[Disclaimer: indie games that I review are done so differently than larger development team games; “AAA” games. This doesn’t mean I don’t hold them to high standards, but rather, I take into considerations different variables, such as the size of the actual development team, or the type of finances that were available]
Shovel Knight is an homage to retro gaming, created by Yacht Club Games. From the 8-bit inspired visuals, and music resembling the same style, it caught a lot of gamers’ attention, myself included. So does Shovel Knight live up to the hype surrounding it, or does it dig its own grave? (Sorry, but pun completely intended)
Visuals – 9.75/10
The visuals in a word? Awesome. It is key to remember that this game is an homage to retro titles, but not a direct crossover. Shovel Knight is much better visually. Every creature, NPC, evil knight, and even the “shovel master” himself has superbly animated movements. Everything feels alive and creates a world the player can be immersed within, even considering the art style in Shovel Knight. There are so many small touches that can go unnoticed, I had to play through multiple times to catch them all (or at least I think I caught them all).
What do I mean? Well, an example of this is a level later on in the game when Shovel Knight reaches the Tower of Fate. When on the path to the Tower, it begins raining; but what is truly interesting and amazingly done is the way the level is put together with colors. The sky is a sickening green hue while the rain pelts the ground – which is accented by water hitting the ground and creating splashes – and lightning flashes every so often. The foreground is silhouetted and only revealed when there is a flash of lightning. You couldn’t get something like this from an old NES, but that’s why Shovel Knight excels as an homage; there is more room to inject life into the visuals.
Shovel Knight visually succeeds in every way: smooth animations, brilliant color usage, creative level design, and solid frame rate. The game looks gorgeous, and it doesn’t seem like the only reason for choosing this art style is for the sake of nostalgia; the game truly has its own unique visual style. I really appreciate this. Don’t get me wrong, I fall into nostalgia as much as the next person, and when used correctly, it is a very good tool. However, I find it very cheap when developers abuse nostalgia to get people to buy their games. Shovel Knight uses nostalgia in the best possible way as far as visuals are concerned: they give a nod to the 8 bit era, then advance past it with their own unique animations and design.
The only knock on the way the game looks and runs is that there were a few bugs/glitches that I came across multiple times. It also didn’t help that some where towards the end of a level, and I would have to play the entire level again. An example of this was when I had just defeated the first appearance of Tinker Knight. I had just defeated him, but when I had thought I was done, the ground fell out beneath us and it turned out he was still very much alive and in a giant robot, hellbent on destroying me. This was very cool, except that Shovel Knight was just sitting there raising his shovel upward as if he had won. Problem was that I hadn’t, and I couldn’t take control to battle Tinker Knight. I couldn’t take damage either in order to restart at the last checkpoint. I had to close the game out, and start the game (and level) all over again. (Update: Yacht Club Games has addressed this bug, so the score as gone up a little.) Bugs like this happened a few times in my play through, but they didn’t detract too much from the overall visual experience presented.
Audio – 10/10
Without a shadow of doubt, the music in Shovel Knight is my favorite aspect of the game. B
ut I want to clarify something, as I did with the visuals: this isn’t true 8-bit music, but rather, similar and resembling 8-bit [it has since been pointed out these ARE, in fact, chip tunes and a few older games did reach this quality]. That being said, this isn’t a bad thing at all. In fact, the music is a perfect homage to the retro days of old, and once again, uses nostalgia rather than abuses it. Seriously, just have a listen to this.
There aren’t any insane musical cues in Shovel Knight, but the music fits the gameplay, each specific level, and works well with the audio cues (ie – the sound of attacking a creature, or the noise when you dig up treasure). I couldn’t find any fault in the music or audio, and I listened extensively. Jake Kaufman did a fantastic job with the music, and you can find the entire OST here.
Every composition is well done and unique in its own way. Each level has it’s own music, as well as each boss at the end of the level. There are even instances within different levels where the music may change during a specific section of the level, then go back to the level theme song. Nothing is out of place, and all the music is incredibly fitting.
All audio cues are well placed and fit with the style of the game. There’s something very satisfying when you hear the audio cue in as you collect treasure, or when you pounce on an enemy’s head with your shovel. Heck, even minor things like the sound made when you select something at the main menu is very satisfying, aurally speaking. It’s very clear that their was love and care injected into the audio of Shovel Knight.
Gameplay – 9/10
The gameplay is solid in Shovel Knight; attack with you shovel, bounce on enemies with your shovel, and run either left or right….with your shovel. Shovel Knight is a side-scrolling platformer with exploration elements. The player navigates an over-world filled with levels, bonus stages, and “rest stops” where you can upgrade either your health or magic. Nothing fancy here, but all very effective. The way everything looks and feels is very much similar to Super Mario Bros. 3, as if (gasp) they were going for a nostalgic experience.
And speaking of that, the gameplay is – you guessed it – an homage to retro titles. Simple, but very tight, controls blended with difficult level design. And speaking of difficulty, you’ll come across plenty of it. There were times I had to rage quit and come back to a level or boss, as I was about to toss my controller. As mad as I was, though, it never felt cheaply used and when I completed a level or attained another “feat,” I felt accomplished, not cheated. This game can be enjoyed by gamers of all levels, but it will be appreciated more so by hardcore gamers.
If there is one complaint I have regarding the gameplay, it’s that it is a little short. I finished the game at around 67% in 5 hours, so there is a decent amount of content, but seems just a bit short still. For a $15 price tag, I hoped for a little more gameplay without gathering all the collectibles, but this is a very minor complaint against the game. It still feels and plays like a complete game, and it is definitely worth your time and money.
Entertainment Factor – 9/10
I had a ton of fun with Shovel Knight. There aren’t any online features (besides using Miiverse), but the GamePad is utilized well. Off-TV play works very well, and when playing on the big screen, the GamePad is used as an item screen for quick item changes on the fly. Yacht Club Games did a decent job incorporating the GamePad to be played with the game.
As far as the story in the game goes, the story is well constructed for this type of game: Shovel Knight is separated by his companion Shield Knight when attempting to climb the Tower of Fate, and ends up losing her. Our protagonist goes into hiding from the world for a time, but is suddenly called back into action when the Tower of Fate houses the evil Enchantress and her evil knights. Though the story is merely a means to get to the next level, I have to say one thing regarding the ending: it caught me off guard how touching the final scene is, even though it is so simple and nothing incredibly edgy.
So, how does Shovel Knight match up to my expectations? It’s everything I wanted, save for a few bugs and a fairly short play through. I highly recommend this game, for either your Wii U or 3DS; I don’t believe you’ll be disappointed. Tried and true gameplay, excellent visual design, incredible music, and the perfect usage of nostalgia build a gaming experience you won’t soon forget. My only question is…can you dig it!? (Ha!)
Overall – 9.5/10