Few games succeed in nailing an aesthetic as well as Shovel Knight does. The retro platformer was one of the best indie titles of recent years, and words can’t describe how much I dug Shovel Knight (awful pun 100 percent intentional). As such a big fan of the game, I’ve been eagerly awaiting Plague of Shadows ever since it was announced, and despite a shaky start, it’s proven to be a worthy expansion on the main game, offering plenty of new content, all wrapped up in the same coat of beautifully retro paint.

Plague of Shadows allows players to take control of a fan favourite character- the villainous Plague Knight. It turns out, while we were playing the hero as Shovel Knight, he had his own nefarious scheme in motion, secretly seeking the ingredients to create a potion of unlimited power. The developers haven’t made the new character a lazy reskin of Shovel Knight – Plague Knight is a unique character, unlike Shovel Knight in any way. Hurling bombs that explode on impact is a satisfying new way to deal with enemies, and his increased aerial abilities add tons of variation to the gameplay. However, the new control scheme is tough to master, and unfortunately, the tutorial does a terrible job of easing the transition between the characters.

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The ‘bomb burst,’ an explosive charge attack that flings Plague Knight forward to act as a sort of triple jump, gets a measly one-sentence explanation. Getting it right is essential- making it across pits, getting into good positions to fight from- all impossible without mastering the execution of this manoeuvre. At first, using it felt like I was just hopelessly throwing myself forward, with little to no control over my trajectory.

It took a while to get through the first level, simply because I didn’t understand how to control the character, and I must have fallen into the same pit at least ten times. To be honest, when I did figure it out, it was only through frustratedly button mashing as I arched through the air.  I began to enjoy the game once it finally clicked, but for the majority of my first play session, Plague Knight felt so horrible to control that my experience was a long hard slog. He’s light and, for lack of a better word, floaty, and he tends to slide a little as he lands, making platforming sections with narrow ledges a real challenge. It does make success feel much more rewarding, and some players will like it, but I do wish the movement was just a little tighter, and easier to control.

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At times, combat does feel a bit strange too. The levels were clearly originally designed with melee combat in mind, with Shovel Knight’s scoop being used to strike the enemies (or pogo on top of them). Plague Knight uses ranged weaponry, hurling explosives at enemies from a safe distance, which make certain sections of the game feel comically easy. This is balanced out fairly well however, as changes have been made to the levels to challenge Plague Knight’s unique play style.

There are plenty of upgrades you can purchase to improve and unlock new abilities, and I worried much more about collecting money here than I did in the main campaign. The Dark Souls-esque money system makes its triumphant return, as each time you die some of your money is left behind, to collect if you reach it without dying again. It  really made me fight to stay alive, as I knew I’d need to preserve as much of my precious cash as possible if I wanted to get the next vital upgrade.

There are also special cipher coins, which are used to research new upgrades to get at the shop. They’re scattered just liberally enough through the levels that I didn’t feel like I needed to get my hands on all of them, and they’re often placed in hard to reach spots. I often found myself weighing up the risks and rewards of going for them, and I have to admit, more often than not I’d leave them if they weren’t easy to get.

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The main adventure of the expansion runs parallel to the main game’s story, and the two weave together, giving more insight into the Shovel Knight world. Bit part characters are given much bigger roles, and locations I thought I’d explored in their entirety reveal lots of hidden depths lurking under the surface. Mona’s journey from small side character in the main game to a starring role in the expansion is particularly fun. She serves as both shopkeeper and love interest, with a fun sub plot that really helps expand Plague Knight’s character, turning him into the fully explored anti-hero he needs to be.

The music is still as gloriously retro as ever. Composer Jake Kaufman has added plenty of new tracks, inspired by Plague Knight’s theme from the main campaign. Originally, the Plague Knight theme was a contribution from Manami Matsumae (a name you may recognise as the composer for the original Megaman). The track’s darker style really suited the character, and it serves as an excellent inspiration for the new soundtrack. Playing as a villain, everything feels a little more sinister, and the music reflects this, while still preserving the fun and energy of the original soundtrack for a perfect balance of light and dark.

Yacht Club could’ve charged for this expansion and I would’ve been happy to pay for it. But instead, they’ve released it for free, and that’s awesome. Plague of Shadows is a worthy addition to the title, only let down by some slightly unwieldy controls. If you couldn’t get enough of Shovel Knight’s wonderful homage to the old school, then don’t miss this. With two more free expansions on the way, it looks like Shovel Knight is only going to get better as time goes on.

About The Author

Contributor

As a composer and video game enthusiast, Philip has spent years searching for a way to combine his passions for both music and gaming. Then, one day, he figured he could just write about them. He loves to over-analyse the way music helps to shape the player's emotional response in a game. He also loves to criticise bad control schemes, because... Well, they just get on his nerves.

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  • Yeah. I see how the floaty nature of Plague Knight messes with everybody. But I think that it’s the single smartest innovation in a platformer: air correction with limited air control. It makes the game much harder than when we were Shovel Knight. But you’re right that some will love it (me) and others will hate it (yourself).

    Great writeup and review. Good stuff.

  • Brooks Cannon

    You’re definitely right about the controls taking some getting used to. I really didn’t like they way Plague Knight played at first but after a while it feels much more natural and I enjoyed the game a lot more after that. Good review!