Originally Written on May 22, 2017
Upon starting Specter of Torment, I realized one thing; Specter Knight is cool. Gone are the plucky heroics of Shovel Knight or the goofy romantics of Plague Knight. Specter Knight is this franchise’s bad boy. He can be found staring into the distance, uses his scythe as a skateboard, and there is even a skill you can unlock that allows you to brood on command. The only thing edgier than his scythe is Specter Knight himself. And when placed inside the playful and comedic world of Shovel Knight, this all works really well.
Shovel Knight: Specter of Torment is the third of four Shovel Knight campaigns following the original 2014 game (now called Shovel of Hope) and 2015’s Plague of Shadows. Originally promised as a free DLC campaign as part of a stretch goal, Specter of Torment is now being sold standalone or as part of the now more expensive Shovel Knight: Treasure Trove. Common sense dictates that people would be mad about a change like this, especially considering it’s breaking a kickstarter promise. Therefore, it’s a testament to the campaign’s quality that Yacht Club Games has received nothing but praise from the community at large. And this praise is totally justified. Shovel Knight: Specter of Torment is just that good.
Specter of Torment is a prequel story in which Specter Knight is working for The Enchantress to recruit the eight members of the Order of No Quarter, the group of bad guys from the main game. This is done well through good interactions between Specter and the other Knights as well as some explanations about why certain characters do or don’t join the order. However, it is still a very basic story. In order to address this, Yacht Club added flashbacks that show Specter Knight when he was just a man named Donovan, adventuring with his friend Luan. There is some emotional payoff here, and it helps explain some things, but ultimately none of the story stuff in Specter of Torment works as well as Plague of Shadows. It’s a lot more like Shovel of Hope in that the tone is great and there are some really funny moments but nothing more than that. That’s more than enough though, because ultimately a game like this is successful or not based on its mechanics and level design, an area where Specter of Torment excels.
The story set up with Specter Knight recruiting the other knights allows Yacht Club to reuse the levels and bosses that appear in both other campaigns, with the exception of one surprise encounter. Considering Specter of Torment’s position as DLC and its otherwise ambitious nature, this isn’t surprising or disappointing. They also did a great job of remixing these stages in order to support the new mechanics, much more than in Plague of Shadows. Seeing recognizable areas set up in different ways is actually really cool, and the a lot of the boss fights have also been expanded upon. So while the campaign may appear overly similar at a glance, it justifies itself as a new experience.
While Plague of Shadows was a mechanically unique campaign, Specter of Torment is a lot more straightforward. It is the Mega Man X to Shovel of Hope’s Mega Man. The main mechanical change is that Specter Knight loses Shovel Knight’s downward attack and gains a slash. The slash allows him to diagonally attack an enemy from either above or below. There are also lanterns placed throughout the level that can be slashed through. The way this ends up working (with exceptions) is that downward slashes are used on grounded enemies and upwards slashes are used on lanterns and in-air enemies. As somebody who has played a lot of Shovel Knight, this was hard to adapt to, because it often requires you to wait until you are under an enemy or lantern to slash, while in Shovel of Hope the downwards move is something that needs to be initiated above the enemy. It’s to unlearn how to play Shovel Knight in order to be successful, because the mechanic subverts the player’s muscle memory. Becoming comfortable with the mechanic is satisfying without being frustrating.
The other major mechanical change is a wall climb mechanic. While I like the idea of wall climbing, the implementation of it is initially jarring. Unlike in other platformers, such as Mega Man X or New Super Mario Bros., Specter Knight doesn’t stick to a wall and slide down it. Instead, he automatically climbs a little bit before jumping off. It’s something that you eventually adapt to, but I still don’t think this was the right decision. This isn’t an interesting subversion of mechanics like the upwards slash, It’s an unorthodox implementation of a mechanic that doesn’t justify itself over the conventional implementation. It doesn’t ruin the game, but it does lead to a lot of frustrating moments. Yacht Club seems to realize this, as there is a cheat code that allows you to use Mega Man X style wall climbs. While this is a better mechanic, it doesn’t allow you to access feats, and the levels are not designed around it. It’s something that is fun to use for a second playthrough, but it makes me wish that it was the default.
But the biggest departure that Specter of Torment makes isn’t mechanical but structural. Instead of the world map that the previous two games shared, Specter of Torment just has a main hub (the tower) that is used to access the levels. While Plague of Shadows also had a hub and Shovel of Hope had towns, Specter of Torment’s is much more expansive than either. In addition to multiple shops, the tower has small levels where you unlock skills, plenty of character interactions, and a hidden challenge that really tests your mastery of the new controls. The tower is fully realized in a way that makes up for the departure from the world map. It’s not inherently superior, but it’s also not a step backward.
Ultimately, Specter of Torment is not a grand departure that will make you rethink what Shovel Knight is, nor is it a platformer with entirely unique mechanics like Plague of Shadows was. It is just a really good addition to an already great game. If you, like me, got in on Shovel Knight when it was cheaper, then the value is incredible. And even if you haven’t, it’s still worth taking the plunge. Specter of Torment doesn’t change this, but it is instead another reason as to why Shovel Knight is a modern classic.
Final Score: 4 Stars