Whether it’s as a free upgrade, one-third of Treasure Trove, or a separately purchased campaign, Shovel Knight: Specter of Torment is worth your time and money.
The third of four planned campaigns for the original Shovel Knight (retroactively retitled Shovel Knight: Shovel of Hope) Specter of Torment is a prequel to the original game built from the ground up, where the player takes control of Specter Knight, a former boss who, as it turns out, has his own story and abilities that expand upon the foundation set by the first two games.
Instead of feeling tacked on to the original Shovel Knight (one of the Wii U’s very best games), Specter of Torment deepens the Shovel Knight universe by revealing the histories of places and characters I never assumed had much of a history. Piecing Specter of Torment’s narrative together with the other games is an unexpected delight, as it’s not only a poignant storyline in its own right but also adds a new layer of meaning to past storylines. Without spoiling anything, it’s as if Yacht Club Games’ own ethos of kindness and inclusivity is echoed in this multi-perspectival storytelling approach, where each campaign rounds out characters in ways one campaign could not, making the good guys and the bad guys become equally empathetic by giving them equal voices. While the main thrust is a fairly simple tale of antihero redemption, this narrative structure makes you wonder what it would have been like to see Mega Man 2 from the perspective of Bubble Man (assuming he has a fleshed out and empathetic rationale for being so effervescent). It’s a lot of fun and like the other storylines is the source of more pathos and intrigue than you might expect.
In terms of art, Specter of Torment looks as much like a late 8-bit game as its predecessors and features some stunning vistas, cool NPC designs, and several tiny pixelated flourishes. That said, I found it hard to tell the foreground and background apart in some levels, which ended up resulting in nearly half of my deaths in my first playthrough. These muddled visuals particularly plague much of King Knight’s level, some black-and-white flashbacks sections, and the Castle Entrance, where an overemphasis on purple makes it tough to spot moving platforms and destructible walls. Yet minor quibbles aside the art direction is as enjoyably retro as ever, even if it often retreads old ground.
But especially in an 8-bit experience, gameplay is king, and in this department Specter of Torment is arguably the strongest of the three campaigns. The star of the show is Specter Knight’s move set, which enables him to climb walls, grind rails, and “slash dash,” a homing scythe attack that sends Specter Knight slicing diagonally across his foes. This slash dash is, in many ways, the crux of the gameplay, as the player constantly relies on it for both offense and mobility.
As a form of movement, the slash dash is immensely satisfying. By being accessible but requiring a bit of a learning curve, it straddles the line between the simplicity of Shovel Knight and the depth of Plague Knight. It’s also a wildly innovative move that, like Plague Knight’s intricate jumps, probably could not have been pulled off with such nuance on the NES. In this way, Specter of Torment’s basic gameplay is special because it uses the affordances of modern tech to expand upon a thirty-year-old genre. Evolving classic platforming movement in 2017 is so clever that the slash dash alone is enough to make you wonder if the supposedly done-to-death 2D platformer might have a surprising amount of life left in it.
Unfortunately, the slash dash does not fare as well in combat as it does in traversal. While attacking with the slash dash is certainly gratifying, it is also overpowered, so much so that outside of a couple of bosses, I never lost a life to an enemy in my entire first playthrough. Perhaps this is in part due to my familiarity with the series, but I would imagine players will find this to be the easiest of the three campaigns, to the point where the lack of challenge impacts the game’s ability to captivate the player. The slash dash is such a satisfying move, it is disappointing that you rarely get the opportunity to prove your fluency in it against opposition, by attacking enemies specifically designed to guard against your slash dash. I would additionally imagine that, had the enemies been more capable of dealing with the slash dash, there would be more opportunity for the player to chain slash dashes, which further highlights the thrill of the combat.
The rest of the core move set, climbing walls, wall jumping and grinding, are fun but of secondary importance. While wall climbing can sometimes be too easily triggered, wall jumping is intuitive and gratifying, making Specter Knight more satisfying to play as in vertical environments than in horizontal ones. Grinding, though no-frills, provides some of the biggest adrenaline rushes the game has to offer. Unfortunately, there isn’t much of it, and its scarcity represents a missed opportunity.
Outside of his basic abilities, Specter Knight can also acquire power-ups called curios that give him a particular ability when equipped, much like Shovel Knight’s relics. Though some are quite clever, I found these curios to be largely underutilized and rarely useful. On one hand, the combat-enhancing curios are typically unnecessary because the slash dash is so overpowered. On the other, the platforming curios are rarely handy in the spur of the moment, so I played through much of the game defaulting to a simplistic healing curio, which I rarely had to use. Yet again, the ease of the game proves to be its Achilles’ heel, as tougher or more intricately designed enemies could offer more reason to change offensive tactics by switching curios. Meanwhile, the platforming curios could have been more useful if the game mandated using them from time to time, perhaps when collecting the optional red skulls, of which there are 100 hidden throughout the game. Instead, I picked up 98 of the 100 on my first run through each level, hardly ever using a curio.
In a sense, these red skulls sum up my two fundamental critiques of the game. One, the overarching lack of difficulty in the main campaign. While red skulls could have been added as an optional layer of difficulty to the game, they are so easy to acquire that finding them rarely felt like an achievement. Two, the different systems operating in the game feel stronger on their own than they do united. For example, had red skulls been just a little bit more strategically placed, and had curios been a larger boon to acquiring them, it would have given a greater sense of importance to both red skulls and curios. Or, as I mentioned above, had either the slash dash been nerfed or the enemies designed with the slash dash in mind, combat could be deeper, more challenging, and more engrossing. While I should mention there is a new game + mode that is much harder than the regular campaign, the manner in which the game is made more difficult exacerbates other problems with its design, specifically regarding curios.
This second point might be a harsh critique for a game that for some players is free DLC. But for those paying $10 for this specific campaign, on its own Specter of Torment sometimes feels like a half-baked sequel to a masterpiece that suffers from stitching some brilliant new concepts together with some leftover concepts from another game that function less successfully when taken out of their original context. For a game that, like its two predecessors, screen-by-screen is so meticulously constructed, it’s a shame that these many sterling mechanics and ideas sometimes lack cohesion.
This is all to say that while I really enjoyed Shovel Knight: Specter of Torment I have a catalog of small gripes about it. I like it enough so that I’ll certainly play it again and would certainly recommend it to any fan of old-school platformers or retro games. From moment-to-moment, it may even be the most satisfying Shovel Knight thus far. However, despite a high baseline quality of experience, I couldn’t help shake the feeling that with a little more time in the lab it could have amounted to something greater than it is, greater than the sum of its usually exemplary parts.