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Shovel Knight Review

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If you were to tell me that in 2014 there would be an NES game that meets the quality standards set by classics such as Mega Man 2, DuckTales, and Super Mario Bros. 3, I would look at you in disbelief and then probably get excited to the point of numbness. There is a level of fidelity in the controls and the design of those games that is matched by very few. Many independent games recently have attempted to capture the feeling that those games give, but few get as close as Shovel Knight from Yacht Club Games.

Shovel Knight tells the story of two legendary adventurers – the titular Shovel Knight and his partner Shield Knight – as they venture into the Tower of Fate. There, a magic curse is released, knocking the Shovel Knight unconscious. When the Shovel Knight awakes, he finds that the tower has been sealed shut and the Shield Knight has disappeared. Grieving, the Shield Knight retires from adventuring and picks up a life of solitude. That is until a bunch of baddies by the name of The Order of No Quarter realize that the world is free for the taking now that the two heroes are out of commission. As the world is overrun by The Order, the Tower of Fate is unsealed, and Shovel Knight once again picks up his trusty shovel and sets off to rid the world of evil and find out the truth to what happened to Shield Knight. While the story is just there to give you an excuse to set off on your adventure, it is pretty well written and has a great sense of humor. The characters you meet all have a certain charm to them, and the story concludes in a more unexpectedly heartwarming way. Story doesn’t really matter for this sort of game, though.

Shovel Knight has many inspirations and it wears all of them on its sleeve. Each level literally starts with an onscreen “Ready” message exactly like Mega Man. In fact, the blue bomber is easily the biggest source of inspiration in Shovel Knight. The controls are similarly tight and responsive with a jump that feels fantastic. Shovel Knight cannot duck. Screens will range from long stretches of difficult jumps and enemies to small rooms with tricky challenges. You will do your fair share of jumping and catching onto a ladder. The transition animation from screen to screen is lifted directly out of Mega Man. Bosses are of a similar style, confining you to a small room to fight a boss nearly the size of you. Yacht Club Games clearly like Mega Man and they aren’t afraid to show it.

While Mega Man inspiration might be the basis of the foundation of Shovel Knight, there are plenty of other nods – big and small – to other games of the NES era. The overworld map is almost directly lifted out of Super Mario Bros. III, complete with enemies that move across the map that you have to fight if you come in contact with them. It also takes the core gameplay mechanic out of DuckTales – you can use down to use your shovel to bounce off enemies (although not the ground like DuckTales). And while the game seems to be just a simple level-to-level platformer, there are also a surprising number of RPG and adventure elements. There are towns you can visit to upgrade your health and equipment with gold you’ve collected, talk to villagers, and engage in minigames. This is very similar to Zelda II, although the writing is obviously a whole lot better.

Unfortunately, for me, Shovel Knight relies far too heavily on its influences. The game feels like a mish-mash of a bunch of ideas done by games on the NES, but not a lot new is done that has not or could not have been done on that system. Every new mechanic that was introduced – with few exceptions – reminded me of one of those games. As a new release that you pay actual money for in 2014, I was kind of hoping for a little bit more invention.

With that being said, they use all of their inspirations in such fun ways that it’s easy to overlook that. As I mentioned, the controls are just about as perfect as they can be. It feels absolutely fantastic to run, jump, and shovel your way through these levels. The levels, too, are so expertly designed to give you a pretty decent challenge while remaining completely fair. I can honestly tell you that every single time I died, it was due to my own fault, and that is a testament to great game design. If you want an even greater challenge, you can opt to destroy the checkpoint markers for more gold, search every nook and cranny for the cleverly placed secrets, take on the different “feats” in the game (like completing a level without taking damage), or, after you’re done with the initial five hour adventure, jump into new game plus for a greater challenge with all of your accumulated equipment. The one minor gripe I had here is that the items you acquire throughout the game are just about useless. The most powerful weapon you have is your basic shovel, and no other weapon or item (save for the few times you are required to use them for optional levels) ever stacked up to it. This is minor, though, as the levels around you alter the way you use your basic abilities of jumping and shoveling that I never really needed anything more.

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While the gameplay is the most important aspect of these types of games, it wouldn’t feel like a proper NES classic without the look and sound of those games. Fortunately, Shovel Knight absolutely nails it. The second you load up the game and are greeted to an action packed 8-bit tune, you are instantly transported back to childhood. The menu itself might as well be able to accept the Konami code with how accurate it looks. When you are asked to input your name, you get the layout of keys in alphabetical order instead in the layout of a keyboard. This sucks, but it sucks in the ways that typing in NES games sucked. When you jump into a level, you’re greeted to some extremely catchy songs (all of which can be collected throughout the game and played in the village). I found myself humming the vast majority of these tunes by the end of each level, and that is a sign that they got it right. In fact, if you were to tell me that this game featured a soundtrack from a canceled Mega Man game, I just might believe it, and that’s not a bad thing. In terms of the visuals, while they aren’t exactly something that could be pulled off on a NES – it’s widescreen, there’s no sprite flicker, it’s far too colorful – it looks about how my mind remembers games on that system looking. Sprites are big and distinct and enemies can be easily told apart from each other. Backgrounds are limited, but detailed enough to give you a sense of scope. It’s rather interesting how this graphical style can still be viewed as looking nice, but Shovel Knight’s visuals prove that it can. If I had to name a gripe, I wish the game didn’t fall for the platformer level tropes of fire level, ice level, forest level, etc. There really aren’t that many interesting environments.

Shovel Knight doesn’t do a whole lot that its inspirations didn’t do, but it’s so well-made that I didn’t really care that much. Shovel Knight fits right up there in the pantheon of NES platform heroes like Mario, Mega Man, and Scrooge McDuck, and that’s about the biggest compliment I can give it.

A PC Copy of Shovel Knight was provided by Yacht Club Games for this review.

Review

Stranger Things 3: The Game Review — Mindflayingly Average

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Stranger Things 3: The Game logo

The Stranger Things series has been a big success for Netflix. A love letter to ‘80s pop culture, with a focus on the science fiction and horror movies of the time, the show has been hugely popular, with the latest season screened on over 40 million accounts in its first four days. Accompanying the launch of the television season is Stranger Things 3: The Game. Developed by BonusXP Inc, which previously created Stranger Things: The Game for mobile devices, the game is an isometric brawler which competently retells the story of Stranger Things 3, but has little of its own to say. Mild spoilers for Stranger Things 3 ahead.  

The game opens one year after the events of Stranger Things season two. While trying to contact his camp girlfriend with a high-tech ham radio, Dustin overhears a strange recording spoken in Russian. Determined to figure out what it means, he teams up with Steve and his coworker Robin to try and decode the message. Meanwhile, strange occurrences have been happening around Hawkins, with rats devouring fertiliser and chemicals. Max’s brother Billy is looking decidedly unwell, thickly wrapped in jumpers while he works as a lifeguard. A tingle at the back of Will’s neck tells him the mindflayer’s presence still lingers around the town. As events progress, a group of average kids must save the world from an otherworldly monstrous threat once again.  

Stranger Things 3: The Game takes place in a semi-open world, with more locations unlocked as players progress. The player starts out in control of Mike and Lucas, who wield a bat and slingshot respectively. Two characters are always on screen, with the other person controlled by AI. Local co-op is available and seems to be the intended way to play—the AI for the second player is not very smart. When in single-player mode, the player can switch between the two characters on the fly, and any unlocked characters can be swapped to as well. The other characters unlock over the course of the story, with a total of 12 to choose from. Each character can attack and block and has a unique special move, such as Max’s healing hearts or Jonathan’s stunning camera flash. Special moves cost energy, which can be replenished by drinking New Coke or picked up from defeated enemies. With each character playing so differently, the game would benefit from restricting which characters can be used in each scenario, as finding a favourite combination and sticking to it is far too easy. This lack of restriction also caused some weird story occurrences, like Nancy wandering around the void or Hopper hanging out with Mike while he mopes about breaking up with Eleven.

Exploring Hawkins involves lots of switch puzzles, and using characters’ special abilities, like Dustin hacking into a locked door or Joyce cutting the lock off of a gate with her bolt cutters. The puzzles are generally straightforward, with the Russians inexplicably leaving clues in English for the player to find, but more complicated riddles can be found by wandering off the beaten track. The creepy deserted pizza place has some based on pi, and exploring optional rooms in the Russian base will reward the player with rare crafting items.

Crafting in Stranger Things 3: The Game is poorly implemented. Items can only be made at workbenches, which makes sense for complicated contraptions, but is annoying at other times (for example, having to retreat out of the pool area because Eleven needs to put duct tape on her swimming goggles). When looking in a store, no indication appears on what items are already in the player’s inventory. Apart from plot items, the player can also make trinkets, which improve the party’s statistics. A wide variety of trinkets are available, from improving a single character’s attack to increasing the health of the whole party. Finding the missing items to create a trinket is tricky due to the poor shopping interface, and the sparse placement of workbenches gives the player few chances to actually craft the items. Fortunately, fighting enemies is easy enough that crafting can mostly go ignored.

Combat is simple, for the most part, with the player smashing everything on screen to progress. Hawkins is absolutely infested with rats and Russians, with even the library packed to the brim with bad guys. Though the excessive numbers of similar enemies is normal in the brawling genre, more variety would have been appreciated. The late game Russians become more interesting, with knife throwers, chemical spills, and grenades, but the first three-quarters of the game consists of the same baddies over and over.

An exception to this repetition is the challenging boss battles, which are far tougher than the average gameplay. Bosses will need extra conditions to be met before they can be damaged, like switching lights on, dodging charge attacks, or keeping several baddies away from each other. Some work better than others—for example, one battle relied on keeping two boss creatures apart to prevent them from healing each other, which simply did not work in single player since the AI fighter closely follows the main character. Instead, defeating the boss required exploiting Nancy’s critical hit ability to do enough damage to kill the monsters before they could heal, a strategy that required some luck to succeed. Other boss encounters fared better, with the trial of constantly repairing Hopper’s cottage as slimy creatures crawl through the windows proving tough and intense.  A dodge button would be a useful addition to the movement options, since the bosses run so much faster than the player does. The game is also a bit stingy on providing a place to stock up before a boss battle, which should be included considering the spike in difficulty they represent. Still, these battles are where the game shines brightest, showing creativity and variety that is sorely lacking in other areas.

Stranger Things 3: The Game is faithful to a fault, feeling like a very detailed recap of the season. A few sidequests tell their own story, like doing chores for the creepy Granny Perkins or exploring the abandoned electronics store, but for the most part, the player will be re-enacting scenes from the television series, with a bit of extra rat murder and crafting thrown in. Clinging so closely means the story has nowhere exciting to go since the player has presumably already watched the season. If the player has not seen the show, that would be even worse, as it is a non-scary adaptation of a horror show that completely loses the tone. The occasional dialogue choice is thrown in, but the response makes no difference either way. Adding in some choices alongside possibilities of events going differently would make things far more engaging. 

A highlight of Stranger Things 3: The Game is the art direction, with some beautiful 16-bit recreations of the cast and environments. With the exception of Jonathan, who looks like his pointy-chinned cousin, the sprites are a good resemblance of the cast. The monsters are appropriately fleshy and gross, with the final boss, in particular, looking foreboding. Environments can get a bit repetitive, with one sprite for all the beds, one for all the cupboards, etcetera. Sprite laying issues do occur on occasion—the ashtrays all hover in front of the characters, for example. The chiptune recreation of the show’s music, however, is spot on, and converting the title theme into a Zelda-like solved puzzle jingle is impressive indeed.    

Stranger Things 3: The Game gameplay

Stranger Things 3: The Game is only for really big fans of the show. Even then, the title is hard to recommend since it is an inferior version of the television season. While the gameplay is not bad, it is too repetitive to be enjoyable on its own. The game would perhaps be best played just before season four comes out, as a novel way of recapping the previous season.   

OnlySP Review Score 2 Pass

Reviewed on PC. Also available on PlayStation 4, Xbox One, Nintendo Switch, iOS and Android devices.

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