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Shovel Knight / 02nd of May 2015

Yacht Club Games’ PC, 3DS, PS Vita and Wii U hit, Shovel Knight has finally made the transition onto our current crop of consoles, the PS4 and the Xbox One, and with the addition of some new characters in each. Yet, somehow putting this aside (although the Xbox one version does feature Rare’s magnificent Battletoads), it is ultimately the seemingly anachronistic gameplay and visual style that are likely to see it shift a considerable amount of units. Is this justified though? Well, unlike the rather vulgar, Volgar the Viking, there may just be enough about Shovel Knight to warrant a purchase, but just make sure that you have a few control pads in reserve as things might just get a bit ugly along the way…

There are a few things that players will immediately notice about Shovel Knight, starting with its Mega Drive-like cut scenes that show rather clearly that the developer has gone all-out to ensure that the game feels as close to an old school platformer as is actually possible, and in that regard, they have certainly succeeded. Both in terms of its brutally hard gameplay, and simplistic visuals, Shovel Knight quite literally screams Ghouls ‘N’ Ghosts in the face of anyone brave enough to play it, yet it also displays clear influences from other classic platformers, this can be felt in the design of its world map, which is a clear nod to Nintendo’s magnificent Super Mario Bros. 3. But is Shovel Knight simply an amalgamation of the developers favourite games, or does it actually attempt to forge its own path?

The protagonist of this adventure, if one had not already guessed, is a fine chap known as Shovel Knight, a hero who wields a mighty shovel instead of a sword, this can be used to contend with enemies, reach higher areas with a downward attack (this sends the gallant knight bouncing high into the air) and to dig up treasure. He traverses the aforementioned world map by jumping about from node to node, the majority of these are levels that require tackling, but some are actually small villages where he can talk to the people, upgrade his health bar or expand the amount of mana that he can hold, effectively allowing for greater use of relics. These items bestow upon Shovel Knight the use of new powers, the first of which allows him to launch fireballs across the screen, which is a particularly necessary addition as his movement is both slow and altogether rather clunky.

Even climbing ladders can be a tad frustrating as the character doesn’t jump off them as one would expect, but rather steps down from the side, which adds to the game’s somewhat antiquated feel. There can be no denying that the game is a joy to play at first, but the difficulty is quickly ramped up, and it becomes rather frustrating due to the way that it gratuitously punishes players for their mistakes, these are likely to become quite common as the levels add in more intricate sections that demand pixel perfect movement, packing in traps, such as spikes, which mean only instant death for those that stray too far. Returning to the last checkpoint was not deemed punishment enough by Yacht Club Games though, each death sees the player robbed of a portion of their collected loot, which floats about in sacks ready to be collected again, but of course, seeing as how these appear at the location where Shovel Knight met his demise though, sometimes, it becomes impossible to pick these back up again, forcing players to quit whilst they’re…well, behind, really.

However, don’t give up just yet, because the game certainly has its charms, the soundtrack for one is ubiquitously catchy, every tune is a little time warp back to a better time in gaming that perfectly complements the visual design. There are a wide variety of different enemy types, some of which require a bit more thought when confronted, and there are – a given for this type of retro re-tread – numerous bosses to be overcome, these may initially seem daunting, but through upgrading Shovel Knight’s health and mana reserves, along with some pattern recognition, players can overcome these guys too…eventually. They all have a certain amount of character to them too, which is expressed as much through their witty pre-battle conversations (thanks to some excellent dialogue), as much through their brilliantly unique designs, the Order of No Quarter certainly know how to pick them!

There are further upgrades that can be unearthed later on, and the gameplay gets mixed up a bit with scrolling stages and some intriguing puzzles that only serve to add to the variety that the game offers up, which should prove to be more than enough to keep most gamers entertained for the eight or so hour campaign. Yacht Club Games have crafted something that I will admit has risen above my expectations with Shovel Knight, yet it is certainly not without its flaws, needless punishments and some dubious level design (at points) would probably have left it rather hard to recommend, but with a shovel load of charm, an excellent soundtrack and varied, engaging gameplay, it just manages to tip the boat in its favour. So what are you waiting for? Dig in.

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