Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Video Game Review: Shovel Knight

Nostalgia is a tricky thing to nail down in a video game.  On one hand, relying on it too much will keep you from using new ideas and making your game unique.  On the other hand, it should be the goal of every video game developer to capture the feeling you had as a child when you sat down and experienced a game for the first time, to try and beat a game because it felt like a real adventure and you truly wanted to see what was coming next.

In my opinion, this is where Shovel Knight (a Kickstarter-funded game by Yacht Club Games) truly succeeds.  It truly makes you feel like you are a little kid, where beating every level in a game was not just a hobby, but a rewarding accomplishment.

You play as Shovel Knight, an adventurer who forsakes traditional weaponry to fight with a shovel.  Years before the start of the game, Shovel Knight's adventuring companion Shield Knight was lost when they tried taking a cursed amulet from the Tower of Fate.  Now Shovel Knight must return to his adventuring ways (after years of grieving) to fight a new force of darkness:  the Evil Enchantress and her band of rogue knights known as the Order of No Quarter.  The rest of the story is revealed through exploring and the brief dialogue between Shovel Knight, the villagers and the knights of the Order of No Quarter, and for a game that takes such a minimalist approach to storytelling, the plot of Shovel Knight is absolutely fantastic.  You'd be surprised how much you can learn about your hero, his enemies and how they relate to each other when you forsake pre-rendered cutscenes, voice actors and other elements that have become a staple in modern video games.

The game feels very original in design, despite borrowing elements from classic NES games like Super Mario Bros. 3, Mega Man, Legend of Zelda 2 and Duck Tales.  The game has an overworld map, which you unlock more of as you beat more members of the Order of No Quarter.  There are villages where you can buy power-ups for Shovel Knight, bonus levels to collect more treasure (usually which require a special item) and even "road bosses" in the same vein as the Hammer Bros. from SMB3.

Shovel Knight has two main attacks with his weapon of choice.  He can swing his shovel like a sword (or a shovel, I suppose) and he can do a mid-jump downward thrust/pogo stick jump almost identical to Scrooge McDuck's cane in Duck Tales.  Obviously, you can also dig with your shovel to uncover other treasures (or hidden monsters if you aren't careful).  All of these moves are useful, and the levels are built to make the player rely on them (especially the pogo stick attack) to advance to the boss.  Along the way, Shovel Knight will also collect relics to use with his limited supply of magic.  These relics aren't necessary to complete the game, but you'll need them to reach hidden areas and some of them are more than helpful in defeating the knights of the Order (The Phase Locket and the Troupple Chalice will be your best friends in this game).  It creates a great reason to explore and re-explore the game's levels and it's really rewarding to experiment with items until you find one that gives you the upper hand against a tough boss.

My favorite element of the game is the character design.  The villagers (a mix between normal humans and animal people) all have a unique look to them and even the shopkeepers all have their own personalities to them.  Each level also has a unique set of enemies, and even the 'color swap' enemies have a unique attack or element to them (such as the exploding green 'plague rats' or the different colored 'knight' enemies you find in each level).

However, some of my favorite characters are the Knights of the Order of No Quarter.  Each knight has his own element or theme, similar to the Robot Masters of Megaman.  Each knight is extremely difficult in it's own way, and has an awesome original design.  For example, Specter Knight floats around in a Grim Reaper cloak, raising skeletons from the ground and throwing his giant scythe at you.  One that took me by surprise was Tinker Knight, a short boss who clumsily trips around the room throwing easily dodged wrenches at you.  The boss fight seems extremely easy until suddenly the floor beneath you collapses and the weak knight falls into a GIANT mechanical suit of armor, complete with rocket launchers and a giant drill hand.  Thanks to the pre-fight conversation between Shovel Knight and the boss knight, you can also see some minimal (but effective) character development, showing the backstory of these knights and how they knew Shovel Knight before they joined up with the Enchantress.  It all makes the characters and the world they live in feel more real, like they're actual people and not just pixels on a screen.

Overall, Shovel Knight is a game that borrows a lot from other classic video games, but never in a way that makes it feel like it's ripping off something more successful.  Every element 'stolen' from a classic game is made unique, whether it be the flawless mesh of level design and character abilities, the advanced but fair difficulty or the well designed bosses.  It is a difficult game, but never in a way that feels like the game is broken, and the minimal dialogue tells a wonderful story with an ending that is easily one of my favorite in recent memory.  In many ways, Yacht Club Games has captured the essence of an old school NES game, by making something that ultimately stays with you and becomes part of your general video game lexicon.  Had it been released in the heydays of the NES, I have no doubt that Shovel Knight would be a franchise still going strong to this day, and I can't wait to see what the future has in store for this IP, because it's too good not to expand upon it with a sequel or two.

Go out and play this game.  FOR SHOVELRY!!!!