a small dash of Dark Souls… yep, I said Dark Souls, and when you tie these elements all together with a loose and shoddily used gimmick, you have Shovel Knight.
It is clear that the developers have a real passion for these games as well as the entire 8-bit era that they heralded. Every borrowed element in Shovel Knight was carefully placed with love but at the same time, they tend to lack purpose or innovation. I suppose I should set the scene before I get ahead of myself.
Shovel Knight takes place in a medieval themed world filled with monsters, riches, and the brave explorers that would attempt to conquer them. Of these explorers, the bravest and toughest of them all are known as knights.
If you haven’t figured it out by now, you will be helming the role of Shovel Knight, a once great hero who has embarked on a quest to recover his beloved lost partner, Shield Knight from the tower of fate.
Said tower, of course, is guarded by eight knights who call themselves The Order of No Quarter, who are led by an evil woman known simply as the Enchantress. Sadly, the story turns out to be quite negligent. The writing isn’t really that great though I do give them kudos for trying.
There are a few events in between missions that add a little flavor to the story, and every NPC – of which there are many – in the two main towns have at least one line of dialogue for a flavorful kick, including one frog-man who speaks only in puns.
These elements, however, really don’t amount to much. It’s a shame because I really love the character designs, especially those of the characters you meet in the side events.
Unfortunately, they just turn out to be throw away encounters, as meaningless as a run-in with a random trainer in Pokemon.
As Shovel Knight, you are equipped with your trusty “shovel-blade,” a mighty vanquisher of soft squares of dirt and small mounds of rubble alike.
Beyond digging up treasure and breaking blocks, the Shovel Blade’s main use is attacking. You could tap the attack button to swing it, but that would be absolutely foolish in most cases.
In fact, I found that beyond the very first level of the game, I almost never, ever used the basic swing attack ever again. It is barely effective and has absolutely no range.
Think of Simon Belmont’s un-upgraded whip in the first Castlevania; now imagine having to go through the entire game with a whip half that size, that’s how useful your basic attack is in Shovel Knight.
Instead, you are going to want to find a way, in every combat encounter, to use your down-strike, repeatedly until the targeted enemy is dead. You will quickly get the hang of this as every boss encounter essentially boils down to this exact tactic once you find an opening.
Once you finally find yourself on the overworld map, you will have your choice between two branching paths. Pick which robot mast-… knight of the available two you wish to go after, and as you defeat them the over world map will continue to open up.
Each of the 8 knight-masters are very eccentric in their style and their levels generally have a common theme. This is the meat of Shovel Knight.
There is platforming galore once you enter one of the robot-knightster’s domains with secret treasure abound and wall chickens a-plenty. These sections feel so much like Mega Man and Castlevania that it hurts, literally.
It pains me, for as much as Shovel Knight feels like these two classic series in its moment to moment gameplay, the changes it makes, in my opinion, kind of break the formula that has worked for oh-so-many years.
I already mentioned the issues with attacking, so we’ll move right past that to jumping. I have no doubt that Shovel Knight has certainly been polished a good many times, as it went through more than one delay.
As one would expect, they have a lot of very intricate platforming puzzles that require precise control of your character… something that you do not have in Shovel Knight.
How could they have missed this in their quality assurance pass? Shovel Knight’s movements are just altogether unsuitable for a complex platformer. His jump is way too flighty, his run is fast but does not cover many pixels across the screen, his model generally takes up an odd amount of space despite being so small, the attack plus up input for casting magic is unresponsive, and I am pretty sure I mentioned his pile-o’crap basic attack – it is impossible to hit aerial enemies…good luck with that boss.
It isn’t all as bad as I make it sound, but the movement definitely feels odd. I personally used an Xbox 360 controller to play (as I reviewed it on PC), so I suppose that could be the case.
Anyway, the controls work well enough – they just aren’t very tight, which can lead to some frustrating failures. Although, failures in this particular platformer are quite interesting, this is where Shovel Knight borrows from Dark Souls, and I believe it is one of the best innovations that this game has.
You see, in Shovel Knight your gold is your lifeline. Everything that you earn in this game is tied to your gold, even dungeon items are bought with it. Gold can increase your health and magic points and buy some fancy augments for attacks and armor, though most of them don’t really do much for you.
You are always on the look-out for treasure in this game. When you die however, you will drop up to three bags of loot, each containing a random amount of your total gold on the spot where you died.
Similar to running back to collect your blood stain in Dark Souls, Shovel Knight will have you running back through the same platforming traps that killed you over and over hoping that you can learn from your past mistakes and reclaim your hard earned gold.
This goes in tandem with the check-point mechanic that allows you to choose whether you want to keep your checkpoints to return to where you died, or smash them for money.
I actually ran into a few cases where the platform before a checkpoint forced me to smash away my safety-net because of the way I was falling. Of course, I find these mechanics would work better if the game did not have quite so many balancing issues.
Once again, similar to Castlevania or MegaMan, you will face many enemies who stick to the same patterns which ultimately makes the challenge of defeating them lie with you learning from your past mistakes. The problem is that this becomes less and less true as the game progresses.
Enemies are given extreme variations later on in the game, I had a few instances where a few enemies knew to spawn exactly where I was going to be which becomes a problem when Shovel Knight jumps backwards ten feet after he has experienced the slightest of pokes.
Naturally, you want to hang on to all of your gold. Other than the fact that it’s gold and gold is awesome just to have, if you have enough, there is a merchant in each dungeon that offers you a new magic relic, that is if you can find him. These relics are the dungeon items and they are one of my biggest gripes with this game.
You’ll find that the relics are almost entirely useless. Most of them you will probably never use save for one or two of them that I found to be literally necessary for finishing the game.
While some of these relics are needed to enter secret areas, those areas are few and far between and don’t really provide too much in the way of incentive.
One would also assume that some relics could be used as strong attacks against bosses or particular enemies, but they would be completely wrong. There is absolutely no meta to combat in Shovel Knight and almost no use for the majority of your relics.
Well, I sure have done a fair deal of complaining about this game. Although, for all of the crap I give it, it sure does get quite a bit right. I wouldn’t feel so disappointed about missed opportunities in this game if it didn’t make me feel so nostalgic for the amazing series that it was modeled after.
I will make quick mention that I absolutely adored the character designs and more than anything else, the music in this game is absolutely astounding though I would expect no less from Virt Kaufman and Mega Man composer Manami Matsumae.
I realize the love and care that Yacht Club Games put into this ultimate homage and I realize that it is never fair to compare games to one another the way I have done in this review.
I only made such strong comparisons because Shovel Knight is very blatantly borrowing from Mega Man and Castlevania. The formulas for those games work so perfectly well for a reason, and while I am not saying that it is wrong to try and innovate on them, Shovel Knight could have, perhaps, found a better way to do so.
Shovel Knight was reviewed using a code provided by Yacht Club Games. You can find additional information about Niche Gamer’s reviews/ethics policy here.