Shovel Knight review for PS Vita, PS4, Xbox One

Platform: PS Vita
Also On: PS4, PS3, Xbox One, PC, Wii U
Publisher: Yacht Club Games
Developer: Yacht Club Games
Medium: Digital
Players: 1
Online: No

I know I’m in the minority here, but the first time I played Shovel Knight, back when it first came out on the Wii U, I didn’t love it. In fact, I was pretty indifferent to it. Maybe I had retro fatigue, maybe I was just in the wrong mood at the time, but whatever the reason, nothing about the game really spoke to me. All those insanely high scores just left me baffled and wondering what I was missing.

Now that it’s on the Vita, though, I get it: it’s pretty awesome. As my colleague wrote about the game last year, it more or less does everything well. The controls are perfect, with the titular shovel being utilized to perfection as a weapon/means of bouncing off things — and unlike last year’s version, there’s no adjustment to weird control schemes required. Likewise, the levels are all fantastic: each one feels distinctive, with its own unique personality and design, and they’re big enough that you’re able to get a full sense of everything they have to offer. Better still, they balance their size with an excellent checkpoint system — just enough that you never lose too much progress, but not so close together that there’s nothing lost when you die.

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This last point speaks to something else Shovel Knight does really well: difficulty. As you’d expect from a retro-inspired platformer, it’s tough — very, very tough in places — with enemies and environmental hazards alike that will constantly keep you on your toes. What sets Shovel Knight apart, however, is that it’s still fair. There’s never any point at which you’re left feeling as though something is impossible, or as if the game’s difficulty has spiked out of nowhere. It’s demanding, sure, but never so much so that you’ll feel like throwing your controller across the room and moving on to something else.

What really brings everything together, though, is the game’s exceptionally good writing. Where most other retro games rely on references in place of actual humour, Shovel Knight is full of jokes that are actually funny and a plot that’s actually engaging. Yes, the PlayStation version features Kratos (and the Xbox One version has Battletoads in his place), but that’s more a neat Easter egg than a symbol of any kind of reliance on referentiality.

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Now, is Shovel Knight worth picking up if you already played it last year on one of Nintendo’s platforms? Unless you really, really love Kratos or Battletoads, probably not. I’m assuming, however, that the number of people who didn’t play it last year but now have a chance to do so is a lot bigger than the number of people who actually did play it last year — which means that there are a whole lot of people who now get to discover just how impressive this game really is.

Grade: A+