Friday, 25 July 2014

Whiskey Knight Reviews: Shovel Knight

Platform: PC
Release Date: 26 June 2014
Developer: Yacht Club Games
Publisher: Yacht Club Games
Where to get it: Steam
Price: Around £10.99

Shovel Knight. What a guy. He's a knight with a shovel. He shovels things and does knight stuff. Shovel Knight you magnificent bastard.

This is a game that does exactly what it says on the tin; Shovel Knight. You need the title and a screenshot to work out everything you need to know. It's an old-school new-school faux-retro platformer in which you wander around a fantastical world on a quest to save your girlfriend, Shield Knight.

Story is as good a place as any to start. With an introduction sequence presented in a simple but beautifully illustrated cutscene that sets up everything you'll need to know for the next dozen hours; you are Shovel Knight, the shovelliest of all knights who has a companion called Shield Knight and together you were awesome but then bad things happened, Shield Knight is gone and Shovel Knight isn't having a good time of it but he's had enough of shovelling mundane things and is out to get his beloved Shield Knight back.
The story is beautiful in its simplicity, providing just enough detail for you to get invested while simultaneously being so endearing and classic that, despite the silly content matter, it's hard not to want to be Shovel Knight.
Throughout the game you meet other knights that are working for the evil Enchantress and the story is expanded upon by their attempts to stop you from defeating the aforementioned femininely inclined magician.
Despite the story being so classic it's practically a cliche it's hard to talk about in its entirety without worrying about spoilers but it's safe to say the ending is very satisfying with a couple of twists and turns and a genuine moment of "aww, that's so sad" popping its head in briefly.

Gameplay is lifted largely from classic games and given a bit of polish to bring it up to modern standards. There's a pogo-hop lifted straight out of Duck Tales and a shovel swing that's so close to Ninja Gaiden but the shining stars of your arsenal are the various relics littered throughout the stages and shops that harken back to classics such as Castlevania (with an anchor that acts like the axe) and a handful of others that seem to have dropped from Belmont's pockets as well as other games. Each is a pleasure to use though, and their unique abilities come in useful throughout the game but never eclipse the shovel in usefulness.
The platforming is crisp and sharp, with level effects such as darkness that throws everything into silhouette showing off a stroke of pure genius when fake platforms are introduced and the real ones are marked by the falling rain or a goop is introduced that can turn fire/lava into bouncy jelly.
Perhaps more so than any other platformer secrets are everywhere. Almost every screen has at least one secret area leading to unlockable music sheets, treasure or a chance to buy one of the game's many relics. Sparkling pits can be fished for well... fish and sometimes the odd Trouple (more on those later).
Boss fights also present a near unique experience with a handful of attacks each but no set order to their behaviour. Each has a unique arena or gimmick, ranging from ice covered spikes to throwing exploding potions or even riding a huge mech. The lack of a pattern means that every boss fight is exciting and new but familiar at the same time, rewarding skill and fast thinking rather than rote memorization or twitchy reflexes.
The difficulty ramps up smoothly, with each different stage providing a handful of new mechanics (often unique to the stage in question) that keep you challenged and entertained with as little frustration as possible save for the second to last stage which is an exercise in planning and execution that goes on just a little bit too long between checkpoints to make the frequent failure comfortable.

Sound design is similarly lovely, with clinks and clanks and pafs and pops punctuating each shovel swing depending on what you hit. There's a clear audible effect and flash to an enemy you've struck that means there's never any confusion as to whether you've connected or not. Similarly, enemies which block an attack produce a dull clink that leaves no doubt in your mind that your shovel bounced right off.
The musical portion of the soundtrack is a treat, you might not want to listen to the majority of the 40+ tracks outside of the game but in context they're in that rare zone of perfection that so few games outside of the Metal Gear Solid series manage. Every track in the game is hidden somewhere as a sheet of music that you can retrieve and return to a bard in town who will pay you a modest sum for each one and add the track to his repertoire for you to listen to any time you visit town.
If there's any criticism that I can level at the sound design it's that it's only really perfect in context and sticking it on your ipod or whatever doesn't necessarily make it lose any of its charm but does lessen the enjoyment some when it's not accompanied by the visuals. In a way it's a little too good but in such a specific way.

Shovel Knight oozes personality; each level introduction starts with a kind of shovel pun like "Dig In" or "It's Shovelling Time" that fall just on the right side of 'so bad it's good'. Enemies are your typical platforming tropes; skeletons, frogs, knights and ghosts but the actual character designs are so awesomely charismatic that you don't really notice until you stop to think about it.
Even the levels themselves are chock full of personality, from the bubbling pots in the Explodatorium or the Sub-Attack/Nautilus inspired Iron Whale level just seem to have a life of their own that compliments the world and stage boss's design and personality while remaining functional and balanced.
Towns too are populated by a variety of characters from the basic humans to anthropomorphic horses, deers and the wonderfully bizarre Troupple King - a half trout half apple fish thing that has its own spot on the map and does a sweet little dance and gives you free ichors (potions basically). Infact the Trouple is a perfect indicator of the personality of the whole experience; it's instantly lovable and bizarre but charming and cute, the kind of visual aesthetic that helps make a game an instant classic.

Overall Shovel Knight is one of the finest gaming experiences in the history of the hobby. It stands out in every aspect in its own way and never negatively. It's simple enough to pick up and play but deep and challenging enough to require a fair few hours investment and skill to see it through to the end. This is one game everyone should play at least once, even if you don't get through the New Game + mode or defeat all the optional missions and get all the feats (achievements) it's still something that can appeal to everyone in some way.

Score: Stay thine fork 10 out of 10 times.

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