Title: Shovel Knight: King of Cards
Developer: Yacht Club Games
Release Date: December 10, 2019
Reviewed On: PC
Publisher: Yacht Club Games
Genre: 2D Action Platformer
Shovel Knight: King of Cards is the latest release from Yacht Club Games and is another strong entry for the titular saga. The star this time is the boastful King Knight, the self-entitled ruler, or at least soon to be the ruler of the entire kingdom. This royal adventure will show you how the Gilded Goon himself became a part of the Order of No Quarter.
For those unfamiliar with the franchise, it is one of the most popular indie, 2D side-scrolling platformers of the last decade. The original game came out in 2014 and was retroactively titled Shovel Knight: Shovel of Hope. Two other campaigns were released, Plague of Shadows and Specter of Torment in the years following. The former acted as more of a remix of the first adventure with a new character, whereas the latter expanded upon additions and differentiation.
King of Cards is the final chapter that completes the Treasure Trove collection. It holds the prestige of being the most significant and most robust adventure and honestly feels like a stand-alone expansion. It helps that there are four worlds, over 30 levels, and an addictive card-based mini-game included for good measure.
As a prequel, players will travel across untamed lands filled with new opportunities to spread the gospel of the king, you. However, each of the worlds will provide unexpected and challenging ordeals. It’s not easy being a monarch, after all, and some fierce competition is lurking and waiting for the perfect opportunity to end your (potential) reign prematurely.
Like with every other campaign in the series, King of Cards plays out very similar to the first game but also introduces new mechanics and content. King Knight uses his bash attack to plow through enemies and specific obstacles. He also is equipped with a technique opulently named the “dazzling spinning attack.” This can only be performed when bashing and propels you up in the air like a dainty ballerina. As you twirl, you can jump from enemy to breakable object to enemy, all while dealing damage. You can even drill through the floor if you’re observant enough.
While it would’ve been fun to be dazzling and spinning from screen to screen, I understand why developers tied it to your main attack: The game is all about bashing, bouncing, and bounding. Choosing your movement while rotating can be very strategic, and breaking specific chandeliers or other objects will open new areas and secrets. It’s a playstyle that rewards those who explore and take risks.
Discovering hidden rooms and precious jewels is as satisfying as always. However, there are some more significant changes to the Shovel Knight formula, such as the fact that not every major stage has a final boss. Instead, there are plenty of bonus-like areas filled with unique challenges. A cool aspect of this difference is that sometimes a boss will be waiting for you, but you won’t know for sure the first time you get to the end.
There are also medals to collect along your journey. These look good on our hero, but they can alternatively be traded for new skills or abilities. To use these new powers, King Knight will need Vigor, which is conveniently lying around in all the stages. Some of these crazy boosts include: throwing rats strapped with dynamite or striking down enemies with a fancy hammer. The latter will drop beautifully pixelated hearts to fill up your life meter.
Mechanically the game is still comparable to Shovel Knight: Shovel of Hope, but somehow this latest chapter is not as difficult. It’s a fantastic thing that it’s now more accessible for newcomers. There are so many hardcore 2D platformers out there that a balanced and fair experience is a refreshing change of pace.
Although this new entry to the series does a lot of things right, the biggest surprise is the mini-game called Joustus. This new fad has swept over the kingdom, influencing both young adventures and expert warriors alike. It’s a fun distraction from the main quest that can be played extensively within the four worlds, each offering several layers of difficulty and a variety of styles.
The King should never lose, so how do you win? You need to collect as many jewels as possible by moving your card on the tile it occupies. However, you cannot grab them just by being on top of the gem. You need to push another card into it to claim the prize. Your hand is stacked with different abilities and properties. Each card can move (and push) in specific directions, but it cannot affect cards that can move in the opposite direction. For example, if one can move up and the opposing one above can move down, then that option is not valid.
As you can probably tell, it’s a little confusing at first, primarily since the style doesn’t act like a typical game such as poker or crazy eights. However, after you start to build up your deck with stronger options, it gets easier to spot a winning strategy. Losers must give up one part of their hand, which means facing strong opponents can be rewarding, as high-level cards are rare. Players can count on an unlimited number of basic pieces, which makes the early matches much more approachable.
Yacht Club Games’ pixel art is iconic: you can spot it immediately as if a famous artist created it. This could be due to the atmospheric pine trees, or the vast color palette for the terrain. This is a perfect complement to the deceivingly well-thought-out yet straightforward level designs.
However, like the other campaigns in Shovel Knight: Treasure Trove, it’s easy to notice that some assets are re-used. Many have been updated and touched up, retaining their authenticity but looking much better. You can see this with certain enemy sprites. Luckily, new content such as characters and locations have been put into King of Cards, and all of them fit well into this strange, medieval universe.
Jake “Virt” Kaufman is back as the composer for the game, maintaining the same vibe of earlier titles. Here we have an excellent retro soundtrack that relies on simple and melodic tracks. This is welcomed, especially for those completionists that will go through levels countless times. While the music encapsulates the essence of the adventure, it would be unfair not to mention how well the 8-bit sound effects enhance the gameplay.
Shovel Knight: King of Cards is not only for dedicated fans of the series, but also serves as a great place for newcomers to enter the franchise. The difficulty here is much less punishing than the three campaigns that came before, and the steady learning curve keeps the journey from ever becoming boring. Add Joustus’ surprising depth and the various collectibles and character build you can tackle, and there’s even more to this full-scale add-on to enjoy. This is a must-play for pauper and prince alike.
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