|Both cherish blue mascots.|
...Or are they...?
Shovel Knight: Plague of Shadows
-New gameplay mechanics for the titular character that are varied, complex, and allow the player to experiment.
-Serviceable and deep alteration of the storyline and levels to allow for the new mechanics and personality of Plague Knight to be challenged properly.
-Over-reliance on bottomless pits and one-hit kill spikes.
-Lack of boss fight rebalancing.
-Broken loot system.
-Faithful recreation of Genesis-era attitude, artistic style, and, to some extent, music.
-Three varied play styles with quirks and even alternate level paths and gimmicks
-Manages to hit all the right notes while still being something completely different.
-It's not fast.
-Boss tactics rely on stringent management of invincibility frames and are generally trial-and-error or super easy.
I never really played NES games unless they were ported to other systems, so it should come as no surprise that I have no particular love for Shovel Knight. I've discussed, at length, my issues with the game several times, and a lot of it comes down to tedium. Shovel Knight feels like a chore to play more often than not, but does Plague Knight really change that? Well, yes and no.
While the customization aspect of the game encourages multiple approaches, the enemy placement and continuously punishing level design (bolstered by new, Plague-centric hidden areas specially suited for the green guy) still makes switching into the menu for new approaches and options annoying. While some of the later upgrades feel like they solve every problem, the opening of the game is aggravating to trudge through with limited options. Luckily, the cipher coins needed to unlock new upgrades save as soon as you get them, and remain that way even after death, so you can take a suicidal plunge every now and then.
While Shovel Knight's bosses seemed a bit random and overcomplex in the original game, with Plague Knight, they're a little too easy, because there's a small amount that can actually keep themselves in reach of Plague Knight as he hovers at the top of the screen. Many bomb combos give them little time to react, as well. Coupled with Plague Knight's ability to add health points via potions and regain health, these duels feel like disappointing conclusions to frustrating and difficult levels.
Outside of the design of the game, the presentation is still quite good, with a whole new story and some new music to enjoy, as well as some new characters and interactions. Most of the work here seems to have come from adding the Plague sections, placing cipher coins, and forming Plague Knight's movesets. If the game were just those elements (and the cute story), it would succeed. But it fails to reach its ultimate potential because of the original content that still doesn't feel fun.
I argued that platformers don't need to rely on bottomless pits and spikes in order to fulfill their right as something "challenging", and I was met with the the rebuttal that, well, "that's what Sonic is all about". And while I don't entirely agree, that moves us into our next game pretty easily. Sonic 3 and Knuckles is one of my favorite games of all time, so naturally, I was quite curious when I heard about Freedom Planet's attempts at being a Genesis-style successor. While it includes a lot of the bells and whistles of a classic Sonic title, its approach to speed and level design are a bit different.
Freedom Planet features very few bottomless pits or spikes, and it even forgoes the classic Sonic sin of having enemies hurt as soon as you touch them, instead opting for an attack system. Also, while collectible items are on display in this title (with a few having odd effects that make little sense), they're not what determines your health- you have a life bar. So now you have this sort-of-Sonic with no enemies as obstacles and little reliance on collecting health. What do you do next?
Galaxy Trial apparently settled on "emphasize bullet hell" and "make levels super long" because that's pretty much what Freedom Planet does. However, while these elements succeed, the game feels a little bit less smooth because of it- many segments involve switch pulling or doubling back to swipe key cards, and while this sort of momentum is welcome, it doesn't feel very much like the player is moving forward. The other awkward thing is that, for a game based on Sonic physics, it's use of literal momentum is a bit disappointing, and the game feels slow quite often. One of the playable characters, Carol, has a very unique feature in that she can ride on a motorcycle and bash enemies that way- but the motorcycle can only take a few hits before it explodes, and Carol-on-foot is laughably slow and awkward. Nothing is more bizarre and disconcerting than watching a character shuffle up a half loop- trust me.
But, aside from its weird quirks, everything about Freedom Planet works pretty well. Sure, the lack of a pause between acts is a bit odd, but the platforming is solid and fun, and the different approach to difficulty- especially with the punishing attack patterns of bosses and abuse of i-frames the player must learn to use in order to overcome them is actually something I've never seen in a game before. While it was frustrating to me, I came to appreciate it, though I will never really be in love with the energy bar that can cause your i-frames to deplete when you need them most.
Both of these games are based off of retro classics, attempting to reclaim their attitude, design, and even add something new along the way. One of these is based off of something I never loved, the other, something I loved a bit too much. However, while both of these games have new features the classics could never boast, Freedom Planet is the first to introduce a mechanic that completely threw me for a loop, and that's the only reason I would recommend it over Plague of Shadows. Well, it also has three very unique characters and playstyles, each featuring their own exclusive levels and gimmicks. Which, in my opinion, edges it out over the long wait we have had for Shovel Knight to add one character, who does have a bit more of his own story, but still lacks in the gameplay department.
Final Verdict: With all-new ways to play and enjoy their colorful locales, both of these games have some much needed variety, but one subverts old formulas to create a completely different experience from the one it emulates. Freedom Planet has more spectacle, variety, and oddity to it, and though Shovel Knight's newest addition boasts a charming narrative, the gameplay continues to suffer from the same old problems while new ones arise. The presentation for both titles is top notch, but the gameplay- and your own nostalgia- might play a heavy role in passing one and picking up the other.