Wednesday, March 27, 2013

PAX East 2013: Shovel Knight

Enjoy Captain Sean Velasco's playthrough and interview of Shovel Knight here, and read our impressions below.


At PAX East 2013, I was able to play the demo for a currently-running Kickstarter project, Shovel Knight. Shovel Knight is the first game developed by new development company Yacht Club Games, comprised of ex-Wayforward developers with experience from A Boy and his Blob to Double Dragon Neon.  The game takes inspiration from a variety of 8-bit classic side-scrollers including Mega Man, Castlevania, and DuckTales in both its visual style as well as its gameplay mechanics. The demo began with a visual of the game's world map, and while the demo was restricted to King Knight’s medieval castle, Pridemoor Keep, I was informed that a select number of stages would be accessible at the beginning of the game, with more becoming unlocked as Shovel Knight completes each stage.

Shovel Knight stars the chivalrous Shovel Knight as he journeys across the land to save his beloved from the evil Enchantress. However, before he can reach her, he must first defeat her Order of No Quarter, which is made up of eight evil knights. While the story seems a tad simple, Captain Sean Velasco said that the final game would have a number of cutscenes before boss encounters and in between levels to help flesh out the story beyond a generic tale.

Even though story is important, players tend to play old Nintendo games for their gameplay, which Shovel Knight provides in spades. Anyone who has played a Mega Man game before will know how Shovel Knight moves, at least from a platforming perspective. Shovel Knight walks, jumps, and climbs ladders just like Mega Man can, and the stages are also filled with a number of platforming gimmicks that should help make each level unique. At one point in Pridemoor Keep, there were chandeliers hanging from the ceiling. When I walked underneth them, they fell down on top of me, dealing a great deal of damage. Later, I had to jump on top of similar chandeliers and then quickly jump off as they would immediately fall into the bottomless pits below. Another gimmick in the stage was a magic book that would conjure up magical page-platforms once it was struck; however, the book would only stay open for a limited time before closing, causing the platforms to disappear and Shovel Knight to fall to his doom. These were very creative gimmicks, and I look forward to seeing more of them in the final product.

However, while the game’s platforming and stage progression feels much like a Mega Man game, Shovel Knight does not have a Mega Buster to attack enemies from a distance. Instead he uses a shovel, which requires the knight get in close and personal to attack his foes. If the slashing attack is not enough, pressing down in a jump causes the knight to thrust his shovel downward to strike enemies from above much like Scrooge McDuck from DuckTales or Link from Link's Adventure. This short-range weapon changes how players must navigate the world and confront enemies. During the demo, I encountered a shield-wielding solider that could block all of my attacks, so I had to get close wait for him to lower his defenses in order to hit him. Another enemy I had to face was a large fire-breathing Gryphon. In a Mega Man game I could stay away and attack from afar, but in Shovel Knight I had to get right in its face to attack, which was dangerous, as it would also swipe its claws at me on occasion. This mechanic made each hit feel more personal and made me feel like the knight fighting courageously against my enemies.

The shovel is not only used as a weapon, but it is also used to dig up treasure, destroy dirt blocks, and pogo off of obstacles to reach higher ground. Occasionally in the demo I would come across large dirt blocks that blocked my path. By attacking the dirt or downward striking the ground with the shovel, the dirt block would break way, which opened access to hidden areas or safer, alternate paths. Also throughout the stage were a number of dirt piles that contained wondrous riches, although most were hidden in secret areas in the level. At the end of the demo, all the treasure was added up and my score was placed on a leaderboard, on which I barely made it. If this score system is used for all of the stages and they continue to have all of these hidden areas, then this will definitely extend the life of the game beyond the initial playthrough.

Besides the pivotal shovel, the game offers alternate weapons a la Castlevania that must be found in each stage to be used in the game.  In the demo, I found a fire rod on the opposite side of a large pit, requiring some slick chandelier platforming to cross. With this ability, I was capable of launching fireballs at enemies without needing to get too close, making my next Gryphon encounter to be much easier.  Having learned that Shovel Knight will not be getting powers from the bosses themselves, I hope there will be a greater variety of items to acquire within each stage, but we will have to see what Yacht Club Games decides to do with these extra attacks. 

After walking through the usual boss hallway, I faced off against King Knight himself. The regal Knight jumped around the room making it difficult to po-go off him. He would also occasionally stop and then dash across the floor at incredible speeds. He would also summon trumpets to appear high on the screen to praise him and rain down hazardous confetti onto the battlefield, which I had to avoid in order not to get hurt. All of this fast motion and confetti made the battle quite the challenge with the close range shovel. Luckily, I had the Fire Rod sub-item that gave me the upper hand to take him down. It was definitely a tough but enjoyable battle.

Shovel Knight not only plays like an old school platformer, it looks like one, too. Everything in the game is fully spirited with an 8-bit NES style. The game also restricts its color usage to NES limitations in order to give it a more authentic feel. Despite being an “NES” title, the sprite animations were much smoother, and everything ran much better than they would be able to do on an actual NES. This made the game feel both retro and modern at the same time. Following with the game’s NES inspirations, the game’s music is comprised of chiptunes to sound just like other Nintendo games. Sadly, due to the convention hall’s loud noises, I was unable to full hear the music, but I enjoyed what I could hear, either way.

Without a doubt, Shovel Knight looks and plays the part of being a classic 8-bit adventure. While it takes inspiration from other great platformers, Shovel Knight managed to feel fresh and unique with its shovel mechanic and fluid animations. I cannot wait to take out the rest of the Order of No Quarter and to see what other challenges Shovel Knight will face. Go support Shovel Knight on Kickstarter, and it will find its way to PC, Wii U, and Nintendo 3DS late 2013.

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