The baseline Shovel Knight is an excellent addition to anyone’s list of “classic games,” whether it came out in 2014 or not. It so beautifully fits into a niche where others try and try again, but fail, and Yacht Club Games pretty much hit the ground running without missing a step. The support they’ve shown Shovel Knight is pretty great, especially with the addition of Plague of Shadows, a secondary tale of Shovel Knight that played out alongside the story of the original. Specter of Torment, acting as another free DLC for folks who bought in from the start, or now separately purchasable piece of content, acts as a prequel to Shovel Knight, weaving together how Specter Night, the undead shadow of the Order of No Quarter, brought together all the other knights under the Enchantress.
Much like Plague of Shadows before it, Specter of Torment acts as more of a reimagining of the original Shovel Knight than much of it’s own standalone title. Playing it having not seen the context of the original probably wouldn’t do much for you, except continue the lineage of excellent platforming mechanics. The game very specifically takes place before Shovel Knight, and Specter Knight’s story plays out as more of a tragic tale than the others in the Shovel Knight Cinematic Universe™. In fact, I’d say the emphasis on Specter’s fall from grace is the best addition to this reimagined platformer. Especially when really standout and lighthearted mechanics, like multiple towns, the world map, and bonus stages, are all but completely removed from this title. At it’s worst, Specter of Torment does have a bit of a neutered feel to it, since the world map has now been reduced to a simple select-level-from-list screen.
The way this does change things is by emulating even more so the Mega Man format or formula that Shovel Knight was already affectionately representing. You can choose to fight any of the other Boss Knights in any which order you’d like, with a few fun surprises and changes to the formula thrown in the mix for good measure. Between levels, the Enchantress’s tower becomes a hub to buy new secondary items, perform challenges, and get some of the charming humor and hidden secrets from the many, many henchmen, of all shapes and sizes, jollily trotting around the gloomy castle.
Specter Knight, much like Plague Knight, plays differently from the original shovel-wielding hero, but this time the departure is a little less over the top. Plague Knight’s mechanics involved a lot of using potions, crafting potions, and manipulating the character to get around the world, and Specter has more of an altered moveset altogether. He can run up walls for a brief time, which leads to some intense wall-jumping or vertical platforming. He has a scythe that, when aimed while Specter Knight is in the air, can diagonally slash either upward or downward, acting in place of a double jump.
This mechanic alone is used to such brilliant effect that it is easily the best mechanic in Specter’s repertoire. Torches, enemies, and obstacles are strategically placed around the reimagined levels to make things more vertical. Using your horizontal slashes, which launch you quite a distance, many of the platforming challenges are about timing and using Specter’s massive air-time and wall running abilities to maneuver either vertically, or over long gaps without a single platform. While the palettes of the levels remain the same, they’ve been completely redone to accentuate this mechanic, making them feel faster, and the stakes are that much higher because through most of these challenges, the barrier you fight back against the most is falling into pits. And I fell into a lot of pits.
It’s worth reiterating here that while Plague of Shadows only featured new sections on the already-made Shovel Knight levels, everything in Specter of Torment’s campaign is completely redesigned and new. All the levels play and feel different, and all the bosses have also been given the same redesign around Specter Knight’s powers.
In conjunction with this, Specter of Torment seems to have been rebalanced to feel a bit easier than vanilla Shovel Knight, and certainly more approachable than Plague of Shadows. While greatly approachable as is, it may tarnish some of the feeling of hardcore old school mechanics that Shovel Knight has worn on its sleeve for so long. One of the sub-items you can purchase is just a straight up healing item, meaning unless you are completely and totally careless, it’s very difficult to die in any lengthy fight or boss.
Still, Specter feels inspired in so many ways. Where it could be easy to push out more and more Shovel Knight levels, Specter of Torment has a very different pacing to exploring levels that is much faster and the brutality of the scythe makes it all the more enjoyable. The prequel story that plays along the background of all this is fun and at times silly, even if it generally lacks the same charming moments that Shovel Knight benefited from. You get to see the man who became Specter Knight, and the little ques back into the Shovel Knight story are all heartfelt and surprisingly emotional, something that Yacht Club clearly excels at. It’s not the whole package, but there is definitely enough there.
Specter of Torment brings us back to fight the Order of No Quarter once more in a glorious fashion. Specter Knight may not be the rivetingly and charming hero that Shovel Knight was, nor does this campaign get quite as many little touches as we have seen before, but the heart, the design, the feel; it’s all there, and it’s still great.
This review is based on a digital code provided to the reviewer from the developer for the Nintendo Switch.