Steel thy shovel!

For fans of Keji Inafune’s classic MegaMan series, Shovel Knight will be nothing new. The game, as with others – namely Mighty No 9 – coming soon, serves as a love letter to the man-in-blue and to other games of the time. Mario, Castlevania, The Legend of Zelda and many more can be seen in Shovel Knight. Luckily it borrows the best parts, creating an excellent blend of some of what are considered to be the greatest games ever.

Shovel Knight came to PS4, PS3 and PS Vita earlier this year after being highly successful on Nintendo consoles. Personally, I found the game suited its Vita home more than the PS4, but that depends on personal preference and is not something categorical. I think Vita’s controls made much more sense (or at least felt like they did).

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Shovel Knight’s success can be attributed to the lovely pixel-art style, beautiful soundtrack and – most importantly – the fun gameplay. But the genius of the game is really in its simplicity. The predominant weapon is simply the shovel. Sure, there are various enhancements and power-ups in order to advance the damage which it can do, and there are “relics” which arguably do the job better, but cost mana in order to use them; however the shovel really stands above these and is certainly the most fun to use.

From the second stage in the game (or third, depending the order in which you play them) Shovel Knight is granted the aforementioned “relics” in order to help win fights, or open up aspects of the game which were previously unavailable. These range from simply sending out a fireball to a mighty war horn that helps destroy all enemies around the player.

As I said, these relics are useful, but nothing quite beats the fun of jumping up and delivering a killer blow using your shovel. Indeed, the downward strike is easily the most useful move in the game; it can be used to injure or kill enemies, but also break barriers to travel to different areas.  The levels in which all this takes place are fun and diverse, each one offering something different to the last, and this depending on which boss waits at the end.

In fact my main gripe with the game is not to do with how it plays at all. It’s really to do with the length, or lack thereof. By the end I was still looking for more. While Shovel Knight clearly borrows little bits from Mario, it doesn’t borrow the 6+ worlds. Only one (and a new game plus, which offers a greater challenge for master players).

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As somebody who isn’t really very good at this kind of game (more on that later) I clocked in just over 10 hours all said and done. There is a trophy for finishing the game in 1 hour 30, so a faster run than this is entirely possible, and I wonder if that would actually be at all fulfilling to an expert (or, let’s be honest, even decent) player.

As I mentioned before, I’m not very good at platformers. In this case it really wasn’t a problem. I found the game accessible, yet it still offered a decent challenge, and one I felt good about completing. That said, I do think for some people Shovel Knight could be too easy. The 1 hour 30 trophy is perhaps testament to developer Yacht Club Games realising that. While, in an interview with Hardcore Gamer, the developers said that they wanted to “step away from Shovel Knight for a bit and make something unique and new,” I could imagine if they revisited the game in a sequel (which I’m sure will happen one day) it might be a little harder.

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Aside from being great fun to play, Shovel Knight is also beautiful. The pixel art consistently amazes me and some of the backdrops in the levels also drop-jaws. This, paired with an incredible soundtrack by Jake Kaufman, give a wonderful atmosphere to each stage of the game. It’s feels dangerous, yet familiar and entirely beatable, and very reminiscent of the days of the NES.

And, just like those days of the NES, story also features in Shovel Knight. While not a super important element, and something that could easily be ignored, the story of Shovel Knight loosing Shield Knight, is one that travels throughout the whole game as the main bosses – The Order Of No Quarter – try to prevent our shovel-wielding-hero from finding his friend. And, in fact, these bosses each seem to have a story of their own. If you talk to villagers, and listen to what each villain says before each boss fight, then small bits of information can be gathered. Eventually this builds up into something larger, more tactile and plausible.

Shovel Knight is, at face value, just a fun game with brilliant mechanics, soundtrack art-work and much more. But by reading just a little deeper, a fascinating story can be uncovered. But I’ll let you find that for yourself.

Shovel Knight was reviewed on PS4 and PS Vita. 

Developer: Yacht Club Games
Publisher: Yacht Club Games

Disclaimer – In order to complete this review, the reviewer purchased a copy of the game.