Developer/Publisher: Yacht Club Games
Platform: Switch, Wii U, 3DS, PS4, PS3, PS Vita, Xbox One, PC (reviewed on Switch)
Release Date: March 3rd, 2017 (Switch), April 2017 (all other platforms)
Price: $9.99 (standalone), $24.99 (Treasure Trove)
It’s hard to believe that it’s been almost three years since Shovel Knight was released. After the first expansion, Plague of Shadows, showed that Yacht Club Games could make DLC right, I’ve been looking forward to this next campaign, Specter of Torment. Does it live up to the previous two campaigns? In many ways, Specter of Torment sets a new bar for Shovel Knight content.
The story of Specter of Torment is a nice change of pace. Instead of being an adventure like the first two campaigns, this one serves as a prequel to the main adventure. Specter Knight is tasked by The Enchantress to assemble The Order of No Quarter, while flashbacks help to flesh out how Specter Knight came to be.
I was surprised how well these flashbacks humanize Specter Knight. I really goes to show how good Yacht Club Games are at telling simple, yet endearing stories. Ultimately, Specter of Torment’s story is on par with the other Shovel Knight campaigns.
This game’s sprite work and visual design is also on par with the previous campaigns. The ghoulish aesthetic is somewhat indistinguishable from Plague of Shadows’ alchemy angle, which hurts it a bit. However, the biggest difference is in the color palette remixes for each stage.
Some stages have the same general architecture color, but adding touches like sunsets and growth or decay really sells these as new places. The stages that have significant color changes still manage to hold it together to keep everything cohesive.
Speaking of remixes, each stage’s music has been remixed to fit Specter Knight as the adventurer. While not nearly as memorable as the original tracks, these remixes add a lot to help make this third adventure feel fresh.
Specter of Torment’s gameplay helps to make this adventure feel fresh as well. Overall, Specter Knight plays a lot faster than Shovel Knight or Plague Knight. His basic moveset includes slashes for digging at blocks, treasure, and enemies, jumping off of blocks to break them instead of striking down, and wall running/wall jumping.
Curios replace Relics, which can be obtained by talking to the merchant Red in you hub, the Enchantress’ Tower, and giving him Red Skulls collected throughout the stages. These grant you a range of new powers to use, like cloning yourself for extended attack range and healing.
These skills are dictated by you Darkness (Magic) and Will (Health) meters. These can be upgraded by finding special chests in each stage, like the Relics beforehand. If you miss them, these can be bought in the Tower for an increased price. You can also get new armor that changes your stats, including the obligatory “does nothing, but makes you look cool” armor.
What really makes Specter Knight’s gameplay stand out is his air dash. While in the air, you will auto-target enemies and can dash into them. Depending on your angle, you’ll either dash up or down. Other obstacles, like projectiles and stage items, can also be targeted and dashed through.
While Plague of Shadows was a first swing at an alternate campaign, it still mostly tread the same levels with the same music. However, because of Specter Knight’s expanded moveset, Specter of Torment’s stages got some major remixing.
Not only has the geometry changed, new stage elements and enemy types are also introduced. Stage elements can range from flowing water to grinding rails, while new enemies include mages with homing attacks and durable zombies that attack with tombstones. On the whole, Specter or Torment is a massive overhaul in Shovel Knight gameplay and is a truly enjoyable standalone product.
How you play the game may also dictate your enjoyment in the case of the Nintendo Switch. As a platformer, it feels most comfortable when using the Switch Pro Controller. With its dedicated D-Pad, it is the optimal way to play. Even if you play with the analog stick (like I do), the range of movement on the Prop Controller’s sticks is superior.
Specter of Torment is still rather playable in Handheld Mode or by using the Joy-Con Grip. While not as comfortable as the Pro Controller, having a solid grip on the Joy-Cons helps. For those who need it, the lack of a D-Pad doesn’t.
By far the worst way to play is by holding the Joy-Con sideways by itself. For the most part you can get used to it, but trying to switch between skills with the shoulder buttons without the Joy-Con Strap is uncomfortable.
With just the hub and your standard levels, Specter of Torment has a bit less content than Shovel Knight. Fortunately, this game is available standalone for a reduced price. If you buy the full package, you also get access to Body Swap mode for Shovel Knight’s campaign and local co-op without having to use an amiibo. These features will also come to current and new copies of Shovel Knight on other platforms when released.
Oh, and I almost forgot to mention Specter of Torment’s performance. I have no complaints. No glitches, bugs, freezes, or crashes. This game runs perfectly.
Shovel Knight: Specter of Torment continues to raise the bar of Shovel Knight content from Yacht Club Games. Specter Knight gets some unexpected refinement as a character with a great story, and even cooler with some excellent gameplay. The visual and audio remixes are also appreciated. The sting of the smaller amount of content is alleviated by the lower standalone price point, and the game is played most comfortably with a $70 controller. However, those are minor blemishes on an otherwise stellar title.