By Josh Speer / March 7th, 2017
|Title||Shovel Knight: Specter of Torment|
|Developer||Yacht Club Games|
|Publisher||Yacht Club Games|
|Release Date||March 3rd 2017 (Switch), April (other systems)|
|Platform||PC, Steam, Switch, Wii U, 3DS, PS3, PS4, Vita, XBox One|
|Age Rating||E for Everyone – Mild fantasy violence|
To say I’m a big Shovel Knight fan is a somewhat of an understatement, so it’s no surprise I was incredibly excited to play Specter Knight’s DLC, Specter of Torment. While it was a bit of a surprise that it was initially bound to be a Switch exclusive, I had high hopes the quality of the product would make it well worth the wait. After all, Yacht Club Games has proven their pedigree not only for crafting a fantastic game but for expanding on it in creative and unexpected ways. Plague of Shadows certainly proved that the DLC was far more than a minor facelift, and from all accounts, Specter of Torment was an even bigger step up from that. So, how did my dance with death go?
Specter of Torment is the 3rd Shovel Knight DLC, and is obviously focused on the most mysterious member of the Order of No Quarter, the supernatural Specter Knight. It also serves as a prequel to the original Shovel Knight, which allows things to be quite radically different. Not only is each stage dramatically reworked to make use of Specter Knight’s unique abilities, they also feature expansive new areas full of challenge. I’d estimate that most stages make use of at least 50-70% completely new areas, depending on the stage. For example, Polar Knight’s stage is almost entirely unrecognizable from either Shovel Knight or Plague Knight’s campaign, though some stages, like King Knight’s stage, aren’t as radically altered. Best of all, these stages both look and feel completely new, so much so that Specter of Torment felt less like a DLC episode and more like a completely different game.
As for how the game plays, it is both very similar and very different from the previous campaigns. While you still go through the same pattern of going through stage, getting tools, fighting boss, rinse and repeat, there are many little changes. For one, there is no world map in Specter of Torment. At first I was concerned about this change, since I worried it would mean there was less game to play. However, after beating Specter of Torment, I can say with confidence that it is just as meaty an experience, if not more so, than either of the other versions. Furthermore, there’s something sexy and cool about the way Specter Knight teleports from stage to stage, appearing in a sudden bolt of lightning and darkness.
You’re probably curious how the reaper plays, and I’m happy to say Specter Knight is a joy to control. While he lacks the ability to deflect attacks like Shovel Knight or double jump like Plague Knight, he is very capable and dangerous. For one thing, he can walk up walls, letting him traverse vertical heights with ease, with the downside that he can only go a limited distance before he flips off the surface. This isn’t a big issue, though, since Specter Knight can also home in on nearby enemies and do a dashing slash into them. This mechanic was by far one of my favorites, as it allowed me to zip around the stages with abandon, only requiring I was cautious not to fall into any bottomless pits or spike traps. Yes, Specter Knight is undead, but he can still be depleted of Willpower (his version of a life meter), which means Game Over. While he does have a basic scythe attack, its range is quite limited, meaning you’ll do well to alternate your assaults intelligently. Lastly, you can also acquire a rail grinding move which is high risk and reward, letting you scale even spiked surfaces!
But it wouldn’t be a Shovel Knight game if you didn’t have cool toys, and Specter of Torment delivers with a diverse array of Curios. Powered by your Darkness meter, these artifacts can be picked up from a kindly skeleton named Red in exchange for Red Skulls you find carefully tucked away in levels. These subweapons vary from simple long distance boomerangs to hovering in mid air to cloning yourself to even slowing down time, and they all opened up unique play options. My personal favorite was the Spider Scythe which, when thrown at a surface, climbs all over it, slicing and dicing any foes in their path. As if that wasn’t enough, each of the Curios can also be powered up for a nice chunk of change, drastically improving their power and gifting them with additional quirks, such as drawing gold to them magnetically.
Perhaps the most curious Curio is the mysterious locket that Specter Knight seems to dwell upon every time he returns to the Tower of Fate (the main hub area). Yes, this is the selfsame locket that Shovel Knight uses to turn temporarily ephemeral in the first game, but it also has a much deeper significance. I won’t spoil the secrets but suffice to say there is a reason that Specter Knight became the creature he is today, and he wasn’t always that way. These are illuminated well in sepia toned flashback stages in between the adventure, and they do a great job of setting the emotional tone for the game, which is one of bittersweet despair with just a hint of longing for things long past.
Speaking of the Tower, it’s a very streamlined hub area, bustling with evil minions, skeletal characters and things to do. Besides trading for Curios with Red, you can also buy alternate raiment there, power up your subweapons, talk with lackeys and even collect Will and Darkness extensions you may have missed in a stage. While I won’t say it entirely makes up for no Troupple Pond or Armor Outpost, it gave me lots to do and also kept me focused on the story. I also appreciated how the stage select screen kept track of how many Red Skulls I had collected in a given stage, which was something the previous campaigns lacked (looking at you, Alchemy Coins!). Lastly, it was a good balancing act to give Specter Knight gold upon beating bosses, since the challenging level design meant I often lost my life, and wasn’t always able to reach those hard to get floating money bags.
Design wise, Specter of Torment is a joy. I love how stages are tinged with a touch of melancholy and menace not present in either of the previous games, and the overall level design was top notch. Stylistically, I would compare the stage layout of Specter of Torment to such classics as Ninja Gaiden, though not as unforgiving. There are lots of precise jumps, slippery surfaces and dangerous traps. The game requires you have good reflexes, think quickly and be willing to take risks. That said, I felt that getting around as Specter Knight was smoother and less chaotic than playing as Plague Knight, even though I probably had more overall deaths. The design is more hardcore retro game than either Shovel Knight or Plague of Shadows. Also on the topic of aesthetics, there are several new enemies which are all well designed and challenging, such as the tombstone wielding zombies which burst from the ground in the Lich Yard.
The sound design is also fantastic, though I felt that there were less original songs than in the other versions of the game, as well as more remixes that turned tunes decidedly more Gothic. That said, the new songs, especially the theme for Tower of Fate, were very easy to listen to, and overall the music kept me totally focused and immersed in the game world.
It wouldn’t be a Shovel Knight experience without amazing and memorable boss fights, and Specter of Torment truly delivers, with perhaps the best bosses in Shovel Knight history. That might surprise some of you who think that you’re just fighting the Order of No Quarter again, but every boss fight has been reworked, much like the levels themselves, and offers a whole new challenge. This holds true for both the main boss fights as well as the mid bosses, and even some other battles I won’t mention to avoid spoilers. For some examples of how they vary, when going against Propeller Knight, the first half of the fight is the same, but for the second, you face him in mid air, climbing ranks of floating hovercraft as he jousts and calls bombs down upon your head. Another great example is the battle against Mole Knight, who summons blocks of jelly that bounce you back when you hit them, and who now burrows into the ceiling as well as the floor and walls. I was unable to beat any of the bosses without taking a hit, and they offered such robust challenge that I highly anticipate playing through the game again on New Game+.
It occurs to me after playing the game that although each version of the game was different, they each dealt with the concepts of love and loss. While Shovel Knight focused on his hunt to save Shield Knight and Plague of Shadows dealt with Plague Knight’s secret feelings for a certain someone, Specter of Torment’s story is not about romantic passion, but camaraderie. However, even then, there is a romance in the campaign between the skeleton Red and his lady love, Scarlet. More than anything though, Specter of Torment is a game about duty and the price of holding on to our humanity. I truly enjoyed my time with it, and spent a little more than 4 hours beating the game, with 85% item completion. The Nintendo Switch is truly fortunate to have Specter of Torment as an exclusive, and for those of you waiting, rest easy knowing it will be truly worth the wait. Specter Knight’s tale is a dark and epic one, and it makes me all the more excited for the next DLC Yacht Club Games has up their voluminous sleeves.
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