Shovel Knight: Specter of Torment is the third iteration of the Shovel Knight franchise and the first to be released independently. For those who haven’t witnessed the level of success and support that Yacht Club has fostered, the original Shovel Knight has gotten multiple updates that have made it an insane value for Kickstarter backers and early adopters, with more on the way. Specter of Torment exists in a weird middle ground for would-be fans who are willing to have a taste of the core game but aren’t sure if they’re willing to commit a larger sum for multiple variations of the experience.
Like the previous Plague of Shadows, Specter of Torment puts the player behind the helm of one of the antagonists of the original game, the Specter Knight. The story, however, is more intriguing; whereas Plague Knight was a sequel and seemed borderline nonsensical, Specter Knight is a prequel to the actual Shovel Knight story. Specter Knight is on a quest from the Enchantress to assemble the Order of No Quarter, which is accomplished by beating the hell out of the other evil Knights. Not totally sure how that works, but they seem to consent that losing a fight means joining a cause. The original Shovel Knight seemed to be a solid storyline of semi-revenge and lost mixed in with occasional spurts of humor, especially at the main hero’s weapon. Plague of Shadows was just bananas, which fit in well with Plague Knight’s persona (insane alchemist). Specter Knight is peppered with remorse and diminishing hope, and seems almost stark in contrast to the original. It’s not a bad thing, far from it. I actually really liked this serious approach, almost grim with resolve to do what must be done.
The gameplay is significantly more on par with the original Shovel Knight, as Specter Knight is super fluid with his movements. Your primary attack gives decent range, and the ability to do a upward or downward diagonal strike actually becomes an awesome move of fluidity. When timed right, the strike creates an almost invincible chain of attacks, as well as a smooth transport across hostile levels. Specter Knight definitely does what Yacht Club does best: rewards good understanding of the mechanics, and HARSHLY punishes poor timing or execution. Since the shovel doesn’t exist here, platforms that you could previously dig through now crumble as soon as you jump. This can create moments of lost treasure and lives if you don’t plan your path carefully. Also, aerial attacks need to be at an angle, whereas veteran Shovel Knight players are more used to straight down, which takes some getting used to.
However, in this facet, I actually like Specter of Torment a lot better than the classic Shovel Knight. Shovel Knight felt a bit too demanding at times with small platforms and the Knight’s inability to make that extra centimeter incredibly frustrating. I haven’t played more than a moment of Plague of Shadows, so I have very little to compare to there. Since Specter can’t bounce off things, however, he can run up select walls as well as doing the mid-air slash swing. I realize that the level designs are made with every characters’ powers in mind, but Specter specifically seems more intuitive.
Like the previous installments, Specter of Torment has plenty of power ups that can be gained through purchase in Specter Knight’s cursed castle. The skill upgrades can be obtained thanks to red skulls floating throughout each level, and cold, hard cash gets you more robes with different abilities. There isn’t a single thing that you NEED to buy in order to complete the game, so the skilled, impatient player can blow straight through the different bosses without powerup help (though I highly recommend getting a ranged attack. Immediately). The Switch version also has the Amiibo support baked in that Shovel Knight has, so figure collectors can put their toys to work without needing a separate piece of software. Since multiplayer is available from the get-go, the Amiibo only unlocks a Shovel Fairy, which, while cute, actually does nothing. So don’t go scouring the internet for a Shovel Knight Amiibo unless you need a useless sidekick to join your single player campaign.
Graphically, Specter of Torment is bang on with the level of quality that has been consistently produced by Yacht Club. Pixel art and “retro” styling reached its zenith of popularity some time ago, but well done 8-bit inspired games never go out of style. Specter encapsulates what it means to want to make a game that has roots with the NES but functions on modern day systems. The things that you love – simple design, challenging difficulty, replayability – all exist in spades. The shortcomings that are often glossed over – lack of save, wonky controllers, glitches and crashes – are totally nonexistent. Nothing looks rushed or spotty, and the attention to detail (I especially love the purple fire of Plague Knight’s level) is enthralling.
The soundtrack is brought to us again by Jake Kaufman, who’s a chiptune godsend to this game series. Every level is matched by the best kind of atmosphere, and, like the Nintendo games that came before it, playing with the volume up is the only way to fly. Be sure to grab the soundtrack for free from Bandcamp, though a donation is certainly appreciated.
Shovel Knight: Specter of Torment is in a very precarious position. On the one hand, I think that Yacht Club chose the perfect story to release as a standalone adventure. It’s polished to a sheen, handles like a new car and is well worth the ten dollar price tag for anyone uncertain about Shovel Knight. On the other, if you really enjoy Specter and want to try more, you’ve already purchased one third of the game at current, and might be hesitant to drop over twice as much to play more. I think the obvious solution is for Yacht Club to offer some kind of incentive discount for upgrading, but that remains to be seen. However, Specter of Torment is amazing in its own right, and can be played for quite a while, especially if you’re a perfectionist and want to improve your stats in the full game runthrough. Without worrying about the future, I recommend picking up Specter if you want to see just what Yacht Club brings to the table.
REVIEW CODE: A complimentary Nintendo Switch code was provided to Bonus Stage for this review. Please send all review code enquiries to firstname.lastname@example.org.
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