King Knight's got an ace up his sleeve.
Five years after its launch, Shovel Knight, the gift that keeps on giving, comes to a close. I was incredibly impressed with its maiden voyage, now called Shovel of Hope, in 2014. The expansions to that story, Plague of Shadows and Specter of Torment, were each impressive in different ways. This week sees the release of Shovel Knight’s final two addendums: King of Cards and the multiplayer brawler Showdown. This review will cover the former, but I can’t really do justice to the latter without experiencing it in a multiplayer context as it was meant to be played. That review will come soon.
In King of Cards, you take control of—surprise, surprise—King Knight as he goes on a journey to be the best Joustus player that ever was. To do so, he must travel across the realm, defeating the three Joustus Judges and building up his Joustus deck by winning matches of the card game in pubs during his quest. While previous Shovel Knight campaigns featured relatively long, Mega Man-esque levels that ended with a boss fight, King Knight’s campaign features a map filled with bite-sized stages which often only contain a single checkpoint. Despite their short length, many of these stages can be quite challenging, as several include alternate exits that are tougher to get to. In between these stages, King Knight can visit mini-stages that teach him new moves (like a roll) or incorporate a new Heirloom (aka subweapon). There are treasure rooms and optional boss fights. He can also visit his “home base,” a giant airship where he and his increasing number of companions stay. The map also includes pubs where Joustus is played.
As with previous Shovel Knight characters, King Knight has a unique moveset based on dashing forward (a bit like Wario). If he dashes into a character or a wall, King Knight will bounce upward and twirl back down. If he hits another enemy or certain objects with this twirl, he will bounce back up, and can then do another dash forward and repeat the whole process. Rolling involves double-tapping the attack button, which produces a forward tackle without the bounce/twirl. I found King Knight’s moveset harder to get used to than Specter Knight, but easier than Plague Knight. The short stages and overall lack of boss fights make King of Cards feel like a series of obstacle courses, which I appreciated as an interesting change to the established formula. While most stages take place in established Order of No Quarter-themed tilesets, there are some new places, such as Trouple Pond, that offer their own hazards.
King Knight makes use of several Heirlooms that I found myself making use of more often than I did in other Shovel Knight campaigns, not because King Knight’s default attack is weak, but because the obstacles he is faced with force you to think creatively/ Yacht Club has done an excellent job of crafting stages to make good use of specific Heirlooms.
Joustus, the card game introduced in this campaign, is not something I’m crazy about. It is less a card game than a strategy game, and involves laying and “pushing” cards onto gemstones on a grid. A typical grid is 2x2 or 3x3, and each side will have two or three spaces on the outside for pushing cards into. Your deck of 16 cards consists of pictures of various Shovel Knight characters with one or more arrows along their borders. For example, a card with a slime enemy has an arrow pointing down. The arrow means that another card with an arrow in the opposite direction (up) cannot push the slime card in that direction (up). It can still shove the slime card left, right, or down.
The point is to strategically lay your cards down so that you can push your own cards into gem spaces (you can’t lay a card directly on a gem) while pushing your opponent’s cards away from gems and/or blocking your opponent from pushing your cards away. The game ends when the central tiles are filled or when no other moves are available. I find the base game challenging enough, but Joustus constantly adds wrinkles to the formula, like cards with double arrows, bomb arrows, opponents with unique abilities (damn you, Black Knight), etc. Some Joustus clubs utilize strange boards: the one in Mole Knight’s area includes large boulders blocking tile spaces that can be destroyed with bomb arrow cards. The winner of a round gets to take one of his opponent’s cards for each gem space he took, so you can either win or lose between one and three cards. While I initially felt this was a very harsh punishment (goodbye forever, good cards?), I was relieved to find that your taken cards can be re-bought on the airship between stages. Thankfully, Joustus itself does seem largely optional, although skipping it will rob you of some prizes.
Joustus aside, I do have one beef with King of Cards: while level design is generally excellent, the difficulty ramps up significantly towards the back half of the game. This normally wouldn’t bother me, but I must confess to still not being 100% used to King Knight’s movement patterns. His speed, spacing, and stringing tackle-bounce combos together competently is something my brain just can’t solidify. It’s a more complicated standard moveset than Shovel Knight or Specter Knight. While I could fall into a rhythm with both of those characters and seamlessly move through a stage, I still have trouble doing so with King Knight. I wonder if the game’s shorter stages are a subtle acknowledgement of this difference. Oddly enough, though, I find that the more standard boss fights against others of the Order of No Quarter quite fun, where King Knight’s dash-and-twirl are excellent tools.
Despite my misgivings with our royal protagonist’s moveset, King of Cards is an excellent cap on what’s become a downright amazing collection of games. Players who already own Treasure Trove get this one for free, and if you’ve ever been on the fence about buying it, I really can’t recommend it highly enough, and keep an eye out for our review of the multiplayer component, Shovel Knight: Showdown, before too long.