Shovel Knight (Wii U / 3DS) Review
Originally published on Nov 14, 2014 for the eShop, the game is now available at retail.
It’s been a long time coming, hasn’t it? Releasing in the US in June, it took over four months for developers Yacht Club Games to go through all the necessary stages to bring Shovel Knight to Australian Wii U and 3DS consoles. Luckily that excruciating wait is behind us now, and after playing through the game, I found Shovel Knight to be one of the most enjoyable game experiences of this year.
Much like the NES titles from which it takes inspiration, Shovel Knight opens with no long winded or overt narrative, instead a short and simple slideshow that quickly gets players up to speed with just enough backstory to set up the character’s motivation and those of the villains. Through playing, you will learn about the world, villains and Shovel Knight himself, but the story presentation never drags on or gets in the way of enjoying the experience.
The way that Shovel Knight plays however, is seriously impressive. Yacht Club games have managed to take gameplay inspiration from NES classics like Mega Man and Castlevania as well as modern games like Dark Souls, mash them together while adding some ingenious new puzzle and level design elements and end with a game that miraculously manages to feel retro and modern at the same time. It takes the great elements from it’s NES inspiration, but throws away the elements that feel outdated. Rather than introducing endless new special abilities and complex controls as the game progresses, the levels are instead designed to help you discover new ways to make use of the limited move set you will have throughout the game. New core gameplay concepts are mostly introduced and taught through smart level designs, and this creates a sense of achievement for even minor triumphs. It’s a breath of fresh air, especially for players that have become weary of overwrought and overbearing tutorials.
Players who desire a bit more exploration in their games will be well served here as well. While levels can be played and finished by simply pushing forward through the most obvious advancing path, observant players will find plenty of secrets and bonuses just waiting to be discovered. These secrets are well worth seeking out as well, ranging from health and currency to new magic abilities that can lend new possibilities to both level traversal and combat.
One of Shovel Knight’s best gameplay design elements is doing away with the entire concept of lives. At no point will you be forced to replay an entire level because you took too many risks experimenting with level exploration or combat. Instead, death will make you drop a portion of your total gem currency. It will stay where you dropped it, and so you will be able to recover everything you lost if you can make it back to where you died and pick it up. If you die on your way however, and it will all disappear. This system gives a true gravity to player death, while still encouraging experimentation, since the losses from any death can be recovered with skilful platforming. It’s a system that worked fantastically in Dark Souls, and Shovel Knight proves that it fits in equally well in a retro-styled action platformer.
Shovel Knight’s difficulty might be a point of contention between players. Shovel Knight is difficult, but in this reviewer’s opinion, not absurdly so. Levels demand practise and perfection of manoeuvring and combat, but the lack of any form of Game Over state means you can make as many attempts as you need to in order to progress. The only time the game might feel punishing is if you manage to die before recovering your lost gems, but it won’t be long before you build them back up again. Bosses had the perfect level of difficulty for me personally, each time I defeated a boss Knight it was by the skin of my teeth, and victory came through learning and reacting to boss movement and attack patterns. Checkpoints offer a form of self-regulated challenge as well. When you die, you reappear at the most recent checkpoint and move forward to recover your gems from there. For people after more of a challenge, checkpoint markers can be broken, making them unusable for the rest of the level. Gems will burst out of broken checkpoint markers as well, giving some reward to this self-inflicted extra difficulty.
Shovel Knight’s presentation, as with it’s gameplay design, retains the essence of the 8-bit classics while building on them with the possibilities of modern game platforms. Shovel Knight looks incredible, whether you’re playing it on a TV through the Wii U or the small screen of the 3DS. Everything about the game is boldly coloured, every level and character has a personality of it’s own that is instantly recognisable and hugely appealing, especially to those of us who look back fondly on the NES era. Levels feature multilayered backgrounds, which look particularly beautiful in the 3DS’s 3D mode, and all feel like an expression of each Knight’s personality. The music too is instantly memorable. Shovel Knight’s masterful soundtrack perfectly complements the mood of each level and stands tall among the best soundtracks of the NES era. Both the visuals and sound design make it clear that Yacht Club Games is home to some superb artists and their work shines.
Shovel Knight is an achievement. It’s level design and visuals show a true love for the nostalgic days of gaming in the eighties, while it’s gameplay design fuses gameplay elements from the past and present to give players something truly exceptional. On either the Wii U or 3DS, Shovel Knight is a blast to play. It’s absolutely one of the best games on the eShop, and a game you must try if you’re up to the challenge.