I did not expect Plague of Shadows. I knew about it, to be sure—in fact, I have been eagerly awaiting Shovel Knight’s latest update with a “day before your birthday” sort of gleeful anticipation. I was so hyped to get a new playable character, an altered play style, a few assorted new abilities to keep it interesting, and maybe an altered final boss. I didn’t get any of that. I got Plague of Shadows. This feels less like an update and more like a sequel.
For those of you who are unaware of the 8-bit NEStalgia, Shovel Knight was fantastic if you liked platformers. Solid mechanics, imaginative level design, memorable boss battles, a satisfying ending, and even some nice replay value. Somewhat shallowly labeled an“8-bit Dark Souls” upon release, Shovel Knight did share the demanding difficulty level and sadistic love of killing you over and over and over. Add in a Souls-like wealth retrieval system, destructible checkpoints, some terrifying boss fights, and the parallels start to add up. The end result gave us a lovingly crafted homage to the 8-bit era smartly modernized to still be accessible to those who, like me, didn’t grow up with the beloved gray box. Now arguably a “modern classic,” Plague of Shadows has a lot to live up to.
Admittedly from an assets perspective, Plague of Shadows is actually just a new character thrown into the vanilla game. With the exception of a few secret areas, the levels have received minor tweaks to accommodate the new gameplay mechanics, but are unchanged otherwise. The soundtrack adds a nice assortment of new compositions to the main soundtrack, but ultimately it’s the same music and the boss fights are identical to the original roster—again, with a few pleasant surprises. To be honest, the only thing that’s really different is Plague Knight.
Plague Knight changes everything. From the very start, the game feels like a separate entity simply because you’re in it. Shovel Knight’s base gameplay was simple. You could swing your shovel, pogo stick brutally into your opponent’s head, and you had an assortment of magic items to help you survive. Plague Knight has two jumps, a third “burst jump” charged by holding down attack, a new assortment of spells, an interesting “temporary health boost” mechanic, and enough explosive capability to make Bomberman cry himself to sleep. The new movement mechanics turn the game on its head. Areas that previously required a gold medal in pogo stick gymnastics become trivialized with this newfound airborne superiority while some basic foes become terrifying monsters when faced with the knowledge that you can’t use them as a trampoline.
This is, however, where most of my complaints with the game lie. The original platforming was solid and Shovel Knight’s controls were tight. The single jump given to you left you with the binary reality of “you can make that jump” and “you cannot make that jump.” If you messed up, it was awfully hard to blame the game for it. Controlling Plague Knight can sometimes feel too floaty, slippery, or even frustratingly unresponsive at times. Burst jumps frequently feel like they take control away from you, leaving your fate to physics instead of your own reflexes. That kind of committed relationship with Newton’s laws might have worked in classic Castlevania, but in a game like this where precision and timing are key, it’s frustrating to feel this lack of control. There is an upgrade for this that gives you a sort of glide ability as you fall, but there are lots of other cool alterations to this ability that I never really got to try because they just never felt as useful.
Plagues Knight’s combat is all about situational usefulness. You start out with an endless supply of bombs that you throw on the ground, which explode after a few moments or if they make contact with an enemy or destructible surface. In Mario-esque fashion, you can only have three bombs onscreen at a time, but they explode fast enough that you never really notice. The kicker here is that your bombs are made up of a casing that determines how your bombs move, a powder that alters how they explode, and a fuse to alter when they explode, each of which you’ll unlock more of to develop in your lab. Any of these three components can be switched at will and you will find yourself doing this constantly. Lob casings to arc up at foes above you, orbital casings to experience what being a planet is like, long fuses, short fuses, fuses that act like mines—so many choices!
Oddly enough, there are never too many. Unlike other games with this kind of feature, I was hard-pressed to find an upgrade that I didn’t find myself using at one point. The real trick is finding the right combination of parts to solve the problem, and as you keep unlocking customizations, this can get a little overwhelming, but I never found it detrimental to the experience.
Plague Knight turns bosses into a joke. The regular cast of villains make their return unchanged (with a few exceptions) and it wasn’t long before I realized that most of the bosses spend their time hovering/jumping over you. This is challenging when your primary means of attack involves being above or right next to the opposition, but Plague Knight can do miraculous things like arc his attacks and spam bombs like there’s no tomorrow. Every boss with the exception of the last one felt like I was just tanking through fights simply because I could output more damage than I took. The fights are frantic, but for all the wrong reasons, and there’s a disappointing lack of skill required for them. I can’t really defend this and find it to be one of Plague of Shadows’ lowest points. Hopefully, Yacht Club does something about this in future content.
All of these aspects come together to make Plague of Shadows entirely unique to play, but what really sets Plague of Shadows apart from the base game would have to be the various elements that I’m going to put under the umbrella of “The Story.” Now, for those who haven’t played the original game, Shovel Knights’ story was pretty bare bones. You and stalwart sweetheart Shield Knight are attacked by an evil enchantress, your partner gets deep-sixed, and the enchantress and her Order of No Quarter spread terror and darkness across the land, go stop her. This time, playing as one of this vile Order, things are a little different. The first and absolutely most important change is as follows: Plague Knight has a dance button. Anywhere at any time, with one little adorable exception for whenever you’re in potions mistress and secret crush Mona’s presence. Did I mention this was a love story?
While previously a mini-game sprite button, potions mistress Mona has ascended the ranks to supporting character, chatty companion, and the apple of Plague Knight’s eye. I honestly love this story choice—it’s totally unexpected with what we know of the character, it’s adorable, and honestly, I thought it was handled well. Having familiar faces to come back to gives more opportunities for characterization, and though it’s not a whole lot, it felt nice to get to know these characters more. It was really refreshing to see a character like Plague Knight to be this huge softy, and I found myself really enjoying Mona’s appearances as well.
There’s one point after a boss fight where you see her dancing across the laboratory floor, and I must have spent ten minutes just watching those simple animations loop. The game is full of these little moments and every single one of them made me crack a smile. It’s all just enjoyable. Now, admittedly, the love story aspect has every cliché in the book—from a misunderstanding love triangle to a hilarious scene where Mona needs your help working a “jammed” lever in the dark. It’s cheesy, you’ve seen it before, it’s entirely made of old tropes, but I don’t think that makes it bad. Shovel Knight has never really been a game you play for the story in the first place, so this simple little story about mad scientists developing “chemistry” was a nice touch.
It’s worth ending this with a mention that it’s a free update. No cost, they just shoved it into the main game. Now, I am not a woman of particular wealth. I look at 90% of Steam sales and go: “Eeeeeh, do I really need it though?” I would happily pay up to $10 for this, and I absolutely would have gotten my money’s worth. Even wilder, this isn’t Shovel Knight’s last update—they have two more character campaigns coming in the future on top of a silly gender-flip mode and a fully rostered battle mode. If all of these come out with same love and effort that was put into Plague of Shadows, I will be playing Shovel Knight into my late 20s.