Let’s get something out of the way first – Shovel Knight is absolutely amazing. That’s not just the base “Shovel Knight” game from 2014 either but the entire franchise which currently also includes three major side campaigns, a Smash Brothers style multiplayer game and what looks like an upcoming rhythm rogue-like. Playing the original on 3DS back when it originally released, I had no idea that Yacht club would still be adding to and supporting the game for the next 6 years and I’m amazed they’ve been able to maintain the focus and quality that they have.
Lucky for me then that this Christmas, I was given Shovel Knight: Treasure Trove which is a collection of every single part of the franchise so far collected and ported to the switch. The switch has become a sort of spiritual home for retro throwback games so it’s the ideal place to experience a series which works both as a 32bit style home console throwback and as a GBA style handheld. I beat the original again (which was excellent) and the Plague Knight and Spectre Knight campaigns (which were excellent) earlier in the year and today finally polished off the latest edition – King of Cards.
Like the other expansions in the collection, King of Cards is a prequel to the original Shovel Knight and follows the rise of the nefarious King Knight from a lowly pretender, to king of the realm. King Knight starts as a spoiled brat living in his mother’s house and sets out to win a card game tournament, defeat the rulers of the land and become a true king. While this sounds like cliché protagonist fodder, King Knight is actually a pretty big dick and acts aloof, dismissive and sometimes downright cruel to most of the people he meets, taking advantage of almost every situation that presents itself.
The majority of the characters you meet mistakenly believe you are a hero doing all this for the good of the realm and by the end of the game King Knight amasses a huge harem of followers all cheerleading him to defeat evil and save the day. Considering that we know where King Knight ends up, the game actually does a pretty good job of making his betrayal of these followers feel quite emotional. Just like the other games in the collection, the story is surprisingly good and the finale is actually quite emotional.
The gameplay is split between playing games of Joustus, a card game which King Knight is a supposed master at (He’s not), and classic Shovel Knight platforming. The majority of the time is spent beating levels, collecting money to buy power ups and defeating the games marquee boss fights. It’s a formula that has worked for countless franchises and it remains timeless because it’s so satisfying. At the start of the game you are weak and by the end you have a veritable arsenal of moves and items to combat the increasing difficulty.
Most of the platforming is done with a sort of Wario-esque shoulder charge that when it connects with an enemy or surface, sends you into a spiral jump that you can chain into further attacks or use to reach platforms. It’s simple but is used in increasingly complex ways as you progress and generally is a fun basis for the levels themselves.
The Warioland influence is really strong throughout the whole game and pretty on the nose. You play as a yellow, greedy bruiser who is pretty much deplorable to everyone he meets and is a sort of protagonist by accident. That being said, I always felt the Warioland games were pretty criminally underrated so, it’s great to see someone flying the flag for them as it appears that Nintendo are done with them (Warioland 4 on GBA is an absolutely gorgeous platformer which is well worth checking out).
Instead of the longer levels of the previous campaigns, King of Cards is split into three worlds which contain a lot more shorter focused levels. They’ll tend to be built around a specific gimmick which is unique to that level such as portals that fling you about the level or ice paths which require careful timing. It’s perfectly bitesize and lends itself to short bursts of playing which makes it an ideal Switch game. I’d play a few levels and then do something else all without ever feeling like I’d lost any momentum.
That being said, the more gimmicky design of the levels means there is less satisfaction in learning to control King Knight. Most levels tend to play out like a puzzle in which there is one solution whereas Shovel Knight and Spectre Knight levels were more like a test of reflexes and on-the-fly improvisation. By the end of the Spectre Knight campaign, I felt like a master of the game’s movement whereas that never really came with King Knight. It was slightly disappointing but frankly, I think it’s because of a slightly different design philosophy rather than anything unintentional.
Sadly Joustus didn’t really do it for me. The game contains about 50 different characters you can challenge to a game with a surprising amount of different cards to collect and your own deck to build. The game works by placing cards to push others to either collect gems or push them out of the way and as you progress into the game it becomes surprisingly complex with a lot of different mechanics.
As a pretty big board game enthusiast, I thought I’d love this element. On the surface it reminded me of Triple Triad from Final Fantasy 8, which I loved, but the whole thing never really clicked for me. It’s not particularly satisfying to capture the gems and the mechanics get so complicated that you really need to dedicate a fair amount of time to reliably win games which feels at odds with a platformer that you blast through in 4-5 hours. Luckily, there are in-game “cheats” that allow you to bypass some of the harder duels but it was a let down considering it’s the game’s namesake.
I feel like I’ve been pretty negative about the game but that’s potentially just because I’m comparing it to the frankly classic original game and it’s excellent two follow ups. King of Cards is the weakest of the Shovel Knight franchise but that’s still a really high bar. The platforming is still really fun and the core gameplay loop of collecting money and upgrading your Knight is still fantastically satisfying. The game is laden with heart and you can feel the love that Yacht club have for the franchise brimming from every corner and every character you interact with.
Would I recommend this game? Yes, but I wouldn’t recommend starting with it if you’re at all interested in Shovel Knight. You’ll have a good time with a really well made game but do yourself a favour and play them in release order. The first is the classic that started it all and you’ll get so much more out of this with the appreciation of those titles in you.