Friday, July 18, 2014

MIXED BAG. SHOVEL KNIGHT REVIEW!

MIXED BAG. PRESENTS
SHOVEL KNIGHT REVIEW!

Developer: Yacht Club Games
System: PC, Wii-U, 3DS
Genre: Action, Platformer




I heard about Shovel Knight's kickstarter campaign back in March 2013 and seeing the demo on Game Grumps and other Let's Play channels got me really hyped. Unfortunately, I was still unemployed at the time and couldn't really justify scrounging up money for a Kickstarter game that I wasn't exactly sure would live up to the hype. The funny thing about kickstarter campaigns? They don't have to really deliver a quality product. The product can often be delayed and/or not meet the expectations of the backers. It is a risky affair. In fact, Shovel Knight was delayed. And yet...


Shovel Knight is another bona fide success story, worth every penny, and a testament to consumer funded entertainment, independent games, and to the future of the medium. Shovel Knight is an homage to retro games-- taking mechanics from Mega Man, Duck Tales, Castlevania, Zelda II, and oh so many titles-- with 8-bit era sensibilities. It borrows a lot of mechanics from a lot of classic games and, maybe just maybe, improves them.

Now, before I start gushing ichor like the Trouple King, the King of Fish & Fruit, let's get on with the review!

STORY

"Long ago, the lands were untamed and roamed by legendary adventurers! Of all heroes, none shone brighter than Shovel Knight and Shield Knight. But their travels together ended at the Tower of Fate; when a cursed amulet wrought a terrible magic. When Shovel Knight awoke, the Tower was sealed, and Shield Knight was gone. His spirit broken, a grieving Shovel Knight went into a life of solitude.

But without champions, the land was seized by a vile power: the Enchantress and her Order of No Quarter!

Now, the Tower is unsealed and a new adventure is about to begin..." (Shovel Knight, 2014)

The story is simple. It, like the rest of the game, is a homage to the types of games that define the era it is emulating-- a friend is lost, the hero must get them back, and, in order to get them back, the hero must overcome adversity. And yet, Shovel Knight plays on this story in a few subtle ways that, while I won't spoil them for you, make the game resonate emotionally with the player.

The other elements that add to the game's story are the cast of friendly, rival, and enemy populating the game's villages and Super Mario Bros. 3 inspired mini-map. From Chester the treasure chest inhabiting salesman to Mr. Hat the mad haberdasher to cameos from characters from other independent games and memes, the game is populated with many personalities that, combined with the game's whimsical and light-hearted comedy, will leave a last impression.

Now, that we've got that out of the way, let's dig into the meat and potatoes of the game!

PRESENTATION

Shovel Knight is a game designed to look and sound like an 8-bit classic. At first glass, most people would probably mistake it for an NES or SNES title. That's the point. And yet the game design takes these parameters and tweaks them with a richer pallet of color, animation, and sound than would've been possible in the 8-bit era. Yacht Club could've taken the easy way out and simply made the game an unpolished 8-bit clone, but instead they took the 8-bit era into HD definition. If this is the future of homage games, then I'm in.

Before we talk about the game's sound, let's look at an example of the game's use of character design and how they combine character into level design:

They game takes most of its cues from Mega Man when it comes to boss design: the bosses are all knights, like the hero, with a unique theme (the exception being the Enchantress). Each of them has a different item associated with their level and each item helps the player progress through the game (though you don't need the items to beat the game). Much like Mega Man, many of these characters were once noble knights like Shovel Knight but have joined the Enchantress's campaign of evil for various reasons-- from the Treasure Knight's greed to the King Knight's pride-- and are the road blocks between Shovel Knight and his quest. To beat the game, you must beat the Order of No Quarter and play each of their levels. And each level is designed around each boss.


The level and boss fight room designs are evocative of their classic game inspirations, but clearly take advantage of modern hardware. Just look at the rich layers of color in the King Knight boss room-- in the foreground we have a theme of yellow and red that compliment boss knight regal decor, in the next layer we have green walls with just the right color code to both compliment the foreground colors and allow Shovel Knight to stand out and, lastly, behind that is a background with purple skies (since we're in the Enchantress's tainted lands) that gives the whole scene a rich depth. You can see how the details of this stage fit King Knight's royal personality, from the garish gold bricks and chandeliers (not shown) to the red and gold banners to having an opulent throne in his boss fight room.

Each level is designed brilliantly around each boss. The bosses are Black Knight, King Knight, Specter Knight, Plague Knight, Treasure Knight, Mole Knight, Tinker Knight, Polar Knight, and Propeller Knight. I bet you can't guess who's stage the screen above is from?

 Before we move onto game play, let's talk about sound design and soundtrack! The sound design in the game make's every swing of your shovel, every jump, and every use of magic satisfying. The effects are reminiscent of other game's, like everything else, and will give you the proper nostalgia you want. And the soundtrack... Jake Kauffman's composition is brilliantly catchy and each stage's music feels perfectly in tune with itself. You can check out every song (and download the soundtrack/s HERE. Pay what you want) for yourself if you don't believe me. Strike the Earth is one of my favorite tunes from the game. But really, if you want proof of the soundtrack's pedigree, you should know that it has two songs by classic game composer, Manami Matsumae. You may recognize her from working on the soundtracks for game's like the original Mega Man.

Even the mini-map is flawless. I declare flawless victory. (I wonder how this review is gonna turn out? The suspense is killer but bear with me. I have some more neat stuff to talk about!)

GAME PLAY

Let's start by talking about the game play by talking about level design, again, but this time from a gameplay perspective. Let's start by talking about the first level...

The first level is on the best designed first levels of all time. The standard, of course, is the first level of Super Mario Bros, World 1-1. 1-1 starts by introducing the players to Goombas, which you kill by jumping on their heads. The first stage of Shovel Knight introduces the players to beetles, which you kill by striking them with your shovel. Much like 1-1, you learn to jump by realizing you have to get over platforms. You also learn the digging mechanic because it shows you a pile of dirt early in the stage. The best example of 1-1 tutorial mechanics, come with the screen shown above: you cannot go further in the stage without getting past these two dirt blocks. You cannot dig them with a horizontal swig. What do you do? Jump and press down. It comes naturally.

World 1-1 doesn't have to tell you the controls or give a complicated tutorial. And neither does Shovel Knight. In fact, the only time you'll ever need specific instruction comes when you pick up new magic artifacts but, even then, they just give you a one-line explanation of what the item is supposed to do. This is the height of simple game design and it is clear that they took a lot of key points from World 1-1. Honestly, more game designers should try that approach (including at Nintendo because, if you've played Skyward Sword, you know what I mean).

Shovel Knight's gameplay can be split into three types: platforming, mini-boss fights, and boss fights. Let's look at each element individually and the talk about the game's death and economy mechanics.

Let's take the platforming section to talk about the game's control and mechanics. In order to progress, you have to overcome each level's various obstacles, from enemies to environmental hazards. In order to do so, you will need to jump over obstacles and onto platform, swing your shovel to defeat enemies, and shovel hop. Shovel hopping is a key element, based on pogo caning from Ducktales on the NES, and allows to damage most enemies and get over many obstacles. As you progress, you will also pick up magic items that will aid you in getting through the levels and defeating enemies. The most useful items are the Phase Locket, which allows you to ignore most obstacles, such as spikes, with temporary invincibility, and the Troupple Chalices, which can be used to restore health and magic. And yet, these relics are not necessary to defeating the game.

One of the most endearing qualities of Shovel Knight is that you can decide how to take on each level and can choose to make the game more challenging by using fewer or no relics than are available to beat the game.

 Most mini-bosses in the game are memorable obstacles that, unlike most other enemies, you cannot ignore to progress. They are usually fairly easy to beat, once you discover their patterns, but provide you with a nice break from the platforming segments.

Your reward for getting to the end of a level is fighting the boss and the boss fights are a lot of fun; they take place in small rooms, like Mega Man bosses, maybe with a few platforms or hazards, and Shovel Knight must defeat the boss to progress. These fights can be challenging to players without much experience, but those with experience in these sorts of games will find most bosses to be a breeze. But you can increase the difficulty by not using ichor to heal yourself, not using items, or trying them again in "New Game Plus", a more difficult game mode unlocked after first beating the game, that makes everything harder.

The bulk of Shovel Knight's challenge comes in reaching the bosses, since instadeath is possible through pits and spikes, and the game's unique forms of reward and punishing risky gameplay and mistakes.

Each level in Shovel Knight is strewn with treasure. Buried in dirt, hidden in walls, and carried by enemies, gems and gold add to your treasure pool. You can use treasure to buy items and upgrades in towns or from Chester. When you die, you lose a percentage of your treasure and return to the last checkpoint or the beginning of the level if you have not reached a checkpoint. Often, treasure is put in perilous locations, so you can expect to die a few times trying to reach it. Luckily, if you die, the percentage of treasure lost can be found floating where you die unless you die again, in which case it disappears. This creates a relationship between how much risk a player wants to take; if you get treasure, you will be rewarded. If you die, you lose treasure. If you die again, you lose more treasure as punishment. And, if you feel skilled enough, you can destroy check points for extra treasure! Though, if you die, you have to replay the level even more than if you kept that check point!

Luckily, you never feel cheated in Shovel Knight. The game's controls are so tight that every death is your own fault. This ultimately makes the game fun and challenging.

My only complaint? The game is short. Then again, most NES games were quite short and Shovel Knight has enough replayability to warrant a $15. The game doesn't overstay its welcome and leaves the player wanting more (a sequel or DLC would be nice).

Still, the game can be completed in about five hours or less. So, those of you expecting to get ridiculous amounts of gameplay out of your buck, should be weary.

PROS VS. CONS

+ The story is a simple homage to the games it emulates but it makes up the difference with a few twists and some memorable characters.
+ The sound and graphic design is both evocations of the games they emulate and evolutions on the genre of retro games. The soundtrack is classic.
+ The level design is some of the best... OF ALL TIME!
+ The platforming is challenging, combat is satisfying, and the controls are superbly tight.
+ The boss fights are easy, but memorable challenges you'll want to play again and again. Everyone has a favorite boss knight.
+/- The game is short but

CONCLUSION?
5/5.

So, if you've come this far in the review, you'll realize that I've fallen in love with Shovel Knight.

When I first saw the game, it reminded me of the Mega Man games I had just fallen in love with the year before (thanks to Game Grumps) and I was interested to see how the kickstarter played out. I bookmarked the game in mind as something to keep an eye out for in the coming year. As the game came closer to release, the hype seemed to build amongst game reviewers and retro gamers alike and I was a little concerned about whether it would live up to the hype. After all, a fifteen dollar price tag seems like a lot and I had heard it was short. Still, with a little encouragement from a friend who wanted to try it out, I broke down and bought it on the Wii-U since I love playing games on the game pad.

And I love playing Shovel Knight.

Every element is so well executed that I'm going to go on a limb here and say that, not only does it stand shoulder to shoulder (shovel to shovel) with the classics like Mega Man and Castlevania but, in many ways, surpasses and improves the game elements that those franchises innovated over twenty years ago.

Shovel Knight isn't just a game that copies classics. Shovel Knight is a classic.

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