Dig or be Dug
- Developer: Yacht Club Games
- Publisher: Yacht Club Games
- Versions reviewed: PS4, Vita
- Also available on: PS3, Xbox One, Windows, Mac, Linux, Wii U, 3DS
- Genre: Platformer
A little less than a year following its successful release on Wii U, 3DS, and PC, Yacht Club Games’ Indie darling, Shovel Knight, has finally found a home on Sony and Microsoft platforms. Touting a return-to-the-past gameplay style reminiscent of Duck Tales and Zelda II, Shovel Knight builds its name on the laurels of those which came before it. Does Shovel Knight on PS4, PS3, Vita, and XB1 deliver the same excitement and retro-challenge that it did on Nintendo’s home console and handheld? Or does Shovel Knight fail to leave a lasting impression?
From the very outset of the game, Shovel Knight is cryptic in its storytelling. A couple of static screens provide the basic set-up for Shovel Knight‘s conflict: Shovel Knight and Shield Knight were best friends who traveled the land together. One day, however, Shield Knight was captured by The Order of No Quarter, a gang of rogue knights led by the evil Enchantress. Picking up his trust shovel, Shovel Knight sets off to save his dear friend.
From there, players are tasked with travelling from level to level, where they run, jump, and shovel their way to each end-of-level boss, a different member of The Order, in the hopes of making it to the Enchantress’ castle.
Along the way, players will visit two different hub towns, befriend the great Troupple King, dig up loot during levels, upgrade their stats, shovel, and armor, and uncover useful items—called relics—that are the equivalent of the items used in classic games like the original Legend of Zelda.
The process of running through a level and earning enough money to upgrade Shovel Knight’s maximum health or magic is satisfying, and will help provide novice-level players with the means of grinding in order to make harder levels easier.
And make no mistake about it: Shovel Knight is a hard game. Several levels, especially the last three or four, may prompt players to throw down their controllers (hopefully not their Vitas!) in pure frustration. However, levels are smartly designed to the point where each death does not feel “cheap”; the player can only blame him or herself about miscalculating the length of a certain jump, or about using a shovel hop on the incorrect type of enemy.
Given the fact that Shovel Knight prides itself on being a challenging game, much like series such as the Mega Man franchise, Yacht Club Games risked alienating more casual gamers. Thankfully, however, Yacht Club effortless avoids this pitfall with an ingenious checkpoint system. Strew about each level are a series of checkpoints. Novice players can use these checkpoints to help alleviate the difficulty of the harder levels, while Mega Man enthusiasts can break these checkpoints in order to receive additional gold, at the cost of having to respawn at an earlier checkpoint upon dying. All of this makes for an adjustable difficultly that feels organic while playing. Stuck on a level because you broke one too many checkpoints? Exit back to the world map, and all of the checkpoints will be restored, allowing the player to try again with a fresh start (from the beginning of the level, of course). Yacht Club Games should be commended for such a novel way of integrating such a system into their game.
Once players get used to the unique checkpoint system, playing through Shovel Knight becomes a breeze. Hopping on bubbles and enemies with the shovel feels satisfying, while digging up coins and jewels will bring out even the smallest of the loot-obsessed. In addition, players can even discover hidden music sheets which will allow them to listen to a level’s music back at one of the hub towns via the town bard. Music sheets are a fantastic inclusion in Shovel Knight, less because of the need for collectibles, and more simply because the soundtrack for Shovel Knight, composed by Jake Kaufman, is utterly brilliant. Ranging on the emotional scale from traditional hopping 8-bit tunes to surprisingly-emotional, slower ballads, Shovel Knight‘s soundtrack helps to set the mood for a game with relatively few story elements.
Visually, Shovel Knight is a beautifully-crafted game. Sprites pop with a superb level of detail (something that clearly would not have been possible on older NES or even SNES games). Each level is colorful, avoiding dreary colors like grey or brown in favor of a cheerful palate of greens, yellows, blues, and oranges. Combined with the epic soundtrack, players will be able to “feel” the adventure that Shovel Knight has embarked on while playing.
And yet, even though Shovel Knight boasts a fantastic presentation and smart gameplay, it is hindered by a few minor problems. While upgrading Shovel Knight’s health and magic feels rewarding, especially for more casual players, the shovel and armor upgrades leave something to be desired. There are a meager three shovel upgrades—of which only really one feels significant, which players will easily be able to purchase about halfway through the game if they actively search levels for loot. While there are five armor upgrades (six depending on the version of the game you play), none of them offer much in terms of shaking up the existing gameplay. In fact, players could easily complete the game without upgrading their shovel and armor at all. The game would be no harder, in reality.
Additionally, the hub towns in the game (especially the second of the two), feel a bit underutilized as well. Sure, the player can talk to various NPCs around the town, but unlike games such as Zelda, where talking to an NPC might yield a valuable clue to an important side quest or item, in Shovel Knight it simply acts to provide some extra (albeit entertaining) dialogue to pad out the already lengthy 8-10 hour adventure. While this point is a very minor point of criticism, it is still disappointing that these towns could not have had a few more important secrets to them, considering how great the rest of the game is.
And that’s the truth. The vast majority of Shovel Knight is a masterful celebration of the games of old: games that forced players to try again, and again, and again, before they could finally be victorious. For those who have interest in games like that, go pick up Shovel Knight. And if you absolutely hate the sound of games like Castlevania or Mega Man 3 or Dark Souls… still pick up Shovel Knight. It’s that good, and you won’t be disappointed with the experience you receive for the meager $15 entry (which, in all honesty, is a steal, especially on Sony platforms, where buying one version nets you all three for the price of one—Vita, PS3, and PS4).
So what are you waiting for? Go, grab Shovel Knight, and get digging!