Review | Shovel Knight: King of Cards

It’s finally complete. Shovel Knight Treasure Trove has added the final set of games just before the end of the decade– King of Cards and Shovel Knight Showdown. In what has been one of the defining games of this decade in Shovel Knight, which is now dubbed Shovel of Hope, the recently released King of Cards expansion has taken the normal formula of Shovel Knight, added some unique elements– as all of the expansions have done– and solidified Yacht Club Games as purveyors of masterclass platformers.

For the ill-informed, King of Cards is a prequel to the Shovel Knight saga and chronologically comes before the other three installments– Shovel of Hope, Plague of Shadows, and Specter of Torment. You play as King Knight in his quest to become the King of Cards through various means of both physical and mental prowess. Narratively on par with the other installments in the series, King of Cards is stuffed with witty dialogue strewn about your quest. King Knight himself is particularly fleshed out as a character not just through dialogue but in copious amounts of visual storytelling from his movements, to his obsession with vanity and splendor. Even though he’s technically a villain, I can’t help but love his buffoonery and nonchalant state of mind while seeking out his goal to be the King of Cards.

King of Cards | Yacht Club Games

In part of the setup for the story, a new game mode is introduced to the Shovel Knight franchise, Joustus. This card game of wit and skill is used as the plot device for King Knight having an avenue towards becoming royalty. The one who is able to defeat the three Joustus Kings will in-turn be granted the title of King of Cards– and that’s just what King Knight intends to do. Joustus though, is entirely optional in your playthrough of King of Cards. So if you don’t enjoy the card game aspect it will not bar you from rolling credits. However, at first it may seem daunting but I implore you to give it a shot even if it doesn’t sound like something you may traditionally be enamored by. Initially I was turned off and confused by the rules of Joustus but quickly understood how to achieve victory and once I did, I couldn’t wait to accrue more cards for my deck.

At first I thought that the Joustus houses were a hiccup in the flow of the game, but as I progressed through the campaign I felt that the balance of core Shovel Knight platforming and intermittent Joustus opportunities were paced quite perfectly. I would look forward to reaching a new set of opponents in every world and competing in side battles back on King Knight’s home base, the Glidewing. The simple fact that Yacht Club stuffed a rather fun and not too deep card game in an already overflowing with content platforming experience should be heralded even if it is an experience you choose to not partake in.

The addition of Joustus and a solid narrative experience swirl together to enhance the stellar retro aesthetic and technically pixel perfect gameplay of King of Cards. On the gameplay front, the level design throughout, but particularly at the beginning of the game, is absolutely splendid. Without a single dialogue window or tutorial Yacht Club Games forces you to understand King Knight’s base move set– his charge and twirl mechanics. Enemy placement and environmental cues guide you to understanding the physics of his abilities and how you can use King Knight’s charge to traverse the world. This is something that many games simply can’t accomplish, and not to say that menus or dialogue windows are bad or flawed game design because sometimes they are necessary, but Yacht Club’s execution of communicating gameplay to the player are just a piece of the reason that Shovel Knight remains one of the pillars of indie gaming to this day.

King of Cards | Yacht Club Games

As in previous Shovel Knight games, as you progress through the adventure, you’ll be able to unlock more armor sets and moves that will enhance what certain stats or open up more tactics and techniques to help you conquer not only your enemies but more difficult platforming sections of levels. These additional moves offer up varied approaches that may make it easier for players who are having difficulty on certain levels or bosses. Which also sort of is in line with one of the gameplay philosophies employed in the Shovel Knight games. You don’t have “lives” or “continues” instead, each level has an optional checkpoint that you would spawn at if you were to fall to your foes or to your death via depths or spikes. This allows the player to almost choose their own difficulty as they play and even gamble with their treasure by choosing to make their gameplay matter more. When you perish in a Shovel Knight game, you drop a portion of your treasure where you died, and if you don’t recover it on your next trek, it is lost and you lose another batch of treasure upon defeat again. If you choose to break the checkpoints and continue your adventure you are rewarded with more spoils, but a start from the beginning of the stage if you fail. Making all of your jumps, charges, and twirls much more weighted.

Rounding out what is possibly the best platformer of 2019, Jake Kaufman delivers yet another legendary soundtrack for King of Cards. With series favorites and new jams alike, these songs of Shovel Knight are just another feather in the helmet of an already magnificent masterwork. The platforming wouldn’t feel as tight without Kaufman’s accompaniment.

With a game that feels almost completely unflawed, I can understand if Joustus doesn’t fulfill everyone looking for the core Shovel Knight experience, but it being completely optional makes it hard for me to see it as a negative on the package as a whole.

Shovel Knight: King of Cards is not only one of my favorite games of 2019, but is a shining example of an indie studio matching if not exceeding the efforts of bigger budget houses. Platforming that is a benchmark for anyone looking to create a 2D side-scrolling adventure, an artistic design that doesn’t rest on nostalgia but yearns to create something gloriously encumbered by the lens of the past, with heart and soul shining through both the dialogue and the world that has been built in the three previous titles and fleshed out even further with King of Cards. This adventure is something I implore anyone seeking out a platforming experience purchase and play immediately. Quite simply put, there just isn’t something better.

With the completion of the Shovel Knight: Treasure Trove I cannot wait to see what the future of Shovel Knight holds and what Yacht Club Games will create next. The Treasure Trove is one of the best deals in gaming by the way, since you get all four of these campaigns plus Shovel Knight Showdown all in one package.

Shovel Knight: King of Cards was reviewed on the Nintendo Switch by a copy of the game that we purchased.

Shovel Knight: Treasure Trove is available now for $24.99 on PC, Mac, 3DS, Wii U, Linux, PS3, PS4, PS Vita, Xbox One, Amazon Fire TV, and Nintendo Switch. King of Cards is also available for purchase separately for $9.99.

For all things Shovel Knight, be sure to keep it locked to Pass The Controller. For a deeper dive on all things gaming and nerd culture, listen to the Pass The Controller Podcast with new episodes weekly on your favorite podcast platform. Want to continue the conversation with us and our community? Join our official Discord server.

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