Shovel Knight is an anomaly, even by today's standards. Unlike so many before them, Yacht Club Games took disparate parts from the best side scrolling action platformers of the 8-bit era and mashed them together into something wholly original. The graphics are modern while being retro at heart, the controls are pitch perfect, and the difficulty ramps gradually and lets players experience the game at a comfortable pace. It was a classic as soon as it was released, and it's no wonder that Yacht Club has found such success over the years as it works on campaigns and additions promised in the game's original Kickstarter. When playing through Specter of Torment, I was happy to see that this is the best iteration of Shovel Knight yet, tweaking the gameplay in ways that make it an even more fluid experience and framing that gameplay with a story that takes itself a bit more seriously.
Specter of Torment is the latest chapter in the Shovel Knight saga, a prequel depicting the formation of the Order of No Quarter before Shovel Knight takes them on in the original game. You play as Specter Knight and gather this hapless assortment of "bad guys" by invading their fortresses one by one. Specter Knight flys through the air by jumping from target to target with his scythe. This means that there's less ground to land on in Specter Knight's versions of each stage, but it also means that those who master the quirks of Specter of Torment's movement will feel accomplished just by reaching new heights. I'd compare it to a game like Titanfall 2, since movement is just as important as combat to the way the game feels and how well it plays. Sure, beating a boss feels good, but not quite as good as nailing the proper combination of dashes and jumps it takes to get to a well-hidden treasure chest.
Speaking of, the game's pacing is also an improvement from the original Shovel Knight. Although I love the callback, that game's Super Mario Bros. 3-style map with enemies rolling around was always a slight hassle in practice, and Specter of Torment replaces it with a simple level select. You still get plenty of fun moments meeting characters in your base of operations and upgrading your characters, but you're able to jump right into new stages whenever you want to and see your progress as you take down each boss and grow in strength. I effortlessly played through this game in just a few sittings, and that's something considering that the original Shovel Knight was a game I bounced off of after getting stuck repeatedly. Specter of Torment definitely seems a bit more forgiving in terms of difficulty, which may turn some people off, but it struck a great balance for me.
Of course, when it comes to difficulty, your mileage may very. Specter of Torment is filled with a multitude of alternate cloak upgrades and Curios (sub-weapons) that change your tactics. These tools include a gauntlet that propels you towards enemies with a heavy attack, several ways of summoning minions to attack for you, and a very useful green skull that heals you at the press of a button. Combining these items with Specter Knight's inherent mobility and survivability meant that I just wanted to rush forward through every stage, and I was rewarded for it more often than not. This is especially true of the game's set of rail grinding sections, where Specter Knight grinds along on his scythe and leaps into the air to attack. It can get a bit overwhelming at times just how many options you have at your disposal, and I found myself sticking to what worked after a while, but I have a feeling that different players will have different combinations of cloaks and gadgets to pull them through the game.
Between stages, you get flashback sequences detailing the backstory of Specter Knight and exactly how he came to be working for The Enchantress and forming the Order of No Quarter. The way that these segments weave in and out of the main game feel like a logical expansion of Shovel Knight's dream sequences, and I was really invested in the character by the end. You may know bits and pieces if you remember the pitch for this campaign during the Kickstarter vote, but going into it fresh will really give you an appreciation for the story that is being told here. Specter of Torment feels more aligned with the NES games of yore just due to its serious nature and its darker soundtrack provided by the always on point Jake Kaufman. There is still plenty of lighthearted fun to be had but completing the last few levels and taking your place as a graveyard boss is very bittersweet.
For veterans of Shovel Knight, Specter of Torment won't take you too long to run through, but there are plenty of good challenges to tackle through the in-game achievement system. For newcomers, I'd say that this is the best iteration of the Shovel Knight formula to date. Yacht Club Games continues to hit it out of the park, and I'd recommend this campaign to anyone who wants to experience what the best of 2D platforming has to offer.
Shovel Knight: Specter of Torment was reviewed on Nintendo Switch with a code provided by the publisher. It is available as part of Shovel Knight: Treasure Trove or standalone and will also be released on PC via Steam and GOG (Affiliate), Xbox One, PlayStation 4, PlayStation 3, PlayStation Vita, Nintendo 3DS, Wii U, and Amazon Fire TV (Affiliate).
Shovel Knight: Specter of Torment is everything you could want in a 2D platformer, featuring mechanics from classic games brought forward in clever ways. Specter improves upon the original Shovel Knight in most regards and continues Yacht Club Games' tradition of excellence effortlessly.
- Fluid Movement
- Rewarding Combat
- Emotional Narrative
- Amazing Soundtrack
- Overwhelming Curio Options
- Slightly Easier Than Predecessors