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Shovel Knight: Treasure Trove

Platform(s): Nintendo 3DS, Nintendo Switch, PC, PlayStation 3, PlayStation 4, PlayStation Vita, Wii, WiiU, Xbox One
Genre: Platformer
Publisher: Yacht Club Games
Developer: Yacht Club Games
Release Date: Oct. 13, 2015 (US), Oct. 16, 2015 (EU)


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PS4 Review - 'Shovel Knight'

by Chris "Atom" DeAngelus on June 5, 2015 @ 2:00 a.m. PDT

Shovel Knight is a sweeping classic platform adventure game with awesome game play, memorable characters and an 8-bit retro aesthetic.

In Shovel Knight, the titular character and his partner, Shield Knight, battle evil across the land. Their battle comes to a tragic end with Shield Knight's defeat. Shovel Knight retired to shovel until a wicked group called the Order of No Quarter and its leader, the Enchantress, ravaged the land. Left without a choice, Shovel Knight grabbed his trademark weapon and leapt into action to shovel for justice once again. It's simple, it's goofy, and it's absurdly charming. The characters may not have tons of depth, but they make up for it with personality to spare. Each character has only a handful of lines, but they manage to be delightful and goofy.

Shovel Knight is a 2-D platformer inspired by genre classics like Mega Man and Duck Tales. What makes it stand out from the countless clones that dot the landscape is that it has a strong sense of identity. There are a lot of older games in Shovel Knight's composition, but it doesn't come across as a clone of any specific title. It's a surprisingly natural melding of Castlevania, Mega Man, Battletoads and other old-school games. You traverse stages full of pits and baddies trying to reach the boss at the end. You only have a handful of available moves, so you can hop, slash with your shovel, or pogo-bounce with the shovel to attack enemies below or gain some extra height.

The simple gameplay doesn't mean that it lacks depth, since the stage design is some of the absolute best in the genre. The levels are huge and varied, and each one throws a different set of challenges at you, such as the constantly flickering lights of Specter Knight's creepy graveyard, the blowing fans and deadly pits of Propeller Knight's airship, and the ice blocks and rainbow bridges of Polar Knight's abandoned ship. Each level is a mix of interesting challenges that are almost perfectly designed. The title is very fair about teaching you the rules in a safe environment before throwing you into deadly danger. You'll almost never feel like a death was cheap, and if you die, it's very easy to give it another shot, content in the knowledge of how to beat the challenge, rather than feeling it's impossible.

The game really shines in the optional challenges. Scattered throughout the levels are various hidden paths and secret areas that are filled with rare rewards. Each represents a particularly difficult platforming challenge. You might have to thread the needle through deadly spikes, hop across quickly moving platforms, or pogo-jump over a bottomless pit. Rewards can include tons of cash, unlockable music sheets, and rare relics that you can use to amplify Shovel Knight's power.

Relics are an interesting take on the classic Mega Man-style boss weapon system. Instead of getting them after a stage, you can find them in hidden spots during the level. A relic is equipped in a slot and can be used at the touch of a button. Each relic has effects. Some are basic, like the Flare Wand allowing you to shoot a fireball. Others are tremendously powerful, like Mobile Gear, which lets you ride over spikes, or War Hole, which destroys all enemies in an area. Each use of a relic takes some of your mana, which can only be replenished by finding mana potions that are dropped by enemies. Should you fail to find a relic during a stage, it can be purchased after defeating the boss, though at a greater cost than if you had discovered it. Later in the game, you also unlock the ability to buy passive armor upgrades, so you can change Shovel Knight's base abilities and color.

Relics are a really interesting feature. Like Mega Man boss weapons, they exist to make the game easier, but in most cases, relics are designed to aid in the platforming challenges, not the boss fights. Each relic makes it easier to get past tough areas, except perhaps the lackluster Alchemy Coin, which struggles to find its niche. Relics are completely optional, and perhaps that's why they feel so significant. Getting a relic does a lot to make you feel more powerful, while also providing a useful handicap for players who have difficulty with the nastier platforming segments. The armor upgrades are more straightforward, such as decreasing the knockback damage, increasing your mana, or unlocking a special bouncing charge slash, all of which can work for your play style.

Shovel Knight also does away with the arcade-inspired lives system found in other games in favor of something quite clever. Death in Shovel Knight causes you to drop a chunk of your cash upon death. Should you return to the same screen without dying, you can regain your lost cash bags and not be punished for death. Die on the way (or in the process of regaining the cash), and it's gone for good. It's a system that's borrowed wholesale from Demon's Souls, but it works. It's a solid mix between punishing the player for death and encouragement to try again. Sometimes the money bags can be in inaccessible locations, which can be a bit frustrating but mercifully rare.

The death mechanic is helped by a liberal checkpoint system. Each stage is long but has numerous checkpoints in it. Death rarely takes you back more than a couple of screens. A neat feature about this is that the bulk of the checkpoints are breakable. You can smash one open to get some extra money, a boon for speedrunners who need the extra cash for rare items but can't take the time to grind. However, smashing a checkpoint means it's gone for good, and any death takes you to a previous checkpoint instead. It's a cool way to encourage players to balance risk and reward when going for fast clear times.

Shovel Knight is an example of how to do difficulty right. The game is as easy, or as difficult, as you'd like to make it. One player may choose to use the relics liberally to get past challenges. Some may embrace the purity of a shovel-only run. Others may decide to destroy checkpoints to earn extra cash at a greater risk. Some may chug health potions and tank their way through every challenge. What makes Shovel Knight work is that each of those options feels equally valid.

With that said, the game is a bit on the easy side if you're not willing to hold back. The amount of powerful tools is rather significant. It's an unavoidable flaw since the developers are letting players decide how they want to take on a challenge, but it certainly doesn't detract from the game. Those who demand a die-hard challenge that necessitates using every tool in their inventory may be disappointed, but everyone else can find a comfortable play style.

Shovel Knight is a rather lengthy game. In addition to the Knights of No Quarter and the Enchantress, there are a number of optional fights, including several special bosses who roam the overworld and a number of smaller challenge levels that task you with mastering a specific relic. Exclusive to the PlayStation version is the addition of a Kratos boss fight that's divided into three parts. Finishing it unlocks a special suit of armor for Shovel Knight that lets him perform Kratos' three-hit combo. A good player can finish the title in a few hours, and speedrunners can be even quicker. It's designed to be replayed and mastered, which may leave it short for the price if you don't like replaying games. It's also worth noting that several free DLC campaigns are coming in the future, and the first one, Plague of Shadows, should be out later this year.

There are countless indie titles with 8-bit-inspired graphics, but Shovel Knight has some of the most charming and clever sprite work I've seen. It perfectly captures the feel of 8-bit games without appearing cheap or low-effort. The art design is absurdly good. Every level and practically every character feels distinctive, and it's worth playing through the game to see some of the delightful characters. This is bolstered by an incredibly strong soundtrack, which is a joint effort between Jake Kauffman and Mega Man alumnus Manami Matsumae, and it is darn near a masterpiece. The fast-paced songs are delightful and fit the game mood perfectly.

Shovel Knight is a modern classic that takes the 2-D platforming genre and modernizes it. There are minor complaints here and there, but they're easily overlooked when you're having so much fun playing the game. The PlayStation 4 version runs perfectly, and since it's a cross-buy with the Vita version, it helps to make it feel well worth the $14.99 price tag. If you're a fan of Mega Man-style platformers or are looking for something that's both challenging and fair, Shovel Knight is a worthy purchase.

Score: 9.5/10

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