Prequels are notorious for not fulfilling the greatness of the source material. They can appear to retroactively tarnish what was otherwise an outstanding original story. Yacht Club Games’ second DLC for their charming “Kickstarter darling,” Shovel Knight: Specter of Torment, isn’t one of those prequels. It’s a story that iterates on what made the original great, while simultaneously adding ideas that feel like a fresh change.
If Shovel Knight is all about, well, shoveling enemies, and Plague Knight represents chaotic movement, then Specter Knight embodies quick action. Specter Knight’s basic motion is his signature Dash Slash which works like Sonic the Hedgehog’s Homing Attack, locking onto a nearby enemy while launching you (upwards or downwards, depending on your relation to the target) with a swipe of your blade. This one move compliments Specter Knight’s short hop and when mastered, can lead to some exciting and fun moments. Collecting Red Skulls allows you to exchange them for Curios, items used to activate different powers and expand your range of motion and attacks. As you add more abilities to your repertoire, Specter Knight begins a transformation. Resembling the final form that you fight as Shovel Knight in the base game.
It’s an incredible progression that also syncs up well with the story. As The Enchantress’ scythe-wielding servant, you are gathering the forces that will become Shovel Knight’s rogues gallery, The Order of No Quarter. Like in the base game, you fight through different themed levels to reach the boss of that stage. In this version, the stages you know are slightly different, adapted to Specter Knight’s particular movement style. Some changes aren’t just mechanical, however. You will often see fun nods to the future yet to come. Some boss fights are also slightly different and often times more dynamic than the original.
Specter Knight returns after each victory to The Tower of Fate. A familiar set piece at this point in the saga, the tower is home to merchants and charming NPCs who give you advice and bits of lore, most of the time with a pun or joke. The tower hides a few secrets. Ranging from charming character interactions to a tower-climbing challenge. From here you will also choose the next stage. Unlike the last two stories, you can do any stage in any order, in a sort of Mega Man-style selection screen.
Some stages are truly brutal and you might want to come back with a new ability (once again, à la Mega Man). Herein lies my first of few problems with the game: I’m no stranger to challenging games. However, with Specter Knight, and Shovel Knight as a whole, I find that the difficulty ebs and flows drastically, sometimes just from screen to screen. And especially with the boss fights. It might take a couple dozen attempts to clear a stage but when when it comes to the boss, you can defeat him with a just few lives.
At the heart of the game is it’s incredible level design. It’s great at setting up moments where you are forced to react quickly. There’s an exhilaration that comes with overcoming a challenge with a split second decision. The game is peppered with challenges that are designed to make you feel like you performed an amazing feat of skill. One of my favorite moments happened in Tinker Knight’s stage. Up until that point, the game has taught you that being above an enemy gives you an advantage. On this particular screen of an already smartly designed level, the game takes away that advantage. You jump on a platform that has a low ceiling of spinning gears that hurt you if you jump at all, and at the end of this platform is a Gold Armor, a standard knight-style enemy that can be tricky with it’s timed shield blocks and sword swipes. With the Dash Slash essentially not an option, you are forced to fight this enemy in a one on one duel. Slashing with my scythe when there was an opening, moving back when his sword was raised. The stakes in the insignificant moment of the game were amplified. The game takes a lot of surprising inspirations from Dark Souls (the Bonfire-like checkpoint system to name one) and this moment was like a condensed encounter from that game.
There are, however, a few incidents of uncharacteristically bad design. As moving left to right feels natural in a sidescroller, most of this clunkiness comes when the game wants you to go downwards. Jumping into a pit is usually an instant death, but some levels have vertical portions that require you to descend. When this happens, you’re usually guided breadcrumb-style by treasure into the merciful pit. There is one instance however, in the final stage, where there is nowhere to go except, you intuit, to follow a flowing waterfall down into a chasm. You make the leap and sure enough you safely land in the next area. In this new room, there is another pit with water flowing into it. You make the jump, not realizing that you were supposed to go right, and you die instantly. It’s a small annoyance but one that was disheartening after hours of great level design.
I didn’t go into detail about the fun soundtrack, beautiful pixel art, and just awesome character design, because those are all held over from the original. Shovel Knight: Specter of Torment is a worthy addition to the wonderfully charming story. I enjoyed almost every minute of it. Every beautiful stage, every clever secret, every charming character. Even though the difficulty pacing was off in places, it was still an incredibly enjoyable experience. As far as I’m concerned, Yacht Club Games has upheld their standard since their first Kickstarter announcement and I can’t wait for what’s next from them.
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