REVIEW: Shovel Knight: Plague of Shadows

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Plague Knight | oprainfall
Title Shovel Knight: Plague of Shadows
Developer Yacht Club Games
Publisher Yacht Club Games
Release Date September 17, 2015
Genre Platformer
Platform Nintendo 3DS, Wii U (reviewed), PlayStation 4, Xbox One, PlayStation Vita, PlayStation 3, Linux, Mac OS
Age Rating ESRB – Everyone
Official Website

Shovel Knight is probably one of the most successful examples of a Kickstarter game. It gave us not only one of the best platformers of all time, but, with stretch goals, we were also promised three pieces of character DLC. Well, we recently got that DLC in the form of Shovel Knight: Plague of Shadows. It features Plague Knight, one of the game’s bosses and a member of the Order of No Quarter. So, does Plague of Shadows make you want to catch the plague, or should this game have stayed in the shadows?

Rather than a new campaign in the traditional sense (with new levels and such) Plague Knight’s campaign features the same levels as Shovel Knight, simply played from a different perspective, and with some small changes. Despite this, the levels manage to feel almost completely different, due to Plague Knight’s wildly different control scheme. While Shovel Knight tended to control rather straightforwardly, Plague Knight is an entirely different beast. Mainly in how he attacks and how he moves.

Shovel Knight: Plague of Shadows | Map Screen

Same levels, same map screen; there’s a lot familiar about this expansion.

Where Shovel Knight primarily focused on melee attacks with his shovel, Plague Knight mostly uses alchemical bombs. His bombs are made up of three components: a casing, a fuse, and powder. Each changes how the bomb behaves. The casing changes how it travels; its arc and direction. The fuse changes how long until it detonates. And the powder changes the explosion’s effect, such as sending out cascading flames or traveling along walls. This adds a great deal of versatility to Plague Knight’s arsenal, but it does add a bit of tedious micromanagement. To change bomb parts, you have to pause the game and switch them out from the menu. On the Wii U, you can use the GamePad without having to pause it, but that’s kind of impractical in the middle of gameplay. You don’t have to change bomb parts; it’s never required, but it can make some enemies and obstacles easier.

The other main difference is that, rather than having one single long jump, Plague Knight has two short jumps. Of course, even with a double jump, Plague Knight still can’t jump as high or as far as Shovel Knight. So, how does he compensate? Bomb jumps! By holding the button after throwing a bomb, Plague Knight can charge up to do a bomb jump, in which he creates an explosion at his feet, rocketing him forward.

Shovel Knight: Plague of Shadows | Demolitions

Plague Knight likes bombs, is what I’m saying. Also, why don’t they call him Bomb Knight, or Science Knight? Those names would make more sense.

This adds a new dimension to gameplay. Combined with his two short double jumps, the bomb jump can go farther and higher than Shovel Knight’s unassisted jump. This lets you soar over gaps that would give Shovel Knight trouble. At the same time, though, it’s hard to control, and you can easily send yourself flying on some of the more technical platforming sections. Learning when and how to properly use Plague Knight’s jump is a big part of the game’s challenge and fun.

Aside from just having a unique jump, Plague Knight also has another mechanic that differentiates him from Shovel Knight. Rather than having Relics, Plague Knight uses Arcana. They work somewhat similarly; they’re unique powers that can be used in exchange for a small bit of magic. They give you powers like creating a small temporary platform, throwing a smoke bomb that makes you invulnerable while inside it, or giving a boost to your jump. The main difference between Shovel and Plague Knight in this regard, though, is that Plague Knight has a much shorter magic meter, but his refills. This means that you can’t spam your magic powers like you can as Shovel Knight, but you can use them over time without having to worry about running out of magic mid-level, or mid-boss fight, and having to refill. Also, because of these changes, Shovel Knight’s Relic stages were completely redesigned to better suit Plague Knight’s Arcana.

Shovel Knight: Plague of Shadows | Worthless Rubbish

But, really, who would want rubbish like this? Maybe someone crazy enough to think that they could use a shovel as a weapon. Heh.

Another funny detail is that you don’t actually collect the Arcana themselves. Instead, you find Shovel Knight’s Relics hidden in new areas in the levels. From there you go to the secret areas that you go to in Shovel Knight’s story, and trade the relics to Chester (that guy who always pops out of the chests) for the Arcana, implying that Chester actually got them from Plague Knight, rather than finding them himself.

Like I said earlier, the levels are largely unchanged from Shovel Knight’s story. A few changes were made to make sure none of them are unbeatable as Plague Knight, and new sections were added that you can only get to using his unique abilities, but they’re otherwise untouched. Since Shovel Knight’s levels are some of the best platforming levels ever made, that’s not a bad thing. Playing them as Plague Knight is as fun and challenging as ever and even feels fresh now with his new playstyle.

On the other hand, since the way Plague Knight moves is so different from how Shovel Knight does, it does lead to an oddly-shaped difficulty curve sometimes. Some of Shovel Knight’s challenges, like traversing large gaps, become almost trivial for Plague Knight’s bomb jump. On the other hand, some obstacles, like navigating small platforms or avoiding spikes, become an exercise in frustration with Plague Knight’s more erratic controls. This leads to the difficulty jumping around on some levels as some challenges, which would become progressively more difficult for Shovel Knight, have wildly differing difficulties for Plague Knight. It’s a minor complaint, but it is noticeable.

Moving on, though, let’s talk about the story. Like the games that inspired it, Plague Knight’s story is fairly threadbare. It exists largely as an excuse to drive the gameplay. Plague Knight’s story starts off in much the same way Shovel Knight’s does. The evil Order of No Quarter, led by the Enchantress, has taken over the valley, installing each member of the order as a level boss. But, although he’s a member of the Order, Plague Knight has his own goals in mind. Plague Knight intends to create the (vaguely defined) Ultimate Potion.

To do that, he needs to collect multiple essences, possessed, conveniently enough, by the other members of the Order of No Quarter. Thus, Plague Knight finds just the excuse he needs to traverse all of their levels one-by-one and beat the snot out of them to get their essence. Although the story does tread some familiar ground, there are some surprisingly touching moments and even a few twists. And, like with the original, the game manages to present a number of compelling and memorable characters.

Shovel Knight: Plague of Shadows | Stealing Tinker Knight's essence

Stealing Tinker Knight’s essence

Of course, they aren’t all the same. Without spoiling anything, let me just say that there are some new boss fights, as well. Each manages to be different and challenging and really take advantage of Plague Knight’s unique abilities. There’s also several points in the game where you’ll you’ll be forced to face off with hordes of guards, which provides both an interesting and fun challenge, while at the same time making you feel like a total badass.

Like the levels and bosses, the music is also largely the same this time around. There are few new themes, but it’s mostly the same. Again, not that that’s a bad thing. Shovel Knight had some impressively catchy tunes. The new music that was added is equally impressive, if not more so. Likewise, the art assets are also almost entirely reused from the first game. Some characters, like Mona, Percy (an incredibly minor NPC from the original game) and Plague Knight himself, all got new sprites to match their expanded roles in the expansion. Aside from that, though, ever other sprite or background is entirely the same.

Like the original, Plague of Shadows has achievements known as Feats. Some are the same as the last game (finish the game, find all the collectibles) while others are a bit more Plague Knight specific (beating a boss using only bomb jumps, stay in the air for 10 seconds without landing). I’ve never been a big achievement person, so I didn’t find them particularly interesting. But if you’re into collecting achievements, you should find something there to keep you busy.

Ultimately, I’d say Plague of Shadows is a pretty good game, which I was able to finish in just about nine hours. If you enjoyed the original, it’s definitely worth your time to give this one a try. Especially for the price (free). The levels are fun and gameplay keeps things fresh, even if the stages are largely the same. 

Review Score

About Colin Malone

Colin has been playing video games since he was very young and is a fan of several genres including RPG, strategy and platformers, among others. He graduated from Southwestern University with a degree in communications and currently writes for Wii U Daily, Operation Rainfall and Inspectioneering Magazine. His long term goal is nothing less than to become the Hunter S. Thompson of games journalism.