The 2014 indie smash hit ‘Shovel Knight’ has returned in full force, now with a brand new protagonist in the form of Plague Knight. ‘Shovel Knight: Plague of Shadows’ is a new campaign which is completely free to anyone who purchased the original game across any platform. Simply update your copy of ‘Shovel Knight’ to version 2.0 and ‘Plague of Shadows’ will be accessible to anyone who has beaten the original game. In addition to this new campaign, version 2.0 also includes a brand new challenge mode.
The ‘Plague of Shadows’ Campaign
This story takes place during the original Shovel Knight campaign, only this time from Plague Knight’s perspective. Plague Knight is an alchemist and one of the original bosses from the game, who is on a quest of his own to create a potion which will give him an ‘ultimate power’. At the beginning of the game he claims that this power will give him everything he has ever wanted, although he isn’t specific regarding what exactly that is. Plague Knight always seems to be one step ahead of Shovel Knight, as such Plague Knight’s actions seem to have an impact on how Shovel Knight’s game plays out.
Spoiler Warning: The following two paragraphs include plot details.
Unbeknown to Shovel Knight, one of the characters he encounters on his journey (‘Mona’, the witch who lives underneath the town) is actually a good friend of Plague Knight and is assisting him in creating his potion. In order to create the potion, Plague Knight himself has to battle all of the other bosses in the game in an attempt to steal their ‘essence’. As Plague Knight embarks on the same journey as Shovel Knight it becomes apparent that Plague Knight is in love with Mona. It turns out that his intentions are to better himself with his potion in order to impress her and gain her affections.
Towards the end of the story Mona goes missing, much to the dismay of Plague Knight. However, the reason Mona left was to try and protect Plague Knight on his quest, since his feelings towards her were mutually shared. This turn of events results in a climactic battle which takes place in the tower of fate at the same time that Shovel Knight is fighting to save Shield Knight. In a clever plot twist, the actions of Plague Knight and Mona directly influence Shovel and Shield Knight’s final battle and entwine the two stories together.
Essentially ‘Plague of Shadows’ is a remixed version of the original Shovel Knight campaign, complete with the same stages, bosses and towns. However, Plague Knight has a completely different set of skills and abilities to Shovel Knight which dramatically changes how the gameplay works. As a result, all of the stages have been amended and in most cases extended to accommodate him.
One of the most important characteristics of Shovel Knight was his ability to bounce on enemies with his Shovel. This not only allowed him to fight enemies from above but was also an important mechanic to help him reach high platforms. Plague Knight on the other hand is (supposedly) a lot more agile than Shovel Knight and can blast his way up to high platforms using double jumps and magical bursts. Rather than using a melee weapon, Plague Knight uses a variety of bombs as projectiles to defeat his enemies.
Shovel Knight’s method of upgrading his abilities was relatively simple in the original game. He could buy secondary weapons in the form of ‘relics’, armor, health, magic and weapon upgrades. However, Plague Knight’s system of upgrading is a little more complicated. For a start, in order for Plague Knight to purchase more abilities he has to do research first. In addition to gold and jewels, Plague Knight has to find special ‘Cipher’ coins throughout the stages (30 per stage plus bonus areas), which he can use to pay for research into upgrades. Every time he pays for research more upgrades are added to the store for him to buy.
Rather than being able to buy new bombs, Plague Knight can buy different elements which he can combine to create bombs. Bombs are made up of an outer shell, a powder, and a fuse. The various shells have an impact on how Plague Knight throws the bombs and the bomb’s movement in general, the powder will affect how the bomb explodes and the fuse has an impact on when each bomb explodes. Different combinations are suitable for different scenarios and have an impact on how effective they are during boss fights. Experimenting and familiarising yourself with these various elements will aid you greatly during the game.
Something else which is new is how Plague Knight acquires secondary weapons (Relics). Plague Knight has an entirely different arsenal of relics compared to Shovel Knight, which he can purchase from the exact same locations that Shovel Knight could in the original game, however there is a twist. The 8 main stages have all been extended with new areas that only Plague Knight can access. In these areas Plague Knight is able to find all of Shovel Knight’s relics which are ultimately useless to him. However, by taking them to the genie in each stage, Plague Knight can trade these original useless relics for the new weapons that he can use. By acquiring his own weapons and abilities he is essentially providing Shovel Knight with his. I thought this was a fantastic gimmick and it further emphasizes that Plague Knight is always one step ahead of Shovel Knight.
The original “Shovel Knight” is simply an amazing platform game. It was challenging, progressive, yet fair and balanced. Since this is an expansion, all of the original graphics remain the same with beautiful, vibrant 8-bit pixel art. Most of Jake Kaufman’s wonderful chip tune soundtrack is still present in the campaign, however he has also returned to provide some exclusive new pieces such as the new opening and victory themes.
So, “Shovel Knight” is a great game and this is the new campaign mode, so what’s the catch? Well, despite Plague Knight having far more complex abilities than Shovel Knight, this mode is actually far more difficult than the original. Personally I look upon this as Shovel Knight’s expert mode. Unfortunately, the reason for this serge in difficulty isn’t anything to do with the stages themselves, but reflect the biggest complaint that I (and seemingly many others) are having with this mode. This issue of the controls.
When the original Shovel Knight was produced it was made in the style of an 8 bit game, and drew a lot of inspiration from popular NES titles such as Super Mario 3, Zelda II, Castlevania, Megaman and Duck Tales. This inspired how the team assigned Shovel Knight’s controls and built the game so it could be played with an original NES control pad. This meant that Shovel Knight was operated with the D pad and just two trigger buttons. One button to jump, one to attack, and the secondary weapon is used in the style of Castlevania by holding ‘up’ and pressing attack. You do have the option of expanding the controls to three trigger buttons to accommodate the secondary weapon without having to hold ‘up’, but that was as complicated as the controls got. Plague Knight is still bound to these controls, however his move set is more complicated than Shovel Knights.
The following italics go into the more technical details regarding the controls.
For a start, Shovel Knight can actually jump far higher than Plague Knight with the single push of a button. He can also bounce on enemies for extra lift, yet all of the stages in SK:PoS have had many platforms and ladders removed. This is due to the fact that Plague Knight has a double jump (which is also rather flimsy and pathetic) and a magical boost attack. The boost attack is the move that you will be relying on the most in order to collect Cipher coins and beat stages. It’s effectively a huge jump which arcs in a specific way (that you don’t have a great deal of influence over in mid air).
To pull this move off you need to hold ‘attack’ to charge the boost and then let go of the button to release it. One problem I had with this is that it hindered my ability to throw bombs whenever I had the boost charged in advance. However, the biggest problem I had with this move is that the boost alone is usually never enough to reach high platforms.
You often need to perform triple jumps, for which the inputs would be…
Hold Attack, Jump, Jump, Release Attack.
Since you have little mid air control over the boost this can often land you slightly too far away from the platform you were aiming for. It is possible to slightly hover and kill some of your speed by throwing some bombs, for which the inputs would be…
Hold Attack, Jump, Jump, Release Attack, Attack, Attack…
What makes these controls even more infuriating is that one of the secondary attacks is a Street fighter style uppercut which I had to use to achieve a quadruple jump in order to grab a high cipher coin. Here the inputs were…
Hold Attack, Jump, Jump, Release Attack, Hold Up + Attack
If these examples were not ridiculous enough, there is another secondary weapon know as ‘The Vat’ which essentially kills your mid air speed stone dead and creates a temporary ledge underneath you (this item was incredible useful whenever I messed up a jump and was hurtling into a bottomless pit). So if you wanted to perform two triple jumps in quick secession using the Vat to hold you in mid air to charge the second boost, the inputs would be…
Hold Attack, Jump, Jump, Release Attack, Hold Up + Attack, Hold Attack, Jump, Jump, Release Attack.
These were just some of the techniques that I had to use in order to beat this game. To make matters worse, there is an in game achievement (feat) which requires you to beat the game without secondary weapons like the vat or the uppercut. I’m sure it’s possible to do but I struggled enough while using them.
TL:DR The controls in this game can get pretty obnoxious. Where Shovel Knight could bounce around stages relatively easily, Plague Knight requires the player to enter Mortal Kombat fatality style button combinations in order to do some basic platforming.
During SK:PoS I felt as if it was the controls I was up against, not the game itself. As it stands I can easily beat the original Shovel Knight within 2 hours and only dying a small handful of times. I have actually got the platinum trophy on it which means I have completed New Game +, speed runs, runs without buying upgrades and runs without dying. However, beating Plague of Shadows took me over 8 hours and I died 176 times. Yes, it was my first attempt and I needed to familierise myself with the new mechanics, but still! I wasn’t the only player experiencing these issues. I checked the #plagueofshadows hash tag on twitter a few times and I saw tons of tweets from people complaining about Plague Knight’s movement.
Towards the end of the game I was starting to get used to these complicated controls (given how technical the later stages can be, I pretty much had to). However, I felt that the learning curve was unnecessary and dampened my experience with the game. If Plague Knight could jump at the same height as Shovel Knight and could then boost by simply pressing jump in mid air, this game would be a lot easier to control and make for a much better experience.
Movement aside, Plague Knight has some fantastic weapons and abilities to play with. One new item that I thought was extremely useful was a potion that allowed you to regain health by attacking enemies. Since Plague Knight can’t achieve the permanent health upgrades that Shovel Knight can I thought this was a fair compromise.
Bosses seem to be a lot easier in this campaign as Plague Knight can attack a lot more rapidly than Shovel Knight can. It’s a lot of fun to experiment with the different bombs and create huge explosions when battling bosses. Two of the most satisfying encounters were a battle against Shovel Knight himself (who you encounter at the end of Plague Knight’s stage), and a brand new final boss which I will not spoil. Shovel Knight’s battle was a hell of a lot of fun since he is equipped with all of his secondary relic weapons, making for a tense, yet nostalgic battle sequence.
The main campaign took me 8 hours to beat on my first attempt, however just like the original Shovel Knight there is a lot of replay value. You have the option of returning to your saved game in order to find all of the collectibles and upgrades, plus you’ll have the option of playing New Game + which removes helpful power ups and has far fewer check points. There is also a new list of in game achievements which should bring your total game time up to an estimated 20 hours.
Although this campaign has 20 new in game achievements (known as feats), these only translate to two Xbox achievements / Playstation trophies. One for beating the campaign and one for achieving all of the feats. I personally was a bit disappointed by this since the campaign itself if far more difficult than the original Shovel Knight game which had far more trophies.
As an additional bonus to the update, ‘Challenge Mode’ has also been included in which you can play as Shovel Knight in a series of short obstacle courses and battles which only last a few minutes each. There are 10 short, yet very tough courses which usually focus on the player demonstrating their expertise with a particular weapon or technique. There are also rematches with all of the main game’s bosses.
During these challenges you are usually only given a small amount of health, a single secondary weapon and a strict time limit, with many of these stages scrolling automatically. Plague Knight also has his own set of challenges, however you will first need to beat the ‘Plague of Shadows’ campaign in order to access them.
Before this update ‘Shovel Knight’ was already a game that I would score a 10/10 rating. It’s simply a brilliant game, and this free update which adds a further 20+ hours of gameplay only serves to strengthen an already amazing package. Having said that, when judging the ‘Plague of Shadows’ campaign on its own merit, I did not enjoy it quite as much as the original game due to Plague Knight’s poor movement abilities and overly complicated controls.
Controls aside, ‘Plague of Shadows’ was still a fun experience. The new relics and weapon system do redeem this title a bit, and now I’ve had some time to recover from my first play through I’m actually looking forward to going back and cleaning up the rest of the achievements. In short, it’s Shovel Knight for sadomasochists.
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