Shovel Knight – Treasure Trove

Shovel Knight isn’t a frosted brick.

Ed Note: This writeup is based on finishing the Plague Knight and Shovel Knight campaigns, but not King of Cards, Showdown Mode, or Specter of Torment.

Shovel Knight is great.

The sentence above pretty much sums up my opinions on Shovel Knight, and part of me is really tempted to just leave it at that. The other part of me thinks that a little more explanation is needed. The problem with said extra explanation is that I’ve been having a really hard time trying to put my finger on why Shovel Knight is so good.

Yes, Queen Knight. Normally it would be King Knight. The game has gender swap options which I turned on for this save file, along with custom pronouns that aren’t linked to the selected body type. I don’t think I have anything valuable to say on this feature, as I’m the most cis straight white wonderbread looking motherfucker you’ll ever meet, but it’s cool to see that it’s there.

Okay, so while I stall for time on that, let’s talk briefly about what Shovel Knight actually is: it’s a platformer styled like the platformers of yore. The game itself has a structure similar to Mega Man, where you’re given a set of levels to pick from, and need to clear them all to continue to the next set of levels.

There are some optional mini side levels, and also some enemies that show up and roam on the map, kinda like Hammer Bros from Super Mario. The levels themselves are all pretty varied, with each one having a general theme, and about 3 or so different mechanics regarding the platforming itself. At the end of each level, you’ll fight a boss: an enemy knight and member of the Order of No Quarter. Levels also have hidden treasure, relics, and other good stuff in them.

These GIFs are way more laggy than the game is. Shovel Knight actually runs silkily smooth, and I never experienced any slowdown while playing. At least the GIFs give a good look at the style and palette of the game, I guess. Honestly not sure if I should keep them.

This is just for the Shovel Knight and Plague Knight campaigns, by the way. It looks like the Specter Knight campaign is like a separate sort of thing? And King of Cards has an entire extra board game that you can play? This game has a lot of stuff in it…

Oh, right, I’m still supposed to be writing a review. Well, through the magic of “writing,” in the time between the block of text above, and this one, I went back and played a bunch more to try to put my finger on why the game is so much much fun, and I think a lot of it comes down to movement.

See, everything about Shovel Knight is pretty great. The music is banging, the art feels incredibly fitting and clean, the story is simple but really good, but to me, a lot of those elements are just window dressing. That doesn’t mean they’re not important, but they’re the frosting on top. Even if you frost a brick, it’s still a brick.

But Shovel Knight isn’t a brick because the art, music, and story are all built on top of a solid core of movement, and equally importantly, levels and areas that utilize that movement effectively. Bouncing from enemy to enemy, digging up piles of treasure, and dodging and reflecting projectiles all feels fun and responsive. And the levels are all laid out in ways to give you both tricky platforming challenges, and satisfying instances of pulling them off.

Okay, so unrelated: if this game had come out in like the 2000’s, would tons of folks have Knightsonas on their Deviant Art pages, instead of “X The Hedgehog” sonic recolors? It’s interesting to think about. Like, the game provides built in sprites, recolors, etc, for each of the characters in the game. And the gender swaps mean that you could make just about any Knightsona you’d want.

And this is the cake under Shovel Knight’s frosting. It’s not particularly flashy or obvious, but it’s the base of everything else in the game. It’s what makes the boss fights fun and enjoyable instead of slogs, it’s what makes the platforming fun instead of frustrating, and it’s what makes it so that when you fail, you want to go again.

And, dear reader, let me let you in on a little secret: I called Shovel Knight a bit of a throwback up above, but I’m not sure that’s entirely honest, and that’s to Shovel Knight’s credit. While the game mimics the style of older games, it doesn’t copy their mistakes. There is no traditional game over, and while dying makes you lose money, you can always try to get it back. You can reset levels if things go too incredibly wrong and you end up strapped for cash. The game’s hidden items are purchasable with the gold you find if you’re unable to actually discover them in the level they’re located in, albeit at a slightly higher price.

This, I think, is the best thing I can say about Shovel Knight. It embodies the heart and feeling of those older games, without committing their sins. It mimics their style, without aping it, or being a cheap copy. And it manages to stand out and be joyful to play in a genre with countless competitors.

To just play through the base game won’t take you very long, but it has a lot of potential for speed running, mastery, and secret hunting. Personally, if you think you might like the game I’d suggest buying the Treasure Trove edition, which has all the campaigns and such in it. If you want to try it cheaper, you can buy the base game for $15.

Shovel Knight is six years old at this point, making me perhaps the last person to write a review of it. But I hope I’m not the last person to play it, because it deserves a lot more than that.

P.S. Okay, still thinking about the idea of Knightsonas. I kinda love the idea of an alternate universe where instead of people wearing fursuits, we have an entire subculture of folks who dress up in a pixel art style heavy plate mail and helms, with ridiculous weapons.

Kunai

It is a video game that you can play, and some of the art is good. This is the end of the nice things I can say about Kunai.

I don’t love Kunai. I wouldn’t recommend it. But I played 8 hours of it, so I’ll be damned if I’m not going to try to get a review out of it. And yes, that was enough to finish the game.

Okay, so this bothers me even after finishing the game: are the helmets just made to look like monitors? Why do robots and humans look so similar in this game?

If I was asked to summarize Kunai in a sentence, it would be something like “Kunai is fine.” That wouldn’t be entirely accurate, though, because if I tried to make it longer, it would be something like “Kunai is on average fine, or slightly mediocre.” The key word there is average, because there are a few areas of the game that take advantage of Kunai’s strongest point: the expressive and expansive movement of the player character, Tabby.

See, Kunai is a platformer/roguelike, or at least that’s what it wants to be. It never quite feels like that, though. When you revisit zones, it’s because you’re required to backtrack through them. There are no items that you find that aren’t clearly in the main story path. Many of the zones feel fairly linear, and don’t actually require much exploring.

What Kunai does do well are your actual movement options. Between the titular Kunai, a late game dash, rockets, SMGs that can be used to gun float, and otherwise just fairly solid controls, Tabby is a lot of fun to run around with. Unfortunately, the game doesn’t play into this as strongly as it could, and many of game’s zones either don’t take advantage of it, or feel like they actively punish it. Moving too quickly gets you killed, and outside of one area, you never really get to just ricochet around.

Zen Mountains, one of the few really good areas in the game, has lots of small platforms and big open areas to jump around in.

There simply isn’t anything that Kunai does that I haven’t seen other games do better. It would be easier to recommend Kunai if the sum of its parts was greater than its whole, or if it collected a bunch of different mechanics into a game for the first time. But there are other games that take everything Kunai does, story, exploration, movement, art, music, and knock it out of the park, whereas Kunai just limps along. Like, if you want to play an expansive indie metroidvania, just go play Hollow Knight. The gameplay is much better, the game is longer, and Hollow Knight actually has a good story.

Speaking of which, let’s talk about the story briefly: Kunai has a story, but it feels rushed and incomplete. There are plot points that feel straight up skipped over, for example a relationship with the villain that’s hinted at, but almost completely ignored the entire game. Nothing ever comes together or makes sense.

We’re part of a rebellion against something, but it’s not clear what we’re rebelling against? Or why? Or why the villain is doing any of this? It’s frustrating because much like Tabby’s movement, the game sets up a very interesting-looking situation, only to never quite utilize it fully.

Swinging your sword to bounce bullets back at an enemy is cool… but gets boring kinda quick.

The game feels like it had heavy cuts to its intended gameplay. For example, there’s a bit where you help power up a giant mech. You put in the power core, see it turn on and… all it does is fly you to a new area, where you do a gauntlet of enemies, then fight the final boss. It’s an incredible letdown.

I feel bad for tearing into Kunai this much, but the only reason I have so much to complain about is because the game feels like it has untapped potential. There’s a fantastic movement system handicapped and hamstrung by mediocre zones and levels. There’s a story that starts out interesting, kneecapped by too little explanation in some parts, and far, far too much in others. Combined, the game just isn’t satisfying to play, and can actually be rather frustrating.

I hope the game makes back its development budget. I hope TurtleBlaze gets to make a second game that doesn’t feel as rushed. There’s a lot of potential here, and a few things that are done quite right.

But there aren’t enough of them for me to recommend this game. If this review didn’t turn you off, you can find Kunai on Steam, and on a few other consoles.

Ed Note: Images are taken from the Steam Store Page. I just don’t have anything really valuable to add with screenshots of this game to be honest.