Yacht Club Games’ Shovel Knight is the poster boy for overpromising in one’s Kickstarter campaign. Due to Yacht Club’s exuberance, they were left on the hook to produce three free DLC campaigns for the game, of which number Specter of Torment is the second. Indeed, it’s mostly free: all owners of Shovel Knight get Specter of Torment at no additional charge, though the price has increased for those who don’t already own it.
What should one expect from a free DLC campaign? Yacht Club, to its credit, is not phoning this in; Specter of Torment features ten entirely new levels, completely new play mechanics, boss fights that have changed in substantial (and sometimes surprising) ways, and an all-new tale of shovelry. Unlike Plague of Shadows, which was set contemporaneously with the original game, Specter of Torment is a prequel, telling the tale of how Specter Knight came to serve the Enchantress, and why he recruited the Order of No Quarter. There is a rather darker tone to the story this time around, full of melancholy and angst and all those other things you kids like, but not so dreary and lifeless as it could be. The main storyline is pretty bleak, but the supporting cast is still colorful and fun, and the incidental dialogue is lively. Worth noting is that Specter of Torment is not a good jumping-off point into the world of Shovel Knight; it definitely assumes that the player is familiar with the characters and events of the original game, and isn’t going to make much sense otherwise.
Specter Knight’s quest to recruit an order of knights for the Enchantress will take him through all the familiar Shovel Knight locales; while the actual level layouts and content are all-new, these are thematically the same places we’ve been twice already, and it should go without saying that the members of the Order of No Quarter are going to be the primary bosses. Just like Plague Knight did in the last expansion, Specter Knight will find himself facing off against his colleagues-to-be, and, while the battle mechanics are all-new, they still have the same basic feel that they always did.
Specter Knight’s play mechanics are quite different from either of his predecessors, but all three of them have one thing in common: they’re all vastly more effective in the air than they are on the ground. Specter Knight combines Plague Knight’s slow walking speed and low jumping power with Shovel Knight’s paltry attack range into what seems, at first blush, a completely underwhelming package. Once he’s taken to the air, though, Specter Knight can perform his trademark "gash slash" — a long-range teleport-esque charge with his scythe that can be used both to attack enemies and to move Specter Knight around. This is indeed the entire key to success.
Specter Knight is often faced with impossible jumps, and has to chain gash slashes together to make progress. This is less difficult than it sounds, since the game clearly indicates which mob will be struck with a gash slash and which direction it will send Specter Knight in afterward. As a general rule, if you’re below the target, you’ll go up, and if you’re above it, you’ll go down — this is not always the case (there are a few tricky targets that bounce Specter Knight backwards rather than passing him through), but it’s reliable enough that the player quickly develops a pretty solid intuitive understanding of the gash slash mechanic. The only trouble I had with it is that I never did quite get to grips with the fact that Specter Knight cannot attack in the air without performing a gash slash; I threw myself in pits moderately often attempting to hop upward and slash at something above me.
Specter Knight also has a set of curios, analogous to Shovel Knight’s relics and Plague Knight’s arcana. Each curio has a special effect that can be triggered for a cost in "darkness," and the effects are actually quite varied and powerful this time around. Indeed, some of them are arguably too powerful, given how easy it is to restore Specter Knight’s darkness — Specter Knight gets darkness back for nearly every mob he kills, and for many individual hits on stronger mobs and bosses, meaning he can use his curios with relative impunity. Curios can also each be upgraded to increase their effectiveness. Like his predecessors, Specter Knight has access to a range of different armors with different special effects as well; unlike Shovel and Plague Knights, however, Specter Knight’s armor upgrades are extremely powerful.
All of this contributes to the major oddity with Specter of Torment; to wit: it is very easy. I say this is odd because the original Shovel Knight’s difficulty was certainly robust, and, while Plague of Shadows finished a bit easy once the player got to grips with Plague Knight’s complex systems, it was a bear early on. Specter of Torment, however, is a cakewalk by comparison; one of the very first curios Specter Knight acquires, the Will Skull, restores a significant chunk of will (health) in exchange for quite little darkness, and, given the ease with which the player can restore Specter Knight’s darkness, this means that deaths from damage taken become quite rare indeed. This leaves only falling into pits or onto spikes, and the game’s least expensive armor turns those instant death moments into a cost in will and darkness (and also reduces the monetary penalty for dying). As a consequence, most levels can be completed with only a small handful of deaths, and even the game’s most profoundly unfair platforming challenge — you know exactly the one I mean, Yacht Club — is a pretty easy flub to recover from.
As always, Specter of Torment looks terrific, keeping the series’ basic NES-with-a-bigger-palette visual style. The characters are large and expressive, and the environments are bright and varied. The only real gripe I have with the graphics would have to be that, with the older "friendly" areas largely removed and the new hub area being a spooky tower and a bunch of scary skeletons, it comes off with a bit of a muted tone. This fits the style of the game, of course, but it lacks some of the vibrancy of its predecessors. Specter of Torment also eschews the Super Mario Bros. 3-alike world map in favor of a simple level select, which loses some of the feeling of being in a coherent world. Still and all, that’s not much of much.
In terms of the soundscape, Specter of Torment is exactly on par with previous Shovel Knight games. It’s still the loudest thing on my Wii U, and I have to turn the volume down to play it, but the quality of the sound and music is excellent; it is indeed the audio analogue to the graphics, in that it seems vaguely NES-like, but plays the occasional trick the NES couldn’t do.
Like both previous Shovel Knight titles, this one has Wii U-specific features. It can, of course, be played in off-TV mode, but when played on the TV, the gamepad is used as a quick access to curios, allowing the player to switch them at the tap of a finger, and to Miiverse, allowing the player to browse comments left by others on the current area. Amiibo support is also present, this time in the character of Madam Meeber, who will summon the Fairy of Shovelry if the player scans a Shovel Knight amiibo. The Fairy of Shovelry follows the player around and mimics his actions, and attempts (unsuccessfully) to collect gems. The fairy has very little gameplay impact (it may point out gems you didn’t see, but that’s about it), and is just a cute little bonus, available in all three campaigns. Curiously, Madam Meeber offers a list of familiars available for summon, even though, as far as anybody is aware, the Fairy of Shovelry is the only one.
In addition to the Specter Knight campaign, Specter of Torment comes with a handful of extras; there are new feats and challenges, and there’s also a rather silly "body swap" feature added to the original Shovel Knight campaign that allows the player to swap any of the major characters from male to female (or vice-versa), and also has an entirely separate toggle for male and female pronouns. The dark gods of political correctness will be pleased!
Specter of Torment is a short game — my first playthrough ran just over three hours — but it’s hard to argue with the price tag, which, for anyone who already owns Shovel Knight, is none moneys. The standalone price of ten dollars might be a tough sell, but it’s also available for twenty-five in the "Treasure Trove" bundle that includes the first two games (and the forthcoming King Knight expansion). That’d be the way to go, Charles. In conclusion, it’s a fun game, but short and very easy — I’ll see your deep anime angst and raise you three and one-half angst-ridden anime hairs.
Shovel Knight: Specter of Torment is available as a standalone game for $9.99 or in a bundle with the rest of the Shovel Knight series for $24.99 from the (deep breath) Switch eShop, Wii U eShop, 3DS eShop, Xbox One store, Playstation 4 store, Playstation 3 store, Playstation Vita store, Steam, GOG, or the Humble store. Whew.