Friday, June 27, 2014

Shovel Knight Review

Say what will you will about Kickstarter, but the undeniable fact is that it allows gamers to fund the games that they want to see made. No more being forced to watch AAA developers churn out sequel after sequel with no original ideas behind them. Now, any company can pitch a game, show some footage from it, and have the gamers themselves pay for the development. Sometimes developers can be very shady and turn Kickstarter into a scam, but more often than naught, legitimate developers use the platform to help fund games that normally couldn't be funded. Shovel Knight is such an example.

And it kicks ass.

Shovel Knight is about a man by the name of, er, Shovel Knight, who is off an an adventure to rescue his lover Shield Knight from the control of the evil Enchantress. In order to do so, he must brave across treacherous landscapes and defeat the Enchantress's loyal knights, the Order of No Quarter. Each of the eight knights has their own personalities, powers, and abilities, and all of them must be defeated to make it to the Enchantress. Along the way, Shovel Knight will have to deal with random warriors that he may come across as well as his rival, the mysterious Black Knight. There's a lot to do and a lot of people to defeat, but it's all worth it to rescue your lover.

Shovel Knight is a downloadable only throwback to NES platformers of old. It takes heavy inspiration from Mega Man, Castlevania, Super Mario Bros. 3, and even a bit from Zelda II to compose its various gameplay mechanics as well as its aesthetic. Everything is rendered in pixel art, and the amount of detail included in each sprite is very well done. Each sprite looks distinct and shows up very well against any and all backgrounds. Not only that, but the animation is top notch, both in the background and the foreground. Some stages are very visually impressive, such as the last couple of stages where you have a torrential downpour with lightning strikes in the background, painting a beautiful and lovely world. I know it may sound weird to talk about the graphics first, but the graphics are what will stay with players the longest and how beautiful the world looks.

Such a pretty game
The game plays a lot like a combination of Castlevania III in that stages are fairly linear with only one direction to go. You have to make your way to the boss of each level while going through waves and waves of enemies. In the beginning, you'll just have a shovel to attack with, which has a decent range of attack, but your main weapon will be a downward slash attack. When you jump in the air, by pressing down on the control stick, you'll be able to fall shovel first onto enemies, damaging them and bouncing off of them at the same time. You'll need to master this mechanic if you want to have any hope of beating this game. You'll also come across various sub weapons that function in different ways. Some sub weapons are propeller blade allows you to dash in the air, the anchor can be thrown in the air to hit aerial enemies, and the amulet, which will allow you to become invisible for a short period of time. Again, mastery of each sub weapon will help you out a lot in the end.

So you have your weapons and you have your goal, now what? Well, you go to beat each of the knights in the Order of No Quarter of course! Each knight has a different theme to them like King Knight, Mole, Knight, Plague Knight, and Polar Knight just to name a few. Each has a very different way of fighting and you'll most likely die a lot when fighting them for the first time. However, death is not that big of an issue in this game due to the unique checkpoint system in the game. Instead of having a lives, you have money. When you die, you'll lose some of your money depending on how much you have. The more money you have, the more you'll lose. When you die, the money that you lose will hover around where you died, so you'll have to make it back to where you died to collect all of your money, but if you die on the way there, your money is gone for good. When you finally run out of money, it's game over. I was never discouraged from trying again, because I knew that death was only a minor setback and that you can always try again. You'll spawn from the nearest checkpoint, but you have the option to destroy checkpoints as well. If you break a checkpoint, you'll get a massive amount of money, but you'll lose a respawn point. So you have a choice; play it safe and don't break the checkpoint, or play it risky and break a checkpoint for a huge amount of money?

The Order of No Quarter doesn't mess around.
When you're not defeating evil knights, you can explore the overworld and go to challenge levels that test your skill with a sub weapon, defeating roaming bosses, or head into town. There are two towns in the game and each of them has several shops inside of them. You can buy new armor that has special effects, powerups for your shovel, extra life, extra magic points, or you can even buy sub weapons that you may have missed in a few levels. There's usually always something to do inside of towns, so it's fun to just take a break every now and then and explore around.

While exploring, you'll find hidden music sheets that you can give to a bard in the first town. Once you do give him a sheet, he'll be able to play that song for you, which in turn unlocks the jukebox. I'm almost always never a person that listens to in game jukeboxes, mostly cause I'd rather hear the song when it shows up in the game, but Shovel Knight was one of the few times where I wanted to listen to the jukebox. There are so many great songs included in the game that it's a crime to not stop and listen to them. Hell, the soundtrack was released earlier today, and you can pay as much as you want for it. You can even pay nothing for the soundtrack and still get it! I personally paid $5 for it, but if you want to download it, just click on this link here. Listen for yourself and tell me it isn't good.

So the music is good, the gameplay is good, the bosses are great and it looks phenomenal. Could there be any downsides to this game? Of course there are. I know that I praised the death system in the game for being very fair and lenient, but that comes with a major caveat to it. Shovel Knight may just be one of the most frustrating games that I have played in a long time. For example, one of the later stages is a wind stage. This stage has propeller minions that will push you off platforms, spikes on walls, bottomless pits, and a plethora of enemies around too. Now normally this wouldn't be that bad, but this game includes a very nasty thing that most retro gamers call "Medusa Heading". "Medusa Heading" is where if you get hit by an enemy, you will go flying back against your will with no control over where you go. That means that whenever you get hit, there's a very good likelihood that you'll fall into a pit and die after you get hit.

Just a normal afternoon of shoveling for jewels
By the end of the game, I had died 90 times in the span of 7 hours. More than half of those deaths were because I was pushed into a pit by an enemy and had to restart, and I probably could have shaved off an extra half hour from the game if that was the case. It may sound like a minor complaint, but you have no idea how frustrating it is to die not because it was your own fault, but because the game pushed you into it. Still, the time where I had died against bosses fairly served as a great learning experience. Each time I died I learned how to dodge another attack and I would find a new way to counterattack against a boss. Those deaths I'm perfectly okay with, not the cheap and frustrating kind.

Still, the frustration could not bury my spirits for this game. This game may not be a groundbreaking achievement in retro games, but it was something that most gamers will certainly dig. The bosses, the graphics, and the gameplay, and pretty much every element of this game is earth shattering in terms of how well it's done. The "Medusa Heading" though should most likely be left six feet under where it belongs. Yacht Club Games, the developers, have a very good handle on classic gameplay mechanics, and when they eventually make another game, I'm sure it will deliver in spades. Until then, we're left with Shovel Knight, and for what it is, it's a game that every Nintendo owner and Steam user should try out. It's a great platformer that deserves to be unearthed by gamers. It's on the Wii U, 3DS, and PC, so give it a look! I give Shovel Knight a solid 4 out of 5 stars.


Shovel pun!

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