(Review archived from April 15, 2023)
Shovel Knight is one of the finest examples of what I’d consider to be ‘the golden age of modern retro-style games,’ a period of time I’d loosely bound as being between the years of 2010 and 2015. These days you practically can’t even skip a loose Super Metroid cart without bouncing it off at least 5 games of this style before finally skidding to a stop. At the time of it’s release though, Shovel Knight was still something of a novelty (though even in 2014, the ‘modern retro styled’ aesthetic was already growing rapidly in popularity). But writing Shovel Knight off as a novelty would be a mistake. Beneath the retro style veneer is a quirky yet very well executed action platformer. Indeed, in the intervening years since it’s release, Shovel Knight has already popped up on some noteworthy ‘best games of all time’ lists. It was also a runaway Kickstarter success story (something that again was rather novel at the time … and let’s be honest would still be novel even today if only for the fact that it was successfully funded). And so it was that this rags to Kickstarter riches success story eventually led to a number of expansions upon the base game, of which Plague of Shadows was the first.
As the title hints, here you play as Plague Knight rather than Shovel Knight as in Shovel of Hope. I’ve not dug into the canon of this series, but Plague of Shadows seems to take place in an alternate timeline whereby Shovel Knight didn’t defeat (but yet was not killed by) the Enchantress, who was the BBEG from the base game. At the offset it seems like the story of this game will boil down to, ‘hey you’re an evil dude out doin’ nefarious stuff,’ but Plague Knight’s motives and intentions are slowly revealed over the course of the game such that by the end of it, his character arc has shifted to fully sympathetic. It’s a simple yet charming story that leans heavily into the offbeat brand of humor for which the series is known mixed with some unexpected moments of poignancy.
Upon loading the game you’re greeted with the familiar opening level from Shovel of Hope, and subsequently with the same SMB3 style map as seen in the first game. So while the levels here aren’t strictly identical to Shovel of Hope, they’re pretty darn close. If anything, I’d say this game is compromised of remixed levels that play up to Plague Knight’s unique mechanics. And being that these mechanics are the primary differentiating feature between this and Shovel of Hope, there really is a bit of a learning curve in mastering the nuances, particularly if you go in expecting a similar play style to the base game. After the first half-hour I spent with Plague of Shadows I still wasn’t sure whether I even liked it. It’s a game that makes seemingly easy obstacle and enemy traversal feel more difficult than it should … or at least initially. Basically the Plague Knight doesn’t like to spend too much time on the ground. Almost all of his bomb-based attacks are designed with a sharp downward trajectory so that they may be launched from an airborne position. But … he’s also not terribly adept at jumping. Sure he’s got a double jump, but on its own even that’s fairly paltry. The max height of his double jump is still only about as high as you might expect from a single jump in a more conventional paradigm. The ‘secret sauce’ here is the bomb jump, called ‘burst’ in-game. This is basically a jump that you can charge up, and is always executed in combination with a bomb toss. Bomb jumps can be combined with jumps and double jumps in order to cover a lot of ground and firepower from above. Furthermore, throwing bombs helps to slow your decent considerably making for some long drifty jump attacks. So in a nutshell every jump in the game consists of three phases, the jump, the double jump, and the burst. You can (and will) switch up the order of these phases almost constantly in order to increase the precision of your jumps. Mastering this ‘1-2-3 rhythm’ of jumping is in fact crucial to success in Plague of Shadows. I kept making mental comparisons to flying with the Tanooki Suit in SMB3 or with the cape in Super Mario World, but probably the closest comparison I came up with was the Space Jump from Metroid … if it only allowed for a maximum of three jumps … and each jump in the sequence had a different height and distance depending on how you carried out the maneuver. Heck towards the end of the game there’s even a power-up that’s very reminiscent of the Screw Attack. Really the mechanics in Plague of Shadows are their own thing, but they’re definitely drawing some mojo from all of these inspirations. In the end I really enjoyed this unique playstyle and accompanying strategy, but be prepared to spend some time with it before it feels comfortable (assuming that it ever fully does).
In fact I’d go so far as to say that the real magic of the Shovel Knight series and Plague of Shadows by extension, is the way in which it pays homage to it’s influences but never in a shallow derivative way. Much like the levels in Plague of Shadows are a remix of the base game, it’s able to re-combine ingredients from classic games, reiterate on them, and still wind up with something that feels wholly unique in identity and execution. In varying degrees you can see palpable DNA drawing from Mega Man, Castlevania, Metroid, Super Mario Bros. and a host of others (though there’s less DuckTales influence in this one for obvious reasons), but never so blatantly that it feels plagiaristic or gauche. It’s a lesson I feel like more modern retro-style games should attempt to draw upon (and indeed what I feel separates the great games of this style from the rest).
I definitely recommend Plague of Shadows, so long as you don’t expect it to play like a sprite swapped version of Shovel of Hope. Despite the familiar visual trappings this game takes its gameplay in some unexpected directions. All told though, if you’re looking for an offbeat retro-style platformer with its own distinct pronounced identity, Plague of Shadows has your number. Suggested for fans of unique platforming mechanics and of course medieval plague doctors.