Good things come to those who wait. Apparently good things also come to those people who pay their money a long time ago and wait. That good thing is Shovel Knight, yet another retro styled indie platformer. And it really is quite good, which is good.
But is it great? Not quite, but it goes awful close.
From looking around the webs, people are very much in “best game ever”, “game of the year” and oddly “better third person shooter than Uncharted 2″ mode. As such I’m risking being “that guy” who points out the games actual problems. While that is a tough job, there are legit issues to mention and I found them quite interesting.
First the good stuff and there is plenty of it. Graphics? Polished and distinctive with plenty of small details, kind of creepy npcs and diverse enemies. The bosses in particular have a lot of attention paid to them and each has a distinctive style, even if the battles are ultimately underwhelming. But more on that later…
The level design is solid (if not a little repetitive due to the nature of the game, there are only so many ways to arrange square blocks!) and the general attacking, jumping and “ducktales like” pogoing is tight and effective. There is plenty of content, levels are long and you can find secrets, hidden bosses, mostly useless items and even mini-map enemies as per Super Mario Brothers 3.
The story is fine, even if it is just kind of “there”. Bosses have a bit to say, but it is never that interesting “I must defeat you because… reasons!” and you’ll see where the whole thing is going before the intro sequence even ends. But for this type of game? It is more than a solid pass.
So in that regard, well done, great job, best indie platformer ever! Or at least it would have been without the phase item.
Here is my first big problem with the game. For a couple of mana you get an item that phases you out for a few seconds making you invincible from enemies, bosses and even spikes. It also freezes you in the air, letting you avoid some falls or change direction. In short, it is incredibly useful, easily spammable since mana upgrades are cheap and remains over powered for the entire game.
Problems with a boss? Nope, just phase out, hit them 3 or 4 times and repeat till they die. Tricky spike section? Use your item and walk straight through.
You do get other items, but none of them are as useful as our little friend. This presents a number of problems:
- You now never have to buy anything, so money isn’t really useful because any item is just not as good.
- Bosses come and go fast and there is no need to learn patterns. This wastes a lot of great design work.
- Environmental puzzles are a joke and the only challenge is the forest designed for the ability… Since it breaks everything else.
But hang on! You might cry. Can’t you just not use it? Well firstly you don’t really know how good it is until you play the game, so it is all a bit to late. Secondly placing artificial limits on yourself is something I never agreed with. If it is in the game? I’ll use it. Playing upside down with a rabbit in my pants would be more difficult too. You might find fun in playing this way (you sick, twisted person) but I just don’t.
Worse, without this ability, the game gets a lot less fun. Fancy an auto-scrolling section, chased by a giant fish and knocked constantly into pits by enemies? Nope, me neither. You know how everybody hates ice levels? Well Shovel Knight has a bullshit one, complete with enemies placed to knock you back over ice into pits…unless you phase through them. As it stands you can phase right through these cunningly placed foes. Without it, many sections will just get annoying real fast. Because of this, I’m not even sure an obvious nerf patch will fix the problem. This approach worked for Rogue Legacy and time stop, making the bosses interesting (in the original version, you could kill just about anything before it moved). But it was never really practical in the main game and balancing it didn’t make the whole thing a pain in the ass.
Which gets me to problem number 2. The death system is part Demons Souls in that you just lose money when you die. If you get back to the same point? You can reclaim it.
Which is all well and good, but gold drops exactly where you die, including in an instant death pit with a giant fish chasing you. Think you can fish it out before you die once more? Think again.
Having the gold drop on a safe platform would have been better if they wanted to use this system. Even better, having a real life system as per the games emulated would probably have been the better choice. As it stands there is no tension because all you can lose is a bit of cash… Which is everywhere and not really worth collecting for long anyway.
In other collecting terms, the relic system is not well executed either. Basically in some stages there is a secret blue chest that gives you a new item (fly for a short distance… Phase). The problem is you need to buy them from a guy in the chest, but if you can’t buy them or don’t find them? You can just buy them from town straight after the level. So really it is nice to hunt them down, but it is easier not to worry about it.
This also applies to checkpoints that can be destroyed. This choice gives you some gold at the loss of a respawn point which seems completely pointless to me. Just activate it and get your gems from the next couple of enemies which is quicker, safer and a lot less frustrating.
This perhaps comes to the heart of the matter. Shovel Knight is a quality package with a lot of polish. But it is only going to be great to people who can make their own fun of it. There is no built in sense of achievement like 1001 Spikes where you can only face up to the level and eventually overcome it. In this game, I think you would really need to be a speed run type of person who enjoys a “no phase, no checkpoint, green ball only run” challenge to get the most out of it.
To me, that is the best way to play Shovel Knight due to the limiting design choices. Maybe this is part of being a 3DS/Wii focused game and maybe they didn’t want it to be too brutal. But in making these changes, they just lost something special for me and no amount of digging will let me find it.
Oh but the music is tops. So yeah, it has that going for it.
The verdict? Still probably a must buy and a more than worthy playthrough. For the right person? It might just be a game of the year contender and a speed run marathon favourite. But for the rest of us? A good playthrough, a happy (if not long and currently incomplete in terms of modes) kickstarter process and a game you’ll never touch again after you beat it in 3-5 hours.
But hey, there isn’t a whole lot wrong with that is there?