Shovel Knight Review – Dig Deeper (PS4/Vita)

Yacht Club Games, who most likely don’t actually code while in a yacht club, started Shovel Knight on the venerable crowdsourcing platform, Kickstarter. It was released on the 3DS, WiiU, and PC platforms, with the PlayStation consoles noticeably absent. Fast forward less than a year, and here we are! Does Shovel Knight‘s tight platforming make the transition smoothly?

Smooth Control

If you’re a fan of the game already, then you can probably just stop reading this review and buy the game. The answer is a decisive yes, this is a very smooth transition. No matter which PlayStation you’re loading Shovel Knight onto, the game runs smoothly and without issue. The game is only designed to look old; it has no stuttering, and the graphics are blocky but crisp.

Controls are just about as simple as they used to be back in the NES days. You use the directional pad to move, X to jump, square to attack, and circle to back out of menus. Combat is even simplified to use a handful of buttons. Much like if this were actually released on an 8-bit system, using an item involves pressing up and attack at the same time. You do use the DualShock 4’s touchpad button to bring up the gear menu, but that is only because it serves as what would have been the select button on a retro controller. I have to admit that it took a little getting used to not using all the buttons on the controller, but soon I was quaffing potions as naturally as I was hopping on my shovel.

Simple Layers

Shovel Knight is a platforming game with a light touch of RPG elements. You start out pretty weak, with only a few health points standing between you and a painful death. Luckily, you can earn more life and mana, and purchase items to help you survive a little big longer. Platforming is very tight, and any deaths you suffer are done by your own doing. I don’t think I ever saw a single collision glitch or odd behavior in any item; once you memorize an area, it’s up to your timing and execution to get through an area unscathed.

Every level that you visit is multi-tiered, nuanced, and incredibly detailed despite being artificially limited in color palette. You have to pay close attention to any markings on a wall, because it is often an indicator that things are not quite as they seem. There are also shiny sections to a level that will trick you at first encounter. Expect to re-visit levels as you attempt to uncover all their secrets. Also expect mid-level mini-bosses who will catch you by surprise if you’re not careful, but who are totally conquerable no matter your current equipment. There are a dozen or so levels – if I had one criticism of Shovel Knight, it’s that I wanted more levels!

The sound in Shovel Knight is absolutely perfect. It genuinely sounds like 8-bit audio is pumping out of these modern PlayStation consoles. There’s simply beeps and boops that are reminiscent of any of the great 8-bit games such as Zelda, Final Fantasy or (insert your favorite game from that era here). As you travel from land to land, you will find music sheets. You bring these back to a musician, who will pay you relatively handsomely for your trouble and will also play any of the sheets that you have found, should you so desire. I quickly found a favorite music track and would have him play it whenever I needed to visit the village for an upgrade or two.

Modern Conveniences

While Shovel Knight is one big homage to the 8-bit era, it also includes some modern upgrades. For starters, there is a (usually) generous checkpoint system. If you think a checkpoint system is blasphemy in any true 8-bit game, you can destroy them! The checkpoint then bursts open, spewing out a bunch of gems while simultaneously becoming inactivated. It’s a great compromise, and purists will be happy to see that they can play a level the hard way if they so choose. There is also New Game+, which effectively doubles playability. Oh, and as a PlayStation exclusive, cross-save functionality is also present, so you can play at home and on the go. The only issue I had with this is that unlike other games like Rogue Legacy, the cross-save data must be manually uploaded.

Shovel Knight is just what any veteran gamer’s inner child needs. Between the tight platforming, nostalgia-inducing graphics, and pitch-perfect sound design, old-school gamers need look no further for their fix. Younger gamers will appreciate the modern additions of checkpoints and Cross-save functionality, while hardcore gamers can simply smash those checkpoints and reap the rewards. It’s incredible to see a game that doesn’t just imitate the 8-bit era, but perfectly embodies it.

Review copy was provided by the publisher. For information on scoring, please read our Review Policy here.

9.0Gold Trohpy
  • Spot-on retro design
  • Cross-save, New Game+
  • Tight controls, satisfying difficulty
  • Cross-save isn't automatic
  • Could've used more levels