Yacht Club Games can’t seem to put an armoured boot wrong with the Shovel Knight series. After smashing their Kickstarter target the developer has worked tirelessly toward delivering on their stretch goals, which had promised extra content if the funding goals were met.
At a time when confidence in the crowdfunding platform wanes, Shovel Knight, or Shovel Knight: Treasure Trove as it is now known, stands proud as a shining example of what it has helped to achieve. And now, with Shovel Knight: Specter of Torment, that quest continues.
With the ancient code of Shovelry once again set aside, this instead sees players wield a wickedly scythe as they take control of Specter Knight and Specter of Torment’s tale acts as a prequel to the events that unfold in Shovel Knight: Shovel of Hope. Servant to the Enchantress, Specter Knight is tasked with recruiting knights to create the Order of No Quarter, and, if he succeeds in his duties, he is promised a chance to regain his lost humanity and be freed from his chains of servitude.
That 8-bit nostalgic lure remains strong, although, while revelling in the platforming challenges presented by all-new stage designs, it is Specter Knight’s differentiated playstyle that truly lets this lengthy prequel’s otherworldly character shine. Relying on what the developer refers to as a “preternatural agility,” Specter Knight can glide his way across the ground and clamber up walls to leap toward out-of-reach locations.
It is his Dash Slash which becomes the real showpiece, which, while airborne, can see a gash appear over a nearby target – whether that be a wandering enemy or swaying lantern. Pressing the B Button will see Specter Knight perform a Dash Slash, whizzing toward such a target with an attack. That can not only help in seeing you soar to higher ledges and, therefore, can be seen as an important move to succeed, but its use will soon become a key tactic in toppling the many boss characters that you will face.
Red Skulls litter each stage, collectables that can be returned to Red – who is searching for the red skull of his lost love – in exchange for Curios. These potent items will provide access to special moves, whether that be the Throwing Sickle that lets you launch a Boomeranging Blade, the Spider Scythe that will let you throw a scythe that climbs over obstacles and up walls, the Chronos Coin that slows down everything around you, or the Judgement Rush, which will see Specter Knight strike the nearest enemy. There are more to gather beyond this, but the Curios successfully remix the gameplay as your adventure continues.
A Wisp Chest also lies hidden in each stage, which, once discovered, can be smashed open to permanently increase your Will or Darkness. This will become increasingly helpful as you progress, facing trickier stages and unrelenting bosses.
With the Tower of Fate acting as your base between stages, players can approach numerous merchants to spend the treasure that they accumulate. Specter Knight can purchase new cloaks from Manny that can strengthen his attacks or see you lose Will and Darkness rather than being met with an untimely death when falling into a pit, or turn to Legion to upgrade Curios that you have collected.
Rather than hunt down every Wisp Chest, players can talk to Missy to unlock those that you have missed, or, if you prefer, you can simply stand around in the Juice Bar and talk to the Tower of Fate’s lively inhabitants.
There are 11 stages for you to Dash Slash through in total, each with their own distinct flavour and boss knight to recruit. Story sequences are interspersed with these as you as you tally up the Order of No Quarter recruits, which, for Shovel Knight fans, will intriguingly share insight into Specter Knight’s backstory. But, while there can be no question that Specter of Torment presents an experience of impeccable quality, it took me just over four hours to complete.
With a $9.99 price tag, that may come as a disappointment to some. But, post-completion, players will unlock access to New Game Plus, a more challenging quest that, while you retain your collected equipment, will see Will and Darkness fused together as one resource. There is also Challenge Mode to conquer, Feats to tackle and Sound Test, where you can sit back and listen to the jubilantly exciting soundtrack penned by Jake Kaufman.
In Shovel Knight: Specter of Torment, Yacht Club Games continue to display an innate understanding of the genre and what makes it tick. That results in a sensational 8-bit quest that is executed flawlessly, with the only complaint being the main adventure’s brevity. With such brilliance on display at every turn, I simply didn’t want the experience to end. It’s to die for.