Note: Reviewed on PS4 and Vita.
“Shovel Knight” is hard. Hard to the point of frustration. But that’s a great thing. Its difficulty reminds of games of old. The comparisons to other game franchises made by other critics are accurate (e.g. Castlevania, Mario, Mega Man, Metroid…). It trusts the player to learn how to play within a few minutes because of how simple and tight the controls are: jump, attack, pole-vault off the top of an enemy’s head and use an item. Once these are mastered, only the enemies become more diverse and unpredictable and the worlds more elaborate.
For these two gameplay elements to work, Shovel Knight’s platforming has to be nearly impeccable. And it is. Hopping from one platform to the next can equal satisfying success or a fall to death followed up with a bunch of bags of collected treasure with angel wings attached floating in the air. Then, pushed back to the most recent checkpoint. The cliched phrase of trial-and-error aptly defines Shovel Knight and what it’s doing. At its core it’s hard but it’s as easy as learning enemy/boss patterns and map layout. Whatever the situation, it forces the player to learn on the fly how to beat it.
Where this formula shines the most is in its boss fights. There are quite a few mini-bosses that can be dispatched in mere seconds but the end world bosses are something special. Ever play any Metal Gear Solid? Shovel Knight’s boss encounters aren’t nearly as memorable but the process of picking up on how a boss moves, when it attacks and at what point it starts to speed up its assault. And all the HUD reads is health. Let’s just say death is inevitable and victory is very satisfying.
Although gameplay is king. Both in general and in Shovel Knight, and it does it extremely well. Its absolutely fantastic soundtrack can’t go unmentioned.
For whatever reason, my Vita glitched and there was no music playing when I booted up the game. Instead of shutting off my system and restarting it, I decided to see how Shovel Knight played without a score. It wasn’t the same. Games such as the “Dead Space” trilogy and the recent “Alien: Isolation” embrace sound design and lack of score and probably would still be pretty good with some sort of music. That’s what makes Shovel Knight special.
For more on Shovel Knight, read our own Ethan Martinez’s review of the PC version and listen to our games podcast with the developers from Yacht Club Games.