Shovel Knight is one of indie gaming’s most acclaimed and precious success stories, with the classic platforming adventure not only winning over a ton of fans worldwide but also spawning countless expansions and spin-offs that celebrate the game’s unique and charming universe. Whilst upcoming releases like Shovel Knight Showdown and Shovel Knight Dig look to change up the gameplay formula, Shovel Knight: King of Cards acts as a conclusion to the traditional platforming saga. It’s been a long delayed release but it’s finally hit Nintendo Switch and PC – was it actually worth the wait or was King Knight’s origin story one that was best left being untold?
Taking place before the main game, Shovel Knight: King of Cards tells the tale of King Knight and how he became the… well… dick that he is. Of course, he’s obsessed with becoming ‘King’, and what better way to do this than by becoming the ‘King of Cards’ in a card game that has swept the land known as Joustus? This leads him on an escapade across the world where he’ll partake in platforming challenges and epic duels of Joustus as he looks to claim the throne, all whilst being joined by his loyal ‘servants’. And his Mother.
It’s a quirky tale that stars an unlikable hero that you’ll actively root against, but it’s hard not to find yourself totally absorbed in what’s going on. There are plenty of nods to the other Shovel Knight games along the way and the writing throughout is humorous and charming. The stakes feel a lot lower this time around and it’s a more personal little tale, but it’s one that’s easy to enjoy as you experience the brilliance of the Shovel Knight universe once more.
Each of the Shovel Knight expansions have offered something that changes up the gameplay formula, but Shovel Knight: King of Cards really re-invents itself. This is best shown in how you approach traversal and beating up enemies in levels, with King Knight able to charge into foes in order to launch him upwards in a spinning manoeuvre. He can then plough down onto subsequent enemies like some destructive crown-bearing pogo-stick, with each hit maintaining the momentum to allow him to combo his way through the game’s platforming set pieces. The bulk of gameplay is based around this mechanic, with levels feeling smaller in size but offering these puzzle-like instances where you’ve got to think before you act in order to figure out how to string hits on enemies and the environment in order to progress.
I’ve probably made it sound a little more convoluted than I needed to there, but it works really well in-game. You’ll unlock additional abilities that add their own twists to levels along the way too, whilst you’ll also navigate through a Super Mario World-like overworld that sees you move between levels. This was a throwback that I particularly appreciated, but the fact that it’s full of optional levels and secrets to uncover made it even more special – just know that a lot of levels have secret exits and you’ll have to have your wits about you to uncover them.
Everything ties together to make for yet another entertainingly addictive Shovel Knight experience. I’ve enjoyed every entry in the series so far, but the way things are re-invented here kept me wanting to play on more and more. The difficulty is nicely balanced throughout too, with a bit of careful planning and quick reactions required to get through some of the trickier sections – especially when trying to string together bounces in succession. Add to that some entertaining boss encounters and you’ll quickly find that Shovel Knight: King of Cards is familiar, fresh, and another worthy addition to the Treasure Trove.
Of course, it’s not just platforming this time around… King Knight has to thrive in Joustus too, after all. In-between all of the adventuring, you’ll get to engage in Joustus with rivals and prove that you truly are the ‘King of Cards’.
Joustus itself is fairly simple in design, but mastering it will be difficult. Basically, players place cards across a five-by-five playing field, with the goal being to have your cards placed on the tiles that are bearing special gems. Each card you place has an arrow on it that shows the direction it’ll push cards away, so it’s up to you to be strategic to ensure that you’re constantly shunting your opponent’s cards out of the way of the gem tiles whilst ensuring that yours stay placed there.
It’s straight-forward enough to get into, but some cards have special attributes that can spice up the flow of play – the fact you can earn one of your opponent’s cards when you beat them does feel satisfying though, whilst there are plenty to unlock across the game anyway. I just got completely hooked in and could’ve easily found myself investing hours into Joustus alone, so it’s clear that Yacht Club Games have come up with a winner here. It’s simple but rewarding, and a great diversion from all of the game’s platforming action.
Whilst Joustus brings something unique to the mix in Shovel Knight: King of Cards, players can expect to feel a sense of familiarity when it comes to the visuals. You’ll see a lot of the same environments and enemies that you’d have seen before in previous entries in the series, which admittedly could be a little tiring four games in. In fairness, they are utilised in all-new ways and there are still some unique sights to see along the way in the game, but even the most die-hard fans of the series might be looking forward to seeing a change to the aesthetic in whatever Yacht Club Games decide to do next.
Shovel Knight: King of Cards takes the established formula that Yacht Club Games have seemingly mastered over the years and twists things up exceptionally thanks to King Knight’s unique move-set and the card-battling gameplay. What it leaves us with is a Shovel Knight expansion that manages to feel genuinely different, but in a charming and fun way that’ll keep players coming back for more.
I got completely hooked into Shovel Knight: King of Cards, though it was bittersweet to play seeing as it marks an end to the Shovel Knight saga. Sure, the aesthetic and repeated locales have started to feel a little TOO familiar now, but when the gameplay itself is so good it’s hard to complain. All we can do now is enjoy this fitting conclusion to the tale and look forward to seeing what Yacht Club Games do next.
Developer: Yacht Club Games
Publisher: Yacht Club Games
Platform(s): Nintendo Switch (Reviewed), PlayStation 4, PC