With all the hype and fervor that perpetually surrounds the release of realistic, high-definition games, it can be easy to forget the roots of our beloved interactive medium. Shovel Knight, however, doesn’t make that mistake. It is at once a love letter to the classics that came before it and a gorgeously unique collection of clever ideas, all wonderfully packaged into an 8-bit style game that looks like it jumped straight out of the NES era.
As the titular Shovel Knight, it is your job — nay, your duty — to travel the land in search of the evil Enchantress, a devious villain who has joined forces with The Order of No Quarter and separated you from your dear friend and companion Shield Knight. It’s not exactly a gripping narrative, but luckily that’s not what Shovel Knight is all about. That honor is reserved for the game’s retro style, pixel-perfect and gorgeously presented wherever you look. Beautiful sprites and dazzling backgrounds immerse the player in Shovel Knight‘s nostalgic craftsmanship from start to finish, flawlessly invoking the old-school titles of yesteryear. But instead of simply rehashing the highlights of some of gaming’s greatest titles, Shovel Knight confidently parades its quirky personality at every turn. The supporting characters are largely to thank for this, perfectly complementing the absurdity of a shovel-wielding knight with awesomely corny dialogue, including shovel puns, and striking designs that, despite fleeting appearances, are surprisingly memorable.
In lieu with classic style, Shovel Knight is built around a single mechanic; in this case, shoveling. But instead of resigning his tool to digging holes, this hero also uses it to strike down enemies and nimbly traverse through stages, challenging the player to prove this garden tool to be a reliable partner in adventure. Should you get stuck in any particular area, however, you can utilize the powers of an assortment of relics, like the propeller dagger, flare wand and war horn, which can all be bought throughout the course of the game. Of course, while these items are useful and provide a multitude of strategies for the player, they are far from mandatory, and purists will be happy to know that the entirety of Shovel Knight can be completed with nothing but your trusty shovel. It’s clear the developers have taken great care in balancing Shovel Knight‘s difficulty, deftly catering to novice and expert gamers alike.
Perhaps the most ingenious display of this balancing act is the game’s checkpoint system, which lets players save their progress or alternatively destroy the point itself in exchange for the treasure locked inside. Cockier players will trust their skills and snag the gold, but any death afterwards sends you back to the last checkpoint left intact. Worse still, any time you fall in battle a hefty portion of your treasure remains at the sight of your death. If you make it back in one piece you can collect it in its entirety, but dying along the way means that gold is gone forever. It’s a clever risk/reward system that trades lives for the ransom of your hard-earned spoils, and trains players to look before they leap.
Treasure is an integral part of Shovel Knight and you’ll want to hang onto every gem and coin you come across. You can spend it on health, magic, shovel, and armor upgrades, and get your hands on those aforementioned relics as well. Beyond acting as a currency, treasure is also a sly temptation, often placed in challenging rooms and hard-to-reach places, sneering at you as you risk your life to feed your greed.
The game’s true collectibles come in the form of sheet music strewn throughout the game, each representing one of the game’s stellar chiptune tracks. It’s a clever idea that places Shovel Knight’s amazing soundtrack in the spotlight, a collection of retro-inspired tunes that excellently captures the infectious and addictive sounds of its forefathers but remains distinctly unique to itself. And if you present the sheet music to the village bard, he’ll happily play them for you whenever you want.
The stages themselves each possess their own theme, full of bespoke enemies, hazards and challenges. There is some truly creative level design on display that, paired with the wonderful soundtrack, renders every stage different and surprising. Shovel Knight avoids growing stale by offering staggering variety in its levels, relying on clever design to teach players as they progress rather than pausing the action for a tutorial. That, along with the tight, responsive controls, left no doubt in my mind that every death was unequivocally my fault. Every boss encounter felt completely unlike the rest, and provided a challenging, and therefore rewarding, finish to each level.
After defeating a member of The Order of No Quarter, always an eccentric and memorable villain, Shovel Knight sleeps by a campfire, claiming a well-earned rest. But he is plagued by a recurring nightmare depicting Shield Knight falling from the heavens, helpless to the unrelenting strength of gravity. Yacht Club Games does something clever here too, giving players control of Shovel Knight in his dream with a simple task: “Catch Her.” Between waves of enemies, Shovel Knight looks to the stars, and his outstretched hand says what words simply cannot, desperately reaching out to save his friend. These sequences keep players engaged while also fleshing out our hero’s character and rekindling the motivation to see the journey through, and were a personal highlight in Shovel Knight.
With an overworld full of wandering enemies and extra challenge levels on top of the main stages, Yacht Club Games’ debut work will likely take you around 8-9 hours to complete. And while it’s not the most difficult game under the sun, most players will find a pleasant amount of rewarding challenge throughout.
Shovel Knight continues 2014’s fantastic indie lineup, but its polish, creativity, beauty and charm might just make it the pick of the bunch. Yacht Club Games has delivered more than anyone ever could have hoped for, and created an experience that gamers young and old will thoroughly enjoy.
Version Reviewed: PC