Review: Shovel Knight: Specter of Torment
Published by Jack Taylor March 13, 2017
Dash Slash your way through another fantastic Shovel Knight experience in this eerie expansion.
Shovel Knight is one of the biggest indie success stories of recent years. Following a hugely successful Kickstarter which saw more than $300,000 donated, the blue burrower leapt onto multiple platforms including Wii U and Nintendo 3DS, then onto store shelves, then into a fancy amiibo box, and gradually into numerous other games including Runbow and Yooka-Laylee. As developer Yacht Club Games lines up a significant change to the game's release structure, with the "full" game now titled Shovel Knight: Treasure Trove and all three campaigns being released separately, early Nintendo Switch adopters are lucky enough to get first dibs on Treasure Trove and Shovel Knight: Specter of Torment, the series' third campaign.
Shovel Knight: Specter of Torment is a prequel to Shovel of Hope (the original Shovel Knight campaign) and focuses on Specter Knight and the Enchantress as she seeks to create the Order of No Quarter by recruiting the most dangerous knights in the land. Your main task is to travel to each knight's homeland to recruit them, but as a prequel to Shovel Knight's story, the campaign also features some nods to the past, including how Specter Knight ultimately came to be. However, if you're new to the Shovel Knight games, we strongly advise you play the Shovel of Hope campaign first, as Specter of Torment features at least one major story spoiler. Heck, this is easily good enough to play over and over again, so you might as well replay them multiple times each.
Specter Knight is an unique character to control, and has a number of abilities that Shovel Knight and Plague Knight don't, which helps to add to the interest and excitement of this new campaign. Though his jump isn't the biggest, you can climb most walls and perform wall jumps to reach even higher areas, and even to escape death if you're quick enough. He can also use his scythe to jump around using the Dash Slash, a move that cuts through targets to reach platforms and defeat enemies; the timing of this is important, as you'll move up or down depending on whether Specter Knight is higher or lower than the target. Specter Knight's health is indicated by a Will meter, while you'll also be able to use helpful artefacts called Curios with the power of the Darkness meter. Both of these meters can be expanded by collecting wisps, one of which is hidden in each stage.
The game's main hub is the Enchantress's Tower of Fate, where you'll return at the end of each stage. Here, you can purchase and upgrade Curios, talk to characters around the tower, upgrade Specter Knight's cloak to receive various benefits, purchase any wisps you've missed to boost your Will and Darkness meters, and find a few more hidden secrets besides. The tower is also home to the Magic Mirror, which you'll use to travel to each knight's homeland, and you can do so in any order you like. Each knight has a bounty, which indicates the difficulty of the stage; the easier ones have a bounty of 1000 gold, while tougher ones will reward you with more. You can replay stages as often as you want, which is particularly handy if you've missed any wisps or red skulls, or if you need some extra gold.
The challenge behind each stage is split between the enemies and obstacles you'll encounter and the layout of each area. Stages are incredibly well designed, and when you die - which will probably happen a lot - you'll find that it's primarily down to the need to hone your skills, whether you need to find a different way to progress or a more methodical strategy against an enemy. There are several checkpoints in each stage, and dying will put you back at the last one you found, but not before dropping some of your gold for you to try and collect again. If you're feeling particularly bold, you can break most checkpoints to gain a nice bit of extra cash as well, although dying would put you back even further. Each stage also has two or three mini-bosses to test your mettle before the grand finale, and while these aren't always difficult, they can certainly whittle your health down with a few good hits.
Each of the boss battles against the various knights are a thrill, albeit a struggle at first, particularly due to the varying tactics each one uses. You can very quickly attack when on the ground, but since Specter Knight can only attack in mid-air by using a Dash Slash, it might take a little longer to dispatch some enemies this way. Knowing how best to use your attacks, avoid theirs, and use your Curios is the key to winning battles quickly and effectively. Plus, once you finish each stage, you'll find a few changes around the Enchantress's tower, giving you a little more to explore each time you return.
Specter of Torment also makes use of the Shovel Knight amiibo in a pretty interesting way, probably due to the fact that the campaign doesn't support co-op or amiibo level-up features. This time around, a brand new character called Madam Meeber has also been introduced, helping you by providing a Fairy of Shovelry when you scan the Shovel Knight amiibo. This little fairy can help you by digging at dirt and threatening enemies, and while it generally doesn't do much at all, it's adorable just to look at. Even the most cold-hearted of knights would melt at the sight of it. For owners of Treasure Trove, it's worth mentioning that Shovel Knight: Plague of Shadows now has the same feature, while Shovel of Hope retains the same functionality seen on Wii U as well as Madam Meeber and the Fairy of Shovelry.
Aside from the excellent platforming gameplay, which stands out as some of the best in an era where 2D platformers have really been on a roll, there's an awful lot more to be impressed with here. Shovel Knight has a fantastic soundtrack, and you'll notice a few subtle changes to it in Specter of Torment, mixing recognisable tunes with just a tinge of darkness that perfectly suits the campaign's change in tone. This is evident from the beginning in the Plains, which features an altered soundtrack and a darker backdrop, focusing on the evil Tower of Fate. It's these little touches which are so impressive, showing the attention to detail put into the campaign. Overall, it's likely to take you five or six hours to beat, although collecting everything and achieving some of the (horrifyingly difficult) feats is bound to take you quite a bit longer.
Specter of Torment is an excellent addition to the Shovel Knight series for many reasons, chief among them the fantastic gameplay it offers and the way in which it acts as a prequel to Shovel Knight's story, giving you an insight into how just some of the events of the first game came about. As a Nintendo Switch launch title, it provides an awesome platforming experience from day one, with the benefit of on-the-go HD action if you get the Switch version. It'll be another few weeks until the Wii U and Nintendo 3DS versions of Shovel Knight are upgraded with Specter of Torment in tow, but it's definitely worth waiting for if that's how you get your Shovel Knight fix. However you choose to play Specter of Torment, it's a brilliant game and an easy recommendation.
Shovel Knight: Specter of Torment is out now on Nintendo Switch as a standalone purchase and as part of Shovel Knight: Treasure Trove, and will come to Wii U and Nintendo 3DS when other versions of Shovel Knight receive the free Treasure Trove upgrade later in April 2017.
The Nintendo Channel would like to thank Yacht Club Games for providing a copy of Shovel Knight: Treasure Trove to review.