Review: Shovel Knight: King of Cards brings the Shovel Knight saga to a close

Platforms: PC (reviewed), PS4, Switch, Xbox One

It’s been a long and winding road but the journey of Shovel Knight is now over. This one indie game has kind of become an icon for Kickstarter success, retro aesthetic design, even the market demand for classic platformers. For over six long years, the better part of this decade, it seemed like we were always looking forward to the next Shovel Knight release. Now, with the release of King of Cards and Showdown, the project has finally come to an end. So let’s review this thing one last time. FOR SHOVELRY!

King of Cards stars King Knight, the most comic relief of the order of no quarter. Like the other characters he has a completely new move-set and completely new stages with completely new mechanics.

And these mechanics are…. Eeeeeeh alright, but only alright. King Knight’s main move is a shoulder charge. Upon contact with a wall or enemy, King Knight will spiral through the air, letting him bounce safely on the heads of foes. After successfully bouncing, he can then do a shoulder charge in mid-air again, and so on.

Honestly, this mechanic feels the most unwieldy of all the knights. There’s no real visual cue to tell you when you can and cannot do a second shoulder charge in mid-air which causes you to fumble jumps easily. The shoulder charge is his main method of attack, but it feels like the hit-box is off. He very frequently trades with whoever he is attacking, costing him life. It seems like the solution that developer Yacht Club Games went with was to make him knock health pick-ups out of enemies every so often, but that doesn’t really fix the problem.

I would have been okay with these mechanics if it felt like I was ever able to use them. Most stages in King of Cards consist of terrain in which this mechanic simply does not work. You’ll be weaving through walls that dampen your shoulder charge so you don’t twirl, or floors that prevent you from jumping. So many stages consist of finding the exact one tile in which using your shoulder charge works in order to progress forward, and as a result you end up cheesing through stages with secondary attacks and movement abilities instead. Once again it seems as if Yacht Club tried to solve this problem by making King Knight’s levels shorter but including more of them, and once again this only feels like a band-aid on a larger problem.

But while King Knight’s campaign is frustrating, it’s also strangely addicting. The shorter stages make you want to put the game down more often than not, but also ensure that you always make a little progress every time you pick it up. It’s almost as if it’s designed for the Switch rather than any other platform that would have you sit down and play for an extended period of time.

Added on to this campaign is a new card game: Joustus. In this game you place cards with arrows on them on a grid of squares. Your goal is to orientate the arrows in such a way that you cards are put on spaces with gems on them.

It’s a neat little distraction, but make no mistake, there’s no real strategy here. The positions of the gems are random and the board you play on varies by opponent, so there’s no way to actually build a deck with a cohesive strategy. Instead, you just use your best and most powerful cards while attempting to cover as many arrow directions as possible while hoping the right card comes up for the right situation.

And once again it feels like Yacht Club saw these flaws and attempted to patch it up with a quick fix. King Knight can purchase “cheats” from the store which do things like claim gems automatically, force your opponent’s hand to contain crap cards, and let you take three turns in a row. These significantly tilt the scales in your favor, and it’s nearly impossible to lose when using them. However, being forced to choose between a definite win and a completely random outcome does not particularly feel like a good choice.

Then we have Showdown, the multiplayer versus party fighter that came with this new update. It purports to be a Shovel Knight version of Smash Bros. but it doesn’t quite hit the mark. Let’s put it this way, you know all the boss fights in Shovel Knight? It’s like that, but you are playing against people instead of the A.I. Now think of all the times you brute forced those fights by mashing buttons and killing the opponent before they killed you. Yep, that’s what Showdown feels like.

It’s a neat little bit of fanservice, if only because you get to play as every knight that didn’t get their own campaign. However, there’s just no depth to it. Yacht Club games are wizards when it comes to designing platformers, but fighting game pros they are not. You’ll check this out once or twice and then never touch it again.

So the Shovel Knight saga comes to a close not with a bang but with a whimper. I wouldn’t call King of Cards or Showdown bad content by any means, but unlike the last two expansions it didn’t get me to pick it up again and spend hours trying to speedrun it, or unlock every upgrade, or even show it to my friends. It’s just something that will hang out in my library as a neat little option.

But you know, that’s OK. Shovel Knight is the story of how an indie developer decided to take chances, and sometimes chances don’t work out. King of Cards isn’t the best of Shovel Knight’s campaigns, but it does ad yet more value to this absurdly massive indie game collection. It’s probably not worth picking up if the other campaigns didn’t already get you in, but it’s not worth ignoring if you already bought the Treasure Trove.

It’s going to be sad to see you go Shovel Knight, but you had your day in the sun. Now it’s time for other retro platformers to pick up where you left off.

So who’s excited for Axiom Verge 2 guys!?