This is a review for the PS4 port of Shovel Knight. If you’d like to see a different take on the game, click here for the 3DS review.
The setup is simple. You play as Shovel Knight, a great hero of the land, who wants to reclaim his beloved, Shield Knight, from the clutches of the Enchantress after failing to defeat her years ago. As the player progresses, Shovel Knight tries to find a way to get to the Tower of Fate, where the Enchantress resides. The journey is filled with charming personalities of heroes and foes alike, and funny banter between Shovel Knight and the bosses he comes across. Yacht Club Games also includes interesting interludes between stages of Shovel Knight resting at a camp, occasionally dreaming of catching Shield Knight from falling.
As someone who grew up with platforming classics such as Sonic the Hedgehog, Super Mario World, and Earthworm Jim, it’s a blast in the past for me to play through Shovel Knight, and this game is in the same caliber of those. Almost every level feels unique and has imaginative game design. For example, the use of a water pedestal allows Shovel Knight to move across the air with a pathway. He has to orientate it by jumping off it to get higher, hitting it down for it to go lower, and hitting it to move horizontally. Meanwhile, there are monsters and traps trying to disrupt the path.
The platforming’s spot on as each D-pad press has to be precise to reach each platform. The DuckTales-esque hop attack is used not just as an offensive asset to Shovel Knight (even though it feels incredibly satisfying to bop of an enemy’s head); it can also allow the character to get to further areas through hopping on a moving cannon ball or enemy in the air. This creates a satisfying amount of challenge that really adds to the variety of puzzles in the game.
Shovel Knight is mostly balanced too, with almost every fault being the player’s own rather than a huge difficulty spike. However, there is one mechanic which became really frustrating: the loss of light. For the The Lich Yard level, the main aspect of it is lightning and its effect on the stage’s brightness. When lightning doesn’t strike, the player cannot see essential platforms due to the stage being black. This was incredibly frustrating as enemies are also obscured, and the player is forced to stay motionless or has to dare to move to continue on. The idea is interesting as you have to memorize the stage’s assets, but on a small screen with the Vita, it was difficult to distinguish what to jump on in such a small window of time. Even on the PS3 and PS4, it’s difficult to determine where the platforms are due to how little time you have.
In addition, the levels can take quite a while to get through, and if you’re stuck and want to get back to it later, you have to play through the entire level again. The inclusion of regular checkpoints is great as it reduces repetitiveness, but having the stages in smaller sections rather than a large span of gameplay time would have made the game more enjoyable to those who want to enjoy Shovel Knight in small bites.
The issues of that stage and the long levels are quickly forgotten as the boss fights of Shovel Knight are well crafted. Each boss battle requires a strategy, and like the games of old, there is a method to defeat every knight of the Enchantress’ round table. Another tool at Shovel Knight’s disposal are the relics the player can find or buy. These relics are spells that Shovel Knight can use on his journey. He can cast fire balls, become invincible to attacks for a few seconds, and clear an entire wave of enemies with a horn’s sound wave. All of these add strategy to platforming sections and boss battles. This lite-RPG element adds a layer of dimension that adds an extra oomph to the platforming genre.
What also adds to the platforming genre is Shovel Knight‘s seamless cross-save feature. In a few seconds, you can upload your save to the cloud and then download the save onto another device. As Shovel Knight is cross-buy compatible, you can play it on PS3, Vita, and PS4, and cross-save makes the game accessible to those who play games on multiple PlayStation platforms. Shovel Knight on PS4 in particular is cool as the light bar flickers when something occurs in the game. One example of this would be when the lightning flickers in the Lich Yard level. While the level is flawed due to this particular game mechanic, this feature is extremely cool.
Shovel Knight offers plenty of replayability. There are multiple side bosses to encounter, including Kratos from God of War, and each of these feel just as inspired as the main bosses. By the way, if you complete Kratos’ boss battle, you get an awesome reward from it! There’s a New Game + option which offers a harder difficulty. The trophies are also very challenging, with one asking the player to complete the game with no damage; that is no easy task. There are also collectibles to purchase, including armors, relics, and special attacks. Plus, there are music sheets scattered across all the levels to unlock music, which can be played at the village. The main storyline of the game will take the player about 5-7 hours to complete.
The sound design of Shovel Knight is very mixed, however. Mostly, the game is charming through its nostalgic sound effects when Shovel Knight is jumping or dying, and even when the player pauses the game. Some of the music, however, is not so delightful. Like most classic platforming games, the introductory stage music is the best out of the lot. The track, Strike The Earth, is infectious with its upbeat tempo, 8 bit drumbeat, and delightful melody. With this song, you are ready to face the trials that the game has in store. The composer, Jake Kaufman (known from his work at OC Remix), also interludes this theme into the final stage, which is a nice touch as it reminds the player of the fantastic adventure they have gone through.
However, when it comes to a few stages, the tracks are not as memorable and even become quite repetitive. The high pitched 8-bit sounds from An Underlying Problem from the Lost City stage get irritating after a while, and the spooky sounding melody of Flowers of Antimony by Manami Matsumae grows tiresome after the third time hearing it.
On the other hand, there are some stand out tracks such as The Fateful Return from The Tower, which sounds triumphant in its tone, and High Above The Land, which has a catchy drum beat and an action heavy melody (this also has high pitched 8-bit sounds but overall it is a great track). Overall, the 8-bit nature of this music is charming at first, but really drags the game after hearing it for an entire level. It definitely sounds like a classic soundtrack from the NES era, but it is irritating to hear such sharp tones during a long game session.
Despite the 8-bit graphics style, Shovel Knight has more personality than most AAA games these days. The pixel art of Shovel Knight‘s stages bring back that retro feeling and the characters have plenty of personality from their limited animations. The villages of Shovel Knight have characters roaming around, and each have a story to tell from their movements, the way they dress, and what they say. It feels living and breathing, and reminds the player of who they’re fighting for every time they restock on items.
Shovel Knight is a near-perfect platformer with plenty of personality, inspired game design, and plenty of replayability. If you don’t mind the occasional annoyance of some of the 8-bit tracks, long levels, and the lighting mechanic from the Lich Yard stage, Shovel Knight is a stellar game to play.
A copy of Shovel Knight for PS4 was provided by Yacht Club Games for the purposes of this review.