They say chivalry is dead but shovelry certainly isn’t. Shovel Knight started as a Kickstarter project that has blossomed into three campaigns across almost every modern platform. The first expansion, Plague of Shadows, runs concurrent to the base game and stars a bomb-throwing mad scientist. Specter of Torment, the latest installment, is a prequel that puts you in the shoes of Specter Knight equipped with a scythe. Whether you’re new to the series thanks to the Switch launch window or a veteran like myself, Specter of Torment isn’t a game to miss. Yacht Club Games has really outdone themselves this time.
- TL;DR: Another run through a retro-themed wonderland with new characters, new mechanics, and a new story. Possibly the best in the series.
- Platforms: 3DS (reviewed), PC/Mac/Linux, PS3, PS4, Switch, Vita, Wii U, Xbox One
- Developer: Yacht Club Games
- Time Played: 5:25
- What I Played: Completed the campaign with 87% items found, finished Horace’s devilish challenge
As I alluded to earlier, Specter of Torment is a prequel to Shovel Knight starring the titular Specter Knight. He is under the control of the evil Enchantress who has tasked him with gathering the Order of No Quarter for her before being set free. You learn, through cutscenes and flashbacks, who Specter Knight is and why he’s agreed to such a task. Obviously I won’t spoil anything here, but the ~15 minutes of total exposition made me surprisingly fond of Specter Knight. Calling this game “the tragic prequel” isn’t a misnomer.
Specter of Torment hits the same major points as the previous Shovel Knight games: a handful of levels each ending in a boss fight, treasure to hoard, abilities to unlock, and collectibles to find. The first major difference is Specter Knight’s weapon. His scythe marks a return to melee combat with a focus on aggression. Rather than poking enemies with a shovel or throwing bombs from distance, Specter Knight gets right up in the faces of his enemies with violent, full body slashes. You can really feel the weight behind each swing even on the small 3DS screen.
The scythe also serves as a platforming tool, allowing you to diagonally slash through enemies and strategically placed lanterns for extra jumps. While the orange lanterns let you slash through them, green lanterns bounce you back in the opposite direction. These extra jumps coupled with Specter Knight’s ability to run up walls for a short time gives you incredible freedom of movement. It’s common to jump off a ledge, slash through an enemy or two, fall until just the right moment, slash again, then wall run to reach something. This level of aerial mobility proves once again that Yacht Club Games knows how to make retro games feel new in 2017.
Specter of Torment replaces the traditional grid overworld with a portal at the Enchantress’s Tower that will warp you to any knight’s level. Levels can be completed in any order and no items or abilities are necessary to beat any specific one, so you really have the freedom to choose. Each level showcases a clever use of Specter Knight’s unique abilities like grinding on his scythe like a skateboard in Polar Knight’s level. The enemies within those levels are the same as they were in the prior two campaigns but require new approaches. Slowly floating enemies that were tough to hit with bombs are easily slashed through while armored knights that could be bombed from afar require strategic baiting and maneuvering.
Levels are packed to the brim with gold, both in plain sight and hidden behind curious looking walls, and collectible red skulls. Skulls are currency for buying abilities like throwing a boomerang, summoning a duplicate of yourself, or floating in midair. Acquiring these abilities isn’t a simple transaction though. Each one is hidden in a small area that acts as a tutorial by disabling your scythe and requiring you to use your new ability to escape. The gold you gather can be spent on ability upgrades like throwing your boomerang farther or cloaks that grant you skills like a charged attack or a way to grind on floor spikes instead of dying.
Yacht Club Games has packed plenty of fun touches and extras into Specter of Torment. From simple things like renaming health and mana to will and darkness to replacing all of the recovery food items with rotten apples and turkey carcasses, Specter of Torment has a unified feel wherever you look. Specter Knight’s pensive demeanor can be felt when he’s staring off into the distance at the start of a level or clutching a meaningful plot device on a ledge in the Tower. The NPC who accepts your red skulls simply throws them on a pile behind his storefront, an answer to the “what do these merchants do with all my currency?” question. New game plus and challenge modes breathe extra hours into the admittedly short four campaign but even if you skip those, I highly recommend seeking out Horace’s challenge in the Tower. It’s a platforming gauntlet that will drive you to the brink of madness. It may or may not have taken me 90 minutes of constant retries to clear (it did), but seeing just how perfectly every movement ability pieces together was worth it.
The Shovel Knight games are now 3/3 in the “oh hell yeah this game is great” department. Specter of Torment layers some backstory and character development on top of the tight controls, clever platforming, and overall retro feel that Yacht Club Games has become known for. They are on the short list of developers that I’ll automatically buy the next game from. King Knight’s campaign can’t come soon enough.