It’s been almost three years since Yacht Club Games released Shovel Knight, a long-awated Kickstarter project featuring, well, a cerulean knight wielding a trusty shovel. From that whimsical, retro-inspired concept, they built a game that was simple yet not simplistic, zany yet never pretentious, and controller-smashingly difficult but always satisfying. The original Shovel Knight has remained one of my favorite indie games ever, and one of the best platformers I’ve ever played.
Of course, over the past few days it may have just been upstaged by its own expansion—Shovel Knight: Specter of Torment.
Since Shovel Knight began as a Kickstarter project, its developers released a number of stretch goals when they were first looking for funding. Among those goals was a promise of three additional campaigns featuring three of the game’s eight bosses (chosen through fan poll after the game was released). The first of those campaigns, Shovel Knight: Plague of Shadows, was released in 2015 and featured Plague Knight—the green, masked boss of the Explodatorium—bouncing and bombing his alchemical way through Shovel Knight’s levels. Instead of redesigning the levels themselves, Yacht Club gave Plague’s playable character the power to solve the same platforming puzzles with completely different mechanics. Rather than pogo-jump with an extremely bouncy shovel, he double-jumped and exploded upward with a “bomb burst,” resulting in gameplay that was chaotic and fast rather than Shovel Knight’s methodical, calculated platforming.
Both Shovel Knight and Plague of Shadows were masterclasses in game design—the former because it took two mechanics (swinging a shovel and pogo-jumping) and built them into some of the best 2D platforming levels ever made (and all without a single second of exposition or tutorializing), and the latter because it repurposed those levels in ways that felt new, exciting, and fun. Even without their goofy storylines—earnest yet mildly ironic parodies of (1) a medieval romance and (2) a rom-com that never took themselves too seriously—they were exhilirating games.
Of course, when I first saw that Shovel Knight was to be parlayed into three new campaigns (all free, by the way, to owners of the original game), I wondered how they’d sustain that excellence for that many iterations. Something’s gotta give eventually, right?
It turns out that the best way to sustain that excellence is to make, in Specter of Torment, what is effectively a brand-new game, with entirely different mechanics but the same feeling and atmosphere that made Shovel Knight such a joy to play.
If Shovel Knight handles like a mix of DuckTales and Megaman, Specter Knight resembles the lovechild of Mario, Sonic, and Genji from Overwatch. He has a short wallclimb, which he can then turn into a wall-jump or a quick acrobatic flip onto a new platform, a targeted dash that functions both as his best combat mechanic and as a fantastic platforming ability, and—in place of a shovel—a massive, Grim Reaper scythe. Later in the game, he gains the ability to grind on certain rails (or, if you want to be the mid-90s definition of cool, on literally any surface at all with a special suit of armor), bounce-dash against special lanterns (the main dash target), and hover, shield, phase through walls (all special abilities that depend on a “Darkness” meter). Shovel Knight was exciting because it was so simple; Specter Knight is exhilirating because it’s anything but. The platforming is hard—much harder than in Shovel Knight, which was a fairly difficult game to begin with—but just like in its predecessor, it never feels unfair. Though the wall-climb controls take a bit of getting used to, the final stages (where you have to chain every single ability in an incredibly fun set of levels) are cathartic in that way only games that marry fantastic design and brutal difficulty can be.
And while Plague Knight in Plague of Shadows was specifically designed to fit with Shovel Knight’s original levels, Specter of Torment’s stages have been entirely redesigned. To those (like me), who’ve played through the originals many times, certain areas are recognizable (a checkpoint here, platforms there, secrets here, a certain challenge there), but the path from points A to B is completely reworked. These remixed levels both suit the game thematically (as a darker prequel to the original’s lighthearted storyline) and mechanically, and carry on Shovel Knight‘s insanely high standard of level design. If individually, Shovel Knight and its expansions are masterclasses in level design, together they’re a platforming holy grail—hard enough to be satisifying yet still fair, with the feeling that the game is rooting for you to succeed rather than fail.
And Specter of Torment remade more than just the levels; the endearing, 8-bit music of the original got the remix treatment, with each level’s signature track reworked and sped up to fit Specter Knight’s twitchy, fluid, chain-everything style of gameplay. Moreover, the color palettes received an update, sometimes to fit a new time of day (the Plains of Passage featured in my background image, which were bright blues and greens in the original, now happen at sunset), or to better match a stage. Small touches reinforce that paradoxical feeling of nostalgic novelty: for example, the Lost City, an underground, lava-filled level in the original, hasn’t yet been fully excavated, and now has parts that are still above ground.
Then there’s the writing, which was excellent at telling both the minimalistic, goofy, feel-good story of Shovel Knight and the humorous, awkward romance of Plague of Shadows and here finds itself in service of a storyline that actually takes a turn towards tragedy. It’s the age-old issue with prequels—all stories must start with a conflict, so prequels will almost always feature tragic endings. But somehow, the developers not only made that tragedy feel legitimate rather than inevitable, but they teased an emotionally-complex storyline from a game built on simple, retro themes. If I call Specter of Torment Shakespearean, I’ll probably be the English-major-equivalent of disbarred… but it is. There’s familial relationships, a tragic fall, a character brought down by his own greed, a heroic sacrifice—in retrospect, I still can’t reconcile what they managed to do with Specter with the original game. Ultimately, they made not only a great prequel (very hard), but a prequel that felt fresh and new (even harder) and even more emotionally-compelling than the original (by far the hardest).
Shovel Knight: Specter of Torment is currently a timed exclusive on the Nintendo Switch. It will be released on all of Shovel Knight’s other consoles (PC, Mac, Linux, Xbox One, PS4, PS3, PS Vita, Wii U, 3DS) in April, free for anyone who owns the original game, $9.99 on its own, or for $24.99 as a part of Shovel Knight: Treasure Trove (which includes all three campaigns). And while it seems like Zelda: Breath of the Wild is probably going to sweep every GOTY award this year (more on that in a couple of weeks, once I’ve actually played more of it), hopefully it’ll show up on a list or two as well.