Shovel Knight: Specter of Torment is solid proof that Yacht Club Games is truly one of the best developers working today. They didn’t rest on their laurels after the critical and commercial success of Shovel Knight back in 2014 on the Wii U and its subsequent release on every other platform available. They continued to add to their retro platforming masterpiece.
Last year saw the equally excellent Plague of Shadows, starring the mad alchemist Plague Knight, which boasted a completely new story, new levels, and drastically different gameplay, all while retaining the original game’s charm and heart. This latest adventure is no different. Despite having a slightly darker tone, this is still one of the most imaginative and exciting platformers out this year so far.
The game is set as a prequel to the events of the original Shovel Knight. You play as the ghostly warrior Specter Knight, who has been ordered by the evil Enchantress to amass an army for her and to recruit the most dangerous warriors in the land into a ruthless Order of No Quarter. Since the skeletal scythe-wielder is under some mysterious contract with the all-powerful witch, he must obey her commands, which means utilizing the spooky and unnatural powers of the Tower of Fate to track down potential champions and turn them to their cause by any means necessary.
The first thing that struck me about Specter of Torment was its level structure. While the original Shovel Knight was a linear adventure with a world map, towns to visit, and endearing side activities, this adventure has a completely different look and feel. Each level in the game is connected via a magic mirror in the Tower of Fate, which serves as a hub area for the entire experience. From this mirror you can tackle any of the game’s levels in any order you wish after the starting level. In other words, the structure is identical to the Robot Master level selection screen from the classic Mega Man games.
This immediately sets the tone for the game as something completely different from Yacht Club Games’ last two outings. Specter Knight isn’t on some grand adventure to save the world or finish some grand potion experiment, he has been called to recruit some guys, and as such needs to get there fast and efficiently. This new framework fits that lateral agenda. It also has a sly side effect of having The Tower of Fate become more busy as you progress, with more characters running around and adding their own quirks to the adventure.
As for the actual levels and gameplay, it is all top-notch and familiar action platforming while throwing in some new twists. Specter Knight is able to briefly walk up certain walls and kick off them to get to higher locations, which leads to an entire suite of platforming challenges unique to this series. This is coupled with a greater emphasis on watching enemy placement and attack patterns which is central to his special scythe slash attack. While airborne, and depending on whether or not you’re above or below your target, hitting the attack button will cause Specter Knight to perform a diagonal sweeping slash towards it, doubling as both a strong maneuverable attack like Shovel Knight’s pogo stick plunge and as a contextual multi-jump.
These are the two biggest changes to the gameplay and a lot of creativity is pulled from it. There are certain environmental objects Specter Knight can jump slash to with a bunch of hidden areas full of rewards that benefit savvy use of this new ability. The wall running and jumping keeps the player aware of the environment as well as enemy attacks since only certain walls can be scaled. Both of these are even reflected in completely redesigned boss battles. A fantastic example is the originally static battle with Propeller Knight turning into a harrowing battle on a fleet of airships with continuously shifting ground and a perpetually mobile opponent.
There is a noticeable change with the way the game handles power-ups and secondary weapons. Since the levels can be finished in any order, Specter of Torment eschews hiding specific power-ups and abilities in exchange for collectible floating red skulls. There are ten hidden on each stage, which you can exchange at a shop in the tower for special items. These do favor combat-centric abilities like powerful slashing claws or a boomerang scythe, but there are some movement based items like a feather that lets you float temporarily or a coin that slows down time for a while. All of these are well made and help make each level accessible but it does make each item feel less special somehow.
If Specter of Torment was just a well-crafted bit of gameplay that would have been enough; but it keeps going with some fantastic world building and even a compelling character arc for what was otherwise a vaguely defined ghost-themed boss character. At certain points in the game, the protagonist broods over his past, which are played out as flashback levels complete with a sepia tone color palette. I will not spoil any major reveals but it is these sections that truly show off something special, including a boss battle that further reinforces one of the more subtle but underheard elements of the original Shovel Knight.
On the topic of color palettes and art direction, I do appreciate the amount of work that went into this game actually feeling like a prequel. In addition to each music track in the game being a tonally different remix of the original stage music, the backgrounds and sprites all seem younger and less worn down compared to the other two games. A good example is Mole Knight’s stage. Where the original Shovel Knight had the level start at the beginning of some large excavation site and eventually lead to a sunken lost city full of lava, Specter of Torment starts above ground, the middle is the site, and the boss room is at the discovery of the ruins.
If there is an issue I do have with Specter of Torment it is with the run time. Where the past two experiences took north of eight hours or so to finish, my first playthrough of this story clocked in at just under five. This can be forgiven due to the more open-ended level design, but it also highlights just how weak the secondary, optional content is. Aside from collecting all the red skulls in the game and a mini-game where you try to ascend a seemingly endless tower within a certain time limit, there isn’t much to see or do aside from some amusing distractions in the tower and some Challenge Mode levels unlocked post-game. However, credit must be given to Yacht Club Games when it comes to New Game Plus. Rather than just crank up enemy damage and let the player have a victory lap, your second time through Specter Knight’s dark journey will greatly test your skill and reflexes by having your magic bar and your health combined. Also it vanishes over time. And the only way to replenish it is to kill enemies. Good luck.
If you bought Shovel Knight when it came out and loved every minute of it, Specter of Torment is a fantastic reason to return to this world and its characters. Sharp gameplay, taut worldbuilding, and brimming with personality, this is a trip to the dark side that is worth taking.