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The Ten: Updated Wednesdays-Fridays-Sundays

Thursday, August 7, 2014

Review: Shovel Knight

I will not reference Kickstarter at all in this!
I'm going to be honest with you- I don't get the Mega Man hype. I've played several titles in the series and I just have not been able to really settle into it. It's a precise, action oriented game, and it isn't afraid to get brutally difficult when it wants to be.

Still, I recognize Mega Man's impact and popularity, and I think it's sad that we won't see another entry in the series any time in the near future. But hey, at least we're getting a slew of homages/ripoffs/run-and-gun titles in the near future!

This is Shovel Knight, by the way.

PROS:

-Solid gameplay mechanics used in a number of unique and enjoyable ways

-Retro conventions improved and turned on their head for a more accessible experience

-Charming atmosphere and a rocking soundtrack.

CONS:

-The bosses just don't feel quite as refined as the rest of the game.

-Alternate items feel useless.

THOUGHTS:

I didn't grow up on the NES, but I did play a whole lot of Game Boy when I was a kid, which featured the same sort of archaic design highlighted in Shovel Knight. In other words- I am familiar with the concept of simple, yet effective gameplay that can be expanded upon in multiple areas. However, I think my lack of experience with the NES means I cannot fully appreciate this game. I've seen heaps of praise given to Shovel Knight, and I was a bit skeptical to purchase the title at first, knowing that my loveless relationship with Mega Man titles would have some effect on my experience.

Even so, I found myself really getting into the groove of Shovel Knight right as I entered the meat of its story. I was a bit surprised, actually, but the formula is present and as solid as ever- you're given a tight set of moves to draw upon in order to overcome a number of obstacles in your way, and after that, it's all about tricky placement and fast-acting enemies. The soundtrack, composed by Jake Kaufman, soars above any other aspect of the game, featuring pounding bit music that you'll be humming for days after. But aside from that, Shovel Knight ultimately feels like a medieval Mega Man. The care and effort made to introduce mechanics within stages without dialogue or tutorials is commendable, and the set-up of obstacles is clever and rewarding to the diligent player, but it feels very formulaic. For someone craving Mega Man, this won't be any problem, but Mega Man sans projectiles is a complex and difficult prospect to pull off. Luckily, the use of checkpoints and a treasure system enable the player to continuously tackle the dangers of melee combat, which I found to be the most frustrating aspect of the game.

It's not that adhering to the Mega Man school of thought is a bad thing, but it come off as a bit uninspired at the start and end of the game. There's a few design choices that stand out to me as odd- the world map, though quite lovely, has too many junctions in proportion to the amount of traveling encounters and ultimately feels unnecessary. Likewise, other items would be useless if not for the specific stages that implement them, or ridiculously obtuse and forced instances that don't add much to the game. Feats give them a reason to exist with tougher challenges to complete using them, and that is an odd gift to achievement hunters, but I would have enjoyed a more substantial role for these items.

In the end, I mostly stuck with the Fire Rod as my secondary weapon, turning the game into- yes, you guessed it- a Mega Man title with mana. I hate to keep harping on it, but a debut title from a new studio that feels like something I've played numerous times before hardly excites me. The only differences I see when I look at this game are its over-complicated backgrounds, which at times detract from the lovely characteristic of the animations. Though I enjoyed the second act of the game, I felt the boss rush, third engagement with the Black Knight, and final boss to be pretty disappointing, as well as the reused assets from previous stages in the final stages, not even implementing some of the best mechanics from specific portions of the game. Likewise, several of the bosses felt a bit too randomized in their attack pattern and hard to predict or overcome without resorting to ranged attacks, which was a huge bummer.

If there's one thing I can't complain about, it is Shovel Knight's atmosphere. While the art style can become a bit cluttered at points, it is representative of a time long-past, and that, combined with the soundtrack and simplistic-yet-effective dialogue truly sell the experience. It is a love letter to the NES, and I think it's a fantastic game for those who are interested in that sort of experience. While this is one of the games that actually does the retro-themed indie title correctly, it's not breaking a lot of ground by sticking very close to the idea. But, it does deliver with a great deal of charm and difficulty throughout.

Final Verdict: While it feels like a retread of gameplay ideas, Shovel Knight succeeds at giving a nostalgic look at the games that defined the NES while also applying some modern twists and mechanics that liven up the genre. For run-and-shovel enthusiasts, this game is a dream come true, though others may feel it's digging up too many hallmarks.

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