Wednesday, 20 May 2015

Shovel Knight

Shovel Knight is very clearly an homage to the platformers of the past.
The 8-bit visuals, wonderful music and old school gameplay reflect this clearly.
I wouldn’t consider myself as being into “retro-esque” games with hardcore gameplay but I was delightfully surprised in the time I spent with the game.

While Shovel Knight comes with a retro aesthetic there is more to it than a simple retro or old school experience. While the gameplay may seem simple at first it quickly has layers added to it - mostly in the form of the fantastic level design.

While you are running a level, enemies you kill and objects you break drop treasure which you can use to upgrade the stats of the character as well as buy and upgrade magical objects.
There is also a rather interesting potions system. There are the regular potions that enemies drop that replenish your magic power. However, you can obtain chalices that you can have filled with one of three different special potions. These are called “Ichors”.
One draws treasure towards you, one gives you invincibility for 10 seconds and the last refills your HP and MP to their maximum values. This is very useful - especially for the more challenging boss fights.

The game is separated into levels that are linked together by an overworld map; there are also towns where you can upgrade your weapons and equipment as well as some very nice challenge levels that occasionally pop up on the map.
Every main level has several checkpoints and then a boss fight. That’s right, a boss fight on almost every level.

I found that the game throws you straight into the fray and you’re expected to figure things out for yourself. The way in which you do this is by experimenting - and dying. A lot of dying.

You can bash stuff with your shovel (yes, you are literally a knight with a shovel), jump and perform a downward shovel smash from the air.
As soon as you figure out the downward shovel smash the game really opens up and you die a lot less (but still a lot). It’s there from the start - you just have to figure out how to use it!

I’ve died a lot in Shovel Knight but I never felt like I was being penalised for it.
When you die you lose an amount of your collected treasure and return to the last checkpoint you unlocked. This sounds bad but the gold you lose floats around the area where you died and is usually very easy to recollect. It makes dying less of a problem and that’s something I really like in this game.
I also find that dying is more of a learning experience too. Practice makes perfect.

The enemy types and the level mechanics change constantly throughout the levels too so there is always something to learn and master.
When I discovered the downward shovel smash and how effective it is I felt like I was invincible… until I encountered an enemy that has a shield which they hold above their heads… oh… I see what you did there.

I think that a game like Shovel Knight could feel repetitive if it didn’t keep you on your toes and this is a really good example of how the game does just that, forcing you to learn new ways to kill enemies and navigate the environment.

The environments change from level to level. It’s not very apparent in the first few but when you’ve completed more and more of the game you discover that there are a lot of good level mechanics to keep the game fresh and interesting.
For example, early on in the game I encountered a challenge level that was much like a normal level but it scrolled like the old Mario games. Another challenge map made use of a magical item I picked up the level before.
It’s very clever design and I find that incredibly enjoyable.

Now, let’s talk about the difficulty. The beginning of Shovel Knight isn’t all that difficult, there is a learning curve as you get used to the controls, but it’s easy enough to pick up and play in the beginning. However, as you progress through the game it does get more difficult.
Any time the game throws something new at you you’ll have to learn it as a mechanic to continue and the bosses start to become more and more difficult.
It can be frustrating but there’s nothing like the heart pounding relief of finally defeating a boss. Despite it’s difficulty and occasional frustrations the game never seems incompletable. Everything is attainable.

The music in the game is excellent! Considering it’s all in an 8-bit style the complexity and layers of a modern score are all there.

Have a listen to this. It’s one of my favourite tracks in the game.

Every piece of music feels like it fits into the game perfectly and there is a piece of music for every occasion.
Each level and boss battle has it’s own piece of music - it’s just very well thought out.

I think that by now you can tell that I like the game. I think it’s a great mix of modern and retro game design in all aspects. The level design that increases in complexity, the music and the visuals all come together to make something unique.
The difficulty provides a challenge but it never feels like it’s unfair or cheating you.

It’s definitely worth playing if you’re a fan of platforming games. It’s a great experience.

For the purpose of this blog post Yacht Club Games very generously provided me with a review code for Shovel Knight on PS4.

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