Let me iterate this now, Shovel Knight: Plague of Shadows is unrelentingly difficult. If you love ruthless old-school platformers and already own Shovel Knight, enjoy this free DLC. As for the rest of you, play at your own risk. I jeopardized my controller more than once while reviewing this recent expansion. Shovel Knight’s campaign sparked moments of agitation, yes, but nothing so violent that I considered snapping my DualShock 4 in two. Plague of Shadows hands the reins over to the titular Plague Knight – no longer a mere boss opposed to Shovel Knight’s noble quest – and revamps the physics that players depended on, though not for the better.
I knew Plague of Shadows would bring out the rage in me approximately 37 seconds into the game’s first stage. Plague Knight exchanges Shovel Knight’s trusty spade and pogo maneuvers for a bird mask, bombs, and slippery controls. I loathe Plague Knight’s play style. Platformers that integrate momentum into a character’s jumps forsake the precision of the genre, causing fans to mistime a hurdle or overcorrect a landing and drown, impale themselves on spikes, or smolder in lava. Such nerve-racking gameplay prevents me from revisiting various 8-bit classics. A game’s physics, unrealistic though they may be, should never feel half finished.
I could acclimate to Plague Knight’s slip-and-slide sensitivity, just not when jumping requires consistent flawless execution. Plague of Shadows may as well be an homage to ‘Splosion Man. As an alchemist, Plague Knight utilizes bomb jumps (called “bursts”) to breach the impregnable castles and ships of his former allies. To do that, players hold down their attack buttons. Once Plague Knight begins to glow, he detonates and propels himself upwards and onwards. Because Yacht Club Games reconfigured levels to maintain Shovel Knight’s taxing difficulty, a single burst rarely does the trick when crossing chasms. You must chain detonations and combine Plague Knight’s pitiful double jump with your bomb blasts to navigate stages.
My ire grows from here.
The developers disposed of ledges and enemies (e.g., the jellyfish at the start of the Flying Machine) that Shovel Knight previously pogo’d on. Great, I commend Yacht Club for not rushing out the DLC to meet fan demands. The people that have logged hours into Shovel Knight from day one practically get a brand-new game. At the same time, Plague Knight is the Luigi stand-in for Shovel Knight, except a little greener. He slides when landing or sprinting, coming to a stop several feet from your intended target. Yacht Club Games did not design Shovel Knight for imperfect platforming. Many ledges span Plague Knight’s shoulder width, no farther. Calculating my jump arcs in quick succession so I’d touch down without skidding into an off-screen void is the most aggravating experience I endured this year.
You must build speed for longer jumps, and for the average, non-speedrunner Shovel Knight enthusiast, a majority of the your leaps will go like this: hold down the attack button, run a couple feet, and vault into the air. At the apex of the jump, let go of the attack button to detonate your bomb bag. Then tap the jump button again without nudging the analog stick or D-pad, thereby cancelling your built-up momentum in mid-air so you can drop safely. Those steps carried me through Plague of Shadows, yet I still racked up a more restarts on the first level than in I did in half my playthrough of Shovel Knight. Final Plague of Shadows death count: 199 deaths.
Only a miracle kept my controller in one piece: new bomb bursts. Although the standard blast causes a paltry area-of-effect explosion, the other bomb jumps produce tangible effects. A frost burst bombards the area below you with icicles, while bullet bursts lance enemies ahead with magic missiles. The one burst I equipped at all times slows your descent after a launch. I cannot thank the float burst enough for allotting me the precious seconds to finalize my trajectory and avoid a fatal restart. Regardless of how well Plague of Shadows simulates the scumbaggery of early ‘90s arcades – die, respawn, die, respawn, die, insert another 50 cents in the coin slot – I wish the DLC was more approachable, that the float burst could be unlocked by default.
Without the float burst, I completed stages with identical, if not fewer, amounts of jewels from when I began. You could argue Plague of Shadows is for the die-hard fanbase, the people who reclaim the Tower of Fate on a weekly basis. If that is the case, Yacht Club Games alienates people that wanted a mere taste of Plague Knight’s alchemy. Plague Knight unlocks additional upgrades after collecting green cipher coins peppered about levels, so crucial items such as the frost or bullet bursts only come through careful exploration. Beyond Shovel Knight addicts and achievement hunters, I expect a large percent of the audience to not persevere to the end of Plague of Shadows. The standard bomb jump punishes anyone without sufficient reflexes.
Strange, then, that bosses remain shockingly easy. Specter Knight was no tougher than a kid dressed up for Halloween thanks to the bomb casings that granted a greater lob arc. Treasure Knight could not hold a harpoon to me when I packed tracer powder into my bombs, spewing flames that clung to solid surfaces. Remember the task of jumping atop Tinker Knight’s mech to reach its master? Players can launch directly onto the drill and toss bombs into Tinker Knight’s face. I vanquished every No Quarter villain on the first or second attempt. I’d consider that a godsend in light of the miserable platforming. Even players indifferent to the bomb crafting can force their way through a boss by consuming tonics, which add one bubble to the health bar until Plague Knight dies.
Wait a minute. Did I say “bomb crafting”? Yes I did.
By collecting green cipher coins for Mona, she researches upgrades for our alchemist. Provided you buy the proper ingredients, you can tailor bombs to outwit any situation. Trying to ricochet a grenade off several walls before it explodes? Attach a longer fuse. Need a shield from enemy projectiles? The orbit casing ensures bombs revolve you. Minibosses sapping your health before you can put a dent in theirs? Purchase the component powder. Three explosions within close proximity combine for the bigger, brighter boom you desire. Letting players devise their volatile arsenal from dozens of permutations, both practical and impractical, is the greatest mechanic to come out of Plague of Shadows, excluding the absence of custom bomb slots. As of this writing, players must dive into a pause menu every time they want to swap out components.
At least swapping between arcana requires less thought. Plague Knight deems the relics from Shovel Knight useless, and trades them off to Chester for new alchemy-based spells. That horn will net you a bigger bomb, with shockwaves that ripple through walls. Cash in that anchor and Chester sells you a brew to siphon life from enemies you injure. Rid yourself of that wand and replace it with a beaker conjured from thin air, allowing you to activate another burst before the abyss claims you. Plague Knight’s ordnance is more creative than Shovel Knight’s, and authentic to his profession. For the sake of obtaining arcana alone, I explored every secret area. You can’t hurt me on the ground when I’m not on the ground, Propeller Knight.
Elsewhere, Yacht Club retools Shovel Knight’s narrative. You fight through the same stages and bosses again, but unlike the controls, it works. The events of Plague of Shadows run somewhat parallel to Shovel Knight’s adventure. Players might even spot the cerulean warrior going about his business while Plague Knight lurks in his underground lair, since the townsfolk have banned the Order of No Quarter from entering the village. Not to be swayed, Plague Knight has his own incentives for betraying the Enchantress and her lackeys. He intends to create the ultimate elixir from the essences of his comrades (it becomes quite the heartwarming tale, I assure you), and Plague Knight’s selfish witticisms and boasting guarantee each No Quarter showdown is a joy.
Mona receives more screen time as Plague Knight’s actual assistant as well, fulfilling a relatable role besides Maiden of Minigames. The rest of Plague Knight’s workforce is one of idiots, yet lovable idiots at that. Although I dare not trust a talking horse’s relationship advice, I will listen to him ramble to his heart’s content, absorbing every pixel of the presentation in turn. I get giddy thinking how great an 8- or 16-bit BioShock could be with Treasure Knight’s underwater stage – water physics and all – serving as inspiration. The frenetic tempos of Tinker Knight’s Clockwork Tower egg players on, too, urging them to surpass prior checkpoints while muttering “one more go.” Both Shovel Knight and Plague of Shadows produce audiovisual impressions that outshine any retro-themed competitors.
The solitary Plague of Shadows downside is Plague Knight’s bomb-based acrobatics. Until I acquired the float burst that trivializes many of the DLC’s hazardous pitfalls, the pride of overcoming several sections – especially the auto-scrolling portions – on the tenth, fifteenth, or twentieth attempt never came. I left those screens behind with a sneer, not a smirk. To remind myself that my skills did not decay in the year following Shovel Knight’s release, I replayed the introductory stage as Shovel Knight, beating both it and the Black Knight with a single life. A cathartic wave washed over me when controlling Shovel Knight again, when playing Yacht Club Games’ 8-bit tribute as it was meant to be played.
While I overcame the fury and foolery that is Shovel Knight: Plague of Shadows, I am content to never touch it again.
This review is based on the PS4 version of the DLC, which all Shovel Knight owners can download.
Shovel Knight is still an unrivaled audiovisual homage to Sega and Nintendo consoles. If you like ruthless platformers and already own Shovel Knight, enjoy Plague of Shadows. It literally costs nothing. If you prefer precise controls, however, slightly altered levels and bomb crafting may not justify Plague Knight’s momentum-heavy play style.