What started off as a fantastic Kickstarter success story has grown into a full-fledged franchise, and with this latest installment, the main Shovel Knight series has come to an end in the form of King of Cards, at least for now. By this point, the eponymous Shovel Knight and the antagonistic Order of No Quarter are proper gaming icons, having appeared in numerous games in cameo roles. And it’s easy to see why – the original Shovel of Hope was the perfect blend of old games like Super Mario Bros 3 and Duck Tales that, when combined with a charming story, great presentation, and top notch level design, made it an instant hit. With each subsequent expansion / sequel, Yacht Club Games managed to expand and mix up the series’ central platforming, and now, with the fourth and final single player expansion, they’ve added a content packed cherry on top of their already delightful sundae that is Shovel Knight: Treasure Trove.
Much like the absolutely fantastic Specter of Torment, King of Cards is a prequel to the main game, this time showing the rise of the golden dandy King Knight, a wannabe who eats meals his mother cooks for him. The catch is that he isn’t necessarily setting out for conquest – instead, he wants to be the king of a card game called Joustus, and he wants to become that by beating the fabled three Joustus judges that reside across the land. He sets off in an air ship, mother and crew in tow, and strives to make a name for himself not by beating the Joustus Judges in the card game, but through combat (there is no law saying they have to be beaten through cards).
Unlike the previous game, which had a rather melancholy story, the writing in King of Cards is perhaps the funniest the series has seen. King Knight is comically full of himself, and his interactions with the various characters you meet along the way provide endless amusement (including one character who is constantly flirting with his mother). It adds dimension to King Knight in that we see him as an insecure, wannabe royal who seeks glory by any means necessary. The only problem I had is that, this being a prequel, there aren’t many possible routes for the story to end, and you’ll likely see it coming from a mile away because of that. The ending, while appropriate, clashes with the tone of the rest of the game, and ultimately feels somewhat unsatisfying.
Thankfully, the game proper more than makes up for this. The world map from Shovel of Hope makes a triumphant return here, and with it comes smaller, more focused levels. Whereas before, each level was broken up into about five or six different sections, with each one introducing some kind of new platforming idea, here the levels only contain two checkpoints maximum, and each one centers on a single idea. For instance, one level sees King Knight skating across ice, and the challenges that come from constantly moving forward almost turn the game into an endless runner. Another level sees King Knight dealing with constantly shifting wind directions. Each level holds a new and interesting gimmick, and their short length makes this arguably the most perfect entry in the series for portable play.
What sets King Knight apart, aside from this new structure, are his abilities. Shovel Knight was able to bounce on his foes, Plague Knight could jump in midair via explosions, and Specter Knight could run up walls and use lanterns to launch himself around the levels. King Knight is kind of like a mix of all three. Using his trademark shoulder bash, King Knight can launch himself into the air and twirl around, damaging anything he might land on. Getting more than two bounces in a row will allow him to use another shoulder bash midair. This leads to situations where you barely touch the ground, and when they are pulled off well, it’s mesmerizing.
The smart level and enemy design make great use of King Knight’s abilities, and require an eye for detail present throughout the series. For instance, you learn early on that walls with some kind of growth on them can’t be used to spin in the air, meaning you will often times have to find another way around. Enemies, on the other hand, have been revamped for these new moves, and some are even exclusive to this expansion pack. The simple mechanics make you look at familiar enemies and situations in whole new ways. Whereas Shovel Knight was able to strike downward at a moment’s notice, damaging blocks and enemies under him, King Knight needs to bounce off something, and once he does, he won’t stop spinning until he takes damage or lands on solid ground. It would be a severe understatement to say that this continues to show Yacht Club Games’ masterful understanding and grasp of the platforming genre.
For those particularly intrepid adventurers, each level comes with three Merit Medals to find. Similar to Star coins in the New Super Mario Bros series, these are fiendishly hidden pieces of special currency that can be used on different upgrades and special items. While the game is decently challenging while simply trying to finish a given level, finding the Merit Medals takes a special kind of perseverance, as they often require mastery of the game’s mechanics and an eye for secrets, especially near the end of the game where you spend more time in the air than you do on the ground. I like them as hidden bonuses because, much like the red skulls from Specter of Torment, they are used as a means of getting permanent upgrades for your character. The sound tracks from Shovel of Hope and Plague of Shadows were cool, but didn’t feel as vital as the latter two games in the series. Merit Medals, and hidden exits from levels, offer the game a good amount of replay value, especially if you’re after everything the game has to offer.
Brand new to this game is Joustus, the aforementioned card game. I’ll admit that I was beyond skeptical when I first heard about it. After all, the previous three games in Treasure Trove were excellent platformers (excepting maybe Plague of Shadows, which was good but felt undercooked in a few ways) and weren’t exactly screaming for a card game to be crow barred in there. Having beaten most of the Joustus NPCs in King of Cards, I can safely say that my fears were laid to rest. Not only is the game entirely optional at your first match, but the mechanics reflect the series as a whole – they’re deceptively simple, but are expanded upon to show their underlying depth. Essentially, you have to manipulate cards on a given grid so you land on more jewels than your opponent. It starts off simple enough, with each card moving in a few different directions. But before long, different cards with different abilities pop up, like cards that can destroy other ones when pushed onto a spot, or cards that automatically move in a given direction if it’s available to them. To say that Joustus is addicting is under selling it. It is ultimately an extra feature that is entirely separate from the main campaign, but it is incredibly fun, and becomes a real challenge near the end, where each round brings a whole bunch of different effects that can swing the game one way or the other.
This goes without saying, but this retains the game tearfully gorgeous pixel art style of the rest of the series, as well as the fantastic sound track. And really, that’s a good indication of the game as a whole. Like the others, it is a simply fantastic platformer that, separate of the rest of the series, is easily recommendable for any fan of the genre. Taken as a part of the now massive Treasure Trove bundle, and you have an absolute steal. Given that Yacht Club games made the upgrades and expansions free for those who have been with the series since the beginning, meaning you only pay once for the games, the fact that the end result is this big and this great is simply astounding. In an era where micro transactions reign supreme, it’s comforting to see an independent developer be so selfless with these jaw dropping content updates.
It’s tough to say whether each new story mode is an expansion or a sequel. I’m leaning more towards the former, as each entry doesn’t so much improve on the core game as it does expand on it. But when the base game is as good as Shovel of Hope, it’s tough to argue with their approach to new entries in the series. As things stand right now, King of Cards is a wonderful way to end the series, with creative, simple mechanics that work wonderfully with the shorter, more focused level design. Add on top of that a whole host of secret collectibles and alternate level exits, as well as a super fun card game, and this is the most content rich game in the whole of Treasure Trove. I did enjoy Specter of Torment more for its tragic story and laser precise, ninja-like mechanics, but King of Cards is going to be a very tough act to follow.
Shovel Knight: King of Cards is now available along with Shovel Knight: Treasure Trove on every system available.
Images courtesy of Yacht Club Games.