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.

Sea of Thieves

While suffering from some flaws, Sea of Thieves is also an incredibly fun co-op game.

I really like Sea of Thieves. I’ve been playing it at least every other day for the last few weeks. Usually, I’d have no problem recommending something I like this much or have played this much, but Sea of Thieves is special and so I have some caveats attached to that recommendation. Or perhaps it might make sense to think of them as warnings. I’ll go into them in more detail in a bit, but here they are in short.

Sea of Thieves isn’t an MMO, it’s a playground. I’ll write more in depth on this later, but the game has no in-game mechanical progression. I think it’s easy to look at this and see a bad thing, especially if you’re used to having leveling and progression systems that make the game easier for you as time goes on. The positive side to having no mechanical progression is that you will always be mechanically equal with your friends, no matter who has played the most. Someone who has never played before can jump in, and be a contributing member of your crew from minute one. The only increase in “Power” that you get is a more solid understanding of the game’s mechanics and systems.

Multiplayer is more or less required, friends are best, randos can be passable, but playing solo is an exercise in frustration. There are a set of people who do a thing called Solo-Slooping, but I think for most of us, the joy of the game is doing stuff with your friends. Outrunning the Kraken, fighting off ghost ships, and booking around an island to dig up treasure are all things that are best done with other people, and the game’s mechanics actively encourage you to play with others. As just a quick example, almost every ship outside of the two player ship has the capstan (boat thing used to drop the anchor) fairly far from the steering wheel, so good luck docking your boat at the dock without multiple people. The way the sails work means that in fights, you’ll want to be constantly changing them to actually get your boat where you want it, and not crash into things. Same for firing cannons, fixing the boat, and more or less every other mechanic.

Finally, the game isn’t super cheap. Most of the folks I’m playing it with got it at $20 on a Steam sale, but that’s still a hefty chunk of change. This might be a bit less of a deal breaker for the anyone with a Windows 10 PC, since you can get Gamepass for PC for like $5 a month, and a month of playing Sea of Thieves is most likely enough for you to figure out if you like the game or not. I debated keeping this section, but I still think it’s worth the callout.

Ed note: The game does have cosmetic microtransactions, and at time of writing, apparently will be adding a battlepass system in it’s next update. I have mixed feelings about this, since a friend already got me the game for $40 as a Christmas present, and cosmetics are the only thing to actually spend in game gold and doubloons on.

Okay, here’s the thing: I love the moment-to-moment gameplay of Sea of Thieves, and if that’s the case, why did I feel the need to put three paragraphs of warnings ending in “Here there be Microtransactions?”

Well, it’s for two reasons. I do love the game, but I suspect there are a fair number of people who won’t, for one or more reasons. I don’t think these categorizations of people who play games are hugely accurate, but I still want to toss them out there for a moment: if you’re the sort of person who plays games in a fairly “hardcore” manner, min-maxing, following meta guides, and going for every inch of DPS you can get, I’m not sure there’s much in Sea of Thieves for you. The only things you get are cosmetics, the “optimal” gold/time quests are fairly dull, and large portions of the game if you look at them from the standpoint of “How much progression does this get me?” are purely grind. On the flip side, Sea of Thieves is not a “Casual” game, but for a different set of reasons: play sessions in which you actually get stuff done can amount to several hours in length, the game can be brutally punishing and wipe out those invested hours quite easily if you get a bit unlucky or stop paying attention, and of course, there’s always the chance to end up in a PvP situation and just getting blown to smithereens.

So why do I play it? Simple: I find it fun. I talked about Sea of Thieves as a playground up above. What I mean by that is Sea of Thieves is primarily a place to be, and a place to play above all else. Everything about it is designed to function in that way, and I can’t actually think of any other games that provide that experience. The fact that everyone is on equal footing each time you log in means that no matter how experienced you are, your friends can always join in and contribute. There’s no DPS checks, no being carried through raids, no dodging queues.

I do have one last gripe though: The fact that you can’t change ship size, which is effectively player party count without remaking your party is a complete bummer. I would really like them to change that. I won’t stop playing if they don’t, but if there was a way to change ship size, it would be a massive improvement.

While the hand to hand combat for both PvP and PvE is clunky, I really enjoy almost every other moment of the game. The clunk of hitting a treasure chest with your shovel is awesome. Working with friends to run around an island working on a riddle is great. The tension and relief of running vaults, and looting them is fantastic, and boat combat is mostly solid.

Like a playground, though, you will occasionally get knocked down and bullied. It’s an unfortunate part of the experience. In terms of pure, primal frustration and rage, Sea of Thieves made me feel a way I hadn’t in quite a while, and when that happened, I had to take a break from playing for a bit. But after that break, I was ready to return. The game is just enjoyable.

Fighting megalodons, trying to outrun other players, and looting bosses are all fun. Like I said above, Sea of Thieves is a playground, and as such it’s more than the sum of its parts. It’s not just treasure hunting, or riddles, or cargo delivery, it’s all the small moments that make up doing those things, from having someone stand lookout, to having one person call out directions, while another steers, and a third person tries to keep you from crashing into the rocks. It’s a place to be together with other people, and enjoy their company, and do things with them. To cook shark, to play silly songs, and to generally mess with each other.

And to Sail Together