Review: Shovel Knight (PS4)

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. Now, with the game finally available on Sony’s wildly popular PS4, there is absolutely no excuse not to experience every minute of pure platforming bliss.

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 complex 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 a generous helping of 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. However, should you get stuck in any particular area 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 to 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 Yacht Club Games have taken great care in balancing Shovel Knight’s difficulty, deftly catering to novice and expert gamers alike.

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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 will send them 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, too, 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 those aforementioned relics as well. But 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. Shovel Knight’s true collectibles come in the form of sheet music strewn throughout the game, each representing one of the game’s stellar chiptune tracks, courtesy of the musical genius Jake Kaufman. It’s a clever idea that places the game’s amazing soundtrack in the spotlight, a collection of retro-inspired tunes that expertly captures the infectious and addictive sounds of its forefathers while remaining distinctly unique to itself. And if you present them to the village bard, he’ll happily play them for you whenever you want.

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The stages themselves each possess their own theme, full of bespoke enemies, hazards, and challenges. There is some truly creative level design on show, and paired with the wonderful soundtrack I found myself constantly smiling to myself at just how different and surprising each stage was. Shovel Knight avoids growing stale by offering staggering variety in its levels, and 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 own fault. Every boss encounter felt completely unlike the rest, and provided a challenging, and therefore rewarding, finish to each level. Each moment felt polished to perfection, a quality I can’t equate to many other games in the history of the medium.

Shovel Knight has its share of touching moment as well. 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 throughout the adventure.

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Shovel Knight loses a few features on its transition over to PS4, namely the StreetPass and GamePad integration boasted by the 3DS and Wii U versions, respectively, but Yacht Club Games hasn’t snubbed players on Sony’s most powerful console. In fact, Shovel Knight has even more noteworthy exclusive features on PS4. The first is trophy support, complete with a platinum trophy, which lines up alongside the game’s built-in feat system. It adds a tangible reward to an already immensely enjoyable title, but that’s only the beginning. Cross-Save has become a standard feature amongst PlayStation indie titles, and like so many before it, Shovel Knight benefits immensely from the ability to play a single save file across multiple platforms. I loved the flexibility of playing a few levels on the way home from work on Vita then switching seamlessly to PS4 when I got home, and it makes enjoying Yacht Club Games’ brilliant adventure easier than ever.

The most significant addition to Shovel Knight on PS4, however, is Kratos, the God of War. Sony Santa Monica and Yacht Club Games teamed up to bring the iconic character into the world of Shovel Knight, and the results are positively marvelous. After discovering the means of summoning Kratos onto the overworld map (no simple task, mind you), Shovel Knight is in for one of the fights of his life. It’s a truly epic encounter, and victory lends yet another bespoke upgrade to the experience in the form of a brand new set of armor complete with unique Kratos-inspired attacks. Those bonuses completely trump any and every bespoke element of Shovel Knight on 3DS or Wii U and make the game’s PS4 iteration the definitive version (for now).

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Closing Comments:

When we reviewed Shovel Knight at its initial release back in June 2014, we were amazed by its impeccable design, rock-solid mechanics and loving homages to classic games. All of those aspects still ring true on PS4, and Yacht Club Games has without a doubt successfully replicated one of 2014’s finest experiences on Sony’s flagship console. Its other versions’ exclusive features have been easily trumped by the addition of cross save, trophy support and the wandering boss Kratos, and those bonuses alone are sure to entice many a gamer, whether for the first or fiftieth time, to strike the earth with Shovel Knight on PS4.