Developer: Yacht Club Games
Publisher: Yacht Club Games
Systems: PC, 3DS, WiiU, Mac OS, Linux, PS3, PS4, PSVita, XOne, Amazon Fire TV
It’s hard to believe that it’s been a year since the release of Shovel Knight, as it just doesn’t seem to have left the spotlight. It’s received critical acclaim, nostalgic adoration and made Amiibo history as the first indie entry to receive its own figure. And fresh from the laboratory comes Plague of Shadows, and its no Frankenstein’s monster either.
Yacht Club’s newest addition to the Shovel Knight tapestry is set in an alternate reality, in which the efforts of the eponymous blue hero were undermined by the delicious evil of The Order of No Quarter. As terror besmirches the land, however, Plague Knight’s scheme to create a “concoction of ultimate power” forms the basis for Plague of Shadows. As the diabolical doctor we infiltrate forts and kingdoms on a devilish quest to steal the life essence of our brother knights, and have a good deal of fun in the process. Hee!
A lot of the content in Plague of Shadows seems familiar, which makes sense, as the overall feel of the game echoes that of the Plague Knight level in the original. It’s the explodatorium-exploded, essentially, but with elaboration enough to ensure the campaign isn’t banal. Our base of operations is our underground laboratory, which instantly elicits explodatorium-y vibes. We also know Mona from her finicky appearance during the minigame in Shovel Knight, but see her revelling in her element in Plague of Shadows as Plague Knight’s assistant, offering weapon upgrades in more volume than was ever available in the original, in exchange for the luminous cipher coins we pick up on our travels.
But something that makes the narrative more alluring is how well it interacts with that of the original story. The game lines up with the travails of Shovel Knight admirably, and as he is welcomed into villages, Plaguey’s dastardly plans unfold underground with a sense of humour that far surpasses that of the original game.
Instead of Shovel Knight’s Scroogey pogo-strike, Plague Knight opts for a more…explosive metier. Whilst Plague of Shadows has us traversing the same world map as we had done previously, our arsenal of projectiles encourages the player to look at levels from a different angle. This possibly makes planning a course of action a bit more useful in the DLC, as wrong moves more often result in death than in Shovel Knight. However, Plague of Shadows‘ new bomb-burst gives Plague Knight a small height advantage, which, when used in combination with his double-jump, reaches yonder platforms that Shovel Knight would’ve been hard-pushed to reach as easily. Bombs are also upgradable in three main areas: cases, powders and fuses. These affect how you throw, how the bombs act and how long it takes for them to explode, meaning you can upgrade your weapons to suit your playstyle in finer detail than was possible in the original campaign.
Plague of Shadows is not without its weaknesses, however, manifesting mostly within in control scheme and difficulty level. To bomb-blast, you need to hold attack, meaning the feature is perfectly appropriate for stationary assaults, but can prove quite cumbersome when leaping across platforms. Confrontation with different enemies often also means changing bomb properties, and given that there are a selection of adversaries to overcome in each area, constantly switching between weapon types can become tiresome.
The doctor’s range-oriented combat style does make boss battles a hell of a lot easier, so if you originally found them difficult, the frustration might be somewhat alleviated. But equally, for those looking for more of a challenge this time, foes yield far too easily to Plague Knight’s combustible MO.
Plague of Shadows can be mechanically awkward, and possesses more of a learning curve than its valiant counterpart, but it is still, unmistakeably, Shovel Knight. The beloved characters make their reprise to give us a taste of the dark side, managing to both retain and embellish the comically endearing qualities that provoked so much enjoyment the first time round. With new unlockable feats to pursue and a good deal of hidden potholes to uncover, Plague of Shadows is a joy to replay, whilst evoking the sense that even in the world of the textbook hero, it sure feels good to be bad.