Now for something completely different: A video game review. It figures that it was only a matter of time before I tried my hand at this, seeing how much I love gaming. I don’t fancy myself a professional by any means, but I figure add something else to my portfolio; a man cannot thrive on opinion pieces alone, after all. And there’s no better way to start off than with a game I’ve been re-experiencing recently.
(Logo from Yacht Club Games)
What more can be said about Shovel Knight: Shovel of Hope that hasn’t been said? Yacht Club Games’ freshman outing has taken the gaming world by storm since its successful Kickstarter campaign in 2013, followed by a subsequent full release the next year. Between its loving blend of elements from the best 8-bit titles, an addicting soundtrack, and steady stream of updates, there’s a reason why the game’s main hero has been popping up in other indie titles.
The tale of the eponymous Shovel Knight is one of adventure and sorrow. In a time long passed, he and his companion Shield Knight roamed the untamed wilds, collecting treasure along the way. As the legend goes, no hero stood taller than they did.
Then there came a day unlike any other.
An expedition to the Tower of Fate ended in Shield Knight’s disappearance through dark magic. Shovel Knight grieved heavily, leaving behind the hero’s life for solitude. Fear then takes hold of the valley, as a wicked Enchantress and her Order of No Quarter rise to power. Dark times lay ahead, and with the Tower of Fate unsealed, Shovel Knight answers the call once more, hoping to find out what happened to his long-lost friend as he takes on the Order.
You may think that a game inspired by the pixilated romps of yesteryear would be far more simplistic in its story, and on the surface, Shovel of Hope fits that bill. It’s when you keep going past the game’s introduction, however, where you realize the contrary.
This is a deep story, one that is equal parts funny, charming, epic, and emotional. The cast is filled with personality, from Shovel Knight himself, to the bosses you battle (mandatory and optional alike), to even the NPCs found throughout the hub. The interactions between Shovel Knight and each member of the Order of No Quarter is a treat, as you get to see them as more than just stepping stones to the endgame; heck, interacting with any character is interesting.
But the beauty of Shovel of Hope’s story lies in one particular method that Yacht Club Games uses. Every once in a while, Shovel Knight will fall asleep by a campfire and enter a dream sequence. Shield Knight tumbles down from the heavens, and you, the player, are tasked with catching her. As you progress further, these sequences will introduce hordes of enemies you can fight for extra loot, with each wave becoming more difficult to stave off than the last.
What makes these sequences so special…and the reason why this story is so wonderful in the first place…is that it conveys the emotional pain Shovel Knight has endured. You go to save Shield Knight just as she’s about to land, and one flash later, Shovel Knight returns to the waking world and soldiers on to the next knight’s domain. It’s these moments that really make you feel for Shovel Knight, and want him to see his journey through. And the most impressive part is that these moments are done without a lick of dialogue. Now, that is by no means a knock against the writing in this game; in fact, Shovel of Hope’s dialogue is very well-written. But the fact that these dream sequences provide the game’s most poignant moments while putting you in control of what happens, and without any dialogue, is an aspect of the story that is far too easy to overlook.
Shovel of Hope features the best trappings of an NES classic with very few of the same drawbacks. It manages to imitate the look and style of 8-bit classics of yore, right down to the limited color palettes utilized for each character. What’s more, the game utilizes more modern tricks like parallax scrolling and widescreen display to make the game feel fresh while keeping true to its heritage. The end result is a 21st Century 8-bit title with velvety-smooth animations, gorgeous backdrops that never feel similar to one-another, and an overall fantastic art style that’s sure to put a smile on any old school game enthusiast’s face.
Complementing the game’s visual presentation is a phenomenal chiptune soundtrack. Known primarily for his work on WayForward’s Shantae series, Jake Kaufman brought his A-Game with an array of compositions that would feel right at home in a classic Mega Man entry; in addition, legendary Mega Man composer Manami Matsumae is responsible for Treasure Knight and Plague Knight’s stage themes. One cool detail is that unlike the Blue Bomber’s bosses, each member of the Order of No Quarter has their own battle theme to go along with their stage’s theme. The optional bosses all share a theme, but then again when it’s as epic as “Fighting with All of Our Might,” it’s but a small nitpick. Still, there’s a great selection of tracks to choose from, whether you buy the tracks from Kaufman’s BandCamp page, or iTunes if that’s more your jam.
The game is an overall well-represented piece of software. It’s especially sure to be a treat for people with a love of pixel art.
While I have nothing but praise for the story, what really makes Shovel of Hope tick is the aforementioned blend of elements from some of the best 8-bit titles. You have eight main bosses like the Mega Man games from 2 onwards, as well as the optional roaming bosses and limited non-linear map of Super Mario Bros. 3, and an emphasis on treasure collection similar to DuckTales. Combat-wise, you have DuckTales’ legendary pogo bounce, and a sub-weapon system reminiscent of what you would find in an older Castlevania title. All of this is topped off with a Zelda II-inspired hub world.
Yet despite borrowing elements from so many other games, Shovel of Hope still manages to carve out its own identity. And nowhere is this more evident than the introductory level. The Plains of Passage serve as a perfect training ground for new players to learn the ropes of the game; you jump, scoop, burrow and bounce your way through the Plains and its dangers while taking the occasional detour to grab more loot, and there are no text boxes stopping you to explain everything. You slowly figure out the fundamentals of the game as you go, which in my opinion is smart game design.
From there, the game gradually opens up the rest of the valley for you to explore and take down the Order of No Quarter one by one. Each knight’s domain has different tricks and traps to them, ensuring you never do the same thing twice. One minute, you’re outrunning a giant angler fish in the depths of the Iron Whale, the next you’re using a green gooey substance to bounce off lava pools in the Lost City. The keeper of each domain waits at the end of a level, ready to battle you. These fights may seem daunting at first, and are certainly difficult to overcome. Once you figure out how to adapt to each knight’s tactics, you’ll bury them in no time.
On the point of difficulty, Shovel of Hope presents a strong overall challenge factor reminiscent of the games it takes influence from. While the difficulty is nowhere near as blistering as Castlevania or Mega Man, you’re still bound to lose out to either a tough enemy or a bottomless pit if you’re not careful. And with how finely-tuned the controls are, it will be nobody’s fault but your own if you make a false move. Thankfully, there are plenty of checkpoints dotted throughout a given level, though you can destroy these for more Gold at the risk of setting yourself further back if you get yourself killed.
Death is also handled differently in this game. Rather than losing a life, you instead lose a decent portion of Gold you may have collected in the level. The Gold hovers around the area you died, allowing you to pick it back up if you so choose. On paper, this is a good idea, and nine times out of ten it works. However, there is one problem that comes up on occasion. There are moments where you will fall into a chasm, and the bags of Gold are placed in such a way that make it difficult, if not impossible, to retrieve them; even worse is that the bags are replaced with new ones if you fall down the same pit trying to collect what you had just lost. The idea of losing Gold upon dying is by no means bad; it’s just that losing it to giant chasms can be annoying.
And you’ll need that Gold if you want to get through the game without much hassle. Much like Castlevania, Shovel Knight can acquire different Relics that, for the most part, will help him through certain levels. The Phase Locket, for example, turns Shovel Knight invisible and makes him immune to all matter of harm, including insta-kill spikes. Many of the Relics are useful, though some of them have more specialized uses then others. In addition, you can buy extensions to your health and magic…which you may very well need considering the difficulty of the last leg of your journey…as well as armor suits with different benefits, and upgrades to your Shovel Blade.
A first playthrough may take you roughly seven to eight hours to complete, depending on how well you pick up the controls. When all is said and done and the credits have rolled, you can take on a New Game+ mode that gives you every Relic right from the start, but makes you take double damage from enemies as a result, as well as reducing the number of checkpoints in each level. There’s also a Challenge Mode where you can test your skill. Finally, there are additional story campaigns for three members of the Order of No Quarter, made possible by millions of Kickstarter backers; two of them are out now, one is still on the way, and all three will be reviewed by me in time.
Shovel Knight: Shovel of Hope is a masterfully-crafted neo-retro title. In an age of video game remakes and retro-inspired titles, there’s nothing quite like this game. It knows what it is and delivers an experience that looks, sounds, and despite the occasional moment of frustration, plays like a dream. What’s more is that there’s plenty to do once you beat the game the first time. If you’re a longtime video game enthusiast, or have any interest in the golden days of gaming, you definitely owe it to yourself to play this game.
‘Til we meet again,