Having played Shovel Knight and it’s first free DLC campaign, Plague of Shadows, you probably already have a pretty good idea of what to expect upon starting Specter of Torment. And indeed, being an European owner of the 3DS copy of the game, it might have taken extraordinarily long until I finally got to play it, but starting it up, it was immediately all the same again.
The same 8-bit graphics and catchy sounds. The same atmosphere and way the game world feels, with the characters inhabiting it and enemies and objects you interact with in levels. The same still at first confusing control scheme with pressing B to accept on a Nintendo system where it’s normally the cancel button everywhere else. And yet, Specter of Torment also changes much more things up and introduces much more new to the series than the first DLC campaign did.
Before I’m going to write a bit more about the story and what I mean with much more new, I want to start by explaining how the gameplay works in Specter of Torment.
After having navigated through intense levels with a shovel as Shovel Knight and worked your way through the game with the tricky arsenal of bombs of Plague Knight, this time around you’re playing as Specter Knight, who was the boss in one of the earlier levels in the main game.
Specter Knight’s play style is defined by three main aspects. First and most notably of which is his scythe, which can not only be swung when standing on the ground to hit nearby enemies, very similar to Shovel Knight's shovel, but much more importantly when jumping it automatically targets nearby enemies and other objects, like lamps, and let’s the player quickly slice through them diagonally when attacking. This is especially also an important aspect of Specter Knight’s movement, as the player can gain height performing this slice attack and it can also be used to quickly overcome long pits, with multiple enemies to slice through, or other hurdles.
Secondly, Specter Knight can climb walls for a short period of time and perform wall jumps. This is the other important movement mechanic of Specter Knight and along with the scythe abilities and with special walls that cannot be climbed scattered all around every level really also already the greatest part of what makes up the platforming challenge and experience in Specter of Torment.
Lastly, Specter Knights adds damage to the ground below him when jumping from it, with sand blocks and the like disappearing when you were standing on them when jumping or rocks disappearing after 3 jumps. Which is not quite another strength of Specter Knight (jumping on enemies will only get yourself hurt), but another interesting mechanic to keep in mind and that’s of course also greatly incorporated in the level designs.
There are also one or two more basic abilities, like sliding, which was shown off in game trailers and is used to break up the levels a bit. But I think that the three I’ve mentioned are the most important overall playing through the levels, which - just as in Plague of Shadows - have once again been greatly reworked to fit Specter Knights gameplay.
While in the other two campaigns Specter Knight as the final boss was actually able to fly, this is one power you don’t have in Specter of Torment (at least not at the beginning). Nonetheless, the powers that you have got are more than enough already and really make you feel just as powerful as if you could fly. With the wall walking, quickly slicing through enemies to race through the screen and this all with generally fluid and stylish movements, it’s kind like as if Specter Knight is owning the entire screen and is just always slightly above and more powerful than the rest of the game world.
This all is naturally also a whole lot of fun - knowing that no other enemy comes even close to your movement and fighting skills - and one wouldn’t feel half as powerful if the controls or gameplay was less fluid and really just as fun as they are. You might walk by a small enemy and could simply strike through it with your scythe or jump over it, but instead when you jump the target indication appears and you attack it that way, also making your movement feel a bit faster. This is really an important part of how the experience feels, quickly jumping from one enemy to the next over the screen, no matter if it’s necessary or not, but just because it’s fun.
On the downside, the fact that Specter Knight feels so powerful and in control of everything also means that Specter of Torment appeared to be much easier in my first playthrough than the original Shovel Knight and the Plague of Shadows campaigns were.
There are of course still many tricky parts, but after the first two or three bosses beaten, I really was surprised how good I got through the levels, very unlike to the previous games. Instead of seeming very long, this time it was more like the earlier levels in a New Super Mario Bros. game where you know that it will probably not take too long to just go through it and clear it. Furthermore, I was even able to obtain almost all of the game’s collectibles in each level in my first playthrough.
The game is also very generous when it comes to your health bar, so the best strategy for most of the bosses is simply repeatedly targeting and slicing through them as often as you can and just ignoring the bit of damage the bosses do to you in the meantime. It’s kind like spamming Sonic’s dash attack in Smash Bros. without the opponent really fighting against it. But it also often is your main attack to fight against them anyways so why would you want to waste time?
At first I wasn’t sure how to feel about that different level of difficulty. Thinking about it, however, I came to the realization that I think it actually makes a lot of sense and fits the character and entire game world really very well:
Whereas Plague Knight was kind like this rather weak character, who only became more powerful with the help of his bombs and new improvements to them throughout the game, Specter Knight just is a very powerful character right from the start and you wouldn’t really be playing as the boss of the previous games if the developers had limited his powers or made him appear weak especially against the simple enemies at the beginning and which the levels are mostly made up of. I also think it’s really interesting and clever how the game thus also kind like conveys how Specter Knight perceives and must feel the world around him.
And if you’re interested in the usual Shovel Knight experience with more infuriating levels of difficulty, just as with the previous campaigns there’s of course also the New Game+ mode in Specter of Torment for you to play through after beating the game once, which this time around not only increases the damage done by enemies, removes most food items and dramatically minimizes the number of checkpoints, but also merges your health and magic meters and makes it decrease steadily all the time while you are playing. Quite possibly some variation of this merged health/magic meter could have had been intended as the way the main game could have worked, as it seems like a very natural system and more in line in terms of difficulty with the other games.
Besides money, there are basically two other things to look for in each level in Specter of Torment. There’s one pot hidden in every level, which will either increase your maximum “will” or maximum “darkness” by one (health and magic, it’s set which levels increase which). And there are 10 skulls hidden in every level, which are used as a currency in the hub world for obtaining special items, so-called Curios, which take portions of your darkness meter each time being used in the levels. Both, the pots and the skulls, are interestingly hidden and nice challenges to obtain.
The coins you collect in each level can be used to upgrade obtained Curios, or to buy alternate clothes for Specter Knight, which also give him even more special abilities. You can also use coins to buy the health or darkness point of a pot that you might have missed in a level, which, however, is a really dumb idea that I only tried once. The thing is that when playing the level again to find the pot also for yourself, it’s already open and won’t count for an achievement anymore that requires you to find all of the pots in the game.
The Curios and special clothes both make Specter Knight’s life in the game even much much easier than it already is. Most noteworthy, there’s a cloak which if you’ve got enough darkness will rescue you after falling in pits or touching spikes.
There are also a few other clothes with very interesting features, but I really stuck almost completely with this one after reading of it’s ability and obtaining it. I was a bit concerned as it felt kind like cheating to not die when falling in a pit in a game like Shovel Knight. But after what those developers have done in the past in terms of difficulty, they clearly know very well what they’re doing (I was even a bit afraid of what might be about to come, because the game provided me with all these nice helpers) and I decided to just thankfully take any helping items that a game of this series would offer to me without question.
In addition to the costumes, the Curios items abilities range from special attacks on enemies to slowing the time or floating for a couple of seconds. They’re really very creative and can quickly be used in a level via the touch screen.
The game is also very generous with the amount of money in each level, so you can quickly obtain many of the item upgrades and clothes early on (in old Shovel Knight fashion, trying to get rid of as much of your money as possible upon entering a new level). And with the size of your darkness and health meters also growing rather quickly with every new pot you find and your darkness refilling when you attack enemies, it also quickly becomes very affordable to actually use the items if needed. At the end, the pit rescuing cloak will save you two times, just to give an example of how big the meters actually get. All these aspects do of course also further add to the easier nature of Specter of Torment outside of New Game+.
A more new experience
While Plague of Shadows was set simultaneously to the main game and basically allowed you to play a varied version of the original experience, Specter of Torment doesn’t follow the same scheme, but goes own new ways in several ways.
First, for instance, each level actually has a new music track in Specter of Torment. The tracks are remixes of the original ones and almost all sound more loud and vibrant, probably adding more on top of the originals than removing. So if you were recognizing and remembering all those songs from the original game when playing Plague of Shadows, in Specter of Torment you’ll also be remembering and recognizing them, but at the same time it also all feels very new again.
Furthermore, the other knights actually all have new, more intense boss fights, which makes it all the more sobering how easy they can be defeated by spamming the same attack. It also appears as if the developers have made some good improvements in the background of the levels, so that, for example, coins no longer vanish when quickly leaving and reentering a screen. Also, there are a few new enemies in the levels.
Yet another greater difference, the overview world map that was used to navigate between stages in Shovel Knight and Plague of Shadows is not used again in Specter of Torment. Instead, there’s now only a building, similar to Plague Knight’s Potionarium, serving as the game's hub world, with a character in one room letting you select which level you want to play when talking to him.
There’s also no requirement to play the levels in a linear order anymore as you had to do in the other games, but, except for the final two ones, all stages can be selected and played right from the start. This new way the level selection works is also useful to quickly see which levels you’ve already completed and especially in which levels you still need to find the collectible skulls. You’re also not facing off against Shovel Knight in the entire game or against a variation of Spector Knights boss fight (although his stage is of course still there) this time around, among many many more such smaller differences.
While the relatively small hub building and freedom to play the levels in any order you want right from the start also add to the feeling that the game is quicker to go through than the first two campaigns, I really like them and all the other changes and new ideas that the developers have tried out in Specter of Torment, kind like having shaken every aspect of the game up a little bit.
Of course it would also have been interesting to see how the campaign’s premise would’ve been applied to a few more of the previous locations of the overworld, but I found this way just as good and probably more interesting and it was also a nice surprise to find out what all was slightly different in my first few minutes with the game. (The idea behind the free level selection probably also is that after two campaigns you don’t need to play the levels in any special order anymore to slowly get introduced to new mechanics one after another and it might also would’ve been a bit stale to go through the map for a third time).
Story and overall atmosphere
Unlike Plague of Shadows, which was set more or less simultaneously to the main game, Specter of Torment takes place in the past, years before the events of the other two campaigns.
At a time when the rest of the land was still free, Specter Knight is tasked by the Enchantress to form an evil federation of knights for her to rule the country. The main reason why he follows this request, however, is not a belief in her plans, but a special magical item, which will become more powerful with every knight recruited and should eventually allow him to get back to his human form.
This is the basic idea of the story already and the game starts out pretty straightforward directly introducing you into this constellation. Throughout the game, more is revealed about the circumstances of it all in the form of dialogues with the other knights, cutscenes and special flashback levels, in which Specter Knight remembers the time when he still was human.
While this part of the game certainly is not the most important anyway, I’d say that I personally found the story and some of it’s elements one of the game’s more rough parts, at least in comparison to everything else.
The monochrome flashback levels, for example, might be a very cool idea and also really greatly implemented, with a second character climbing and making his way through these levels simultaneously to you in the background and even being part of a really cool gameplay mechanic that’s found nowhere else in the game. Ultimately, however, I just wasn’t interested enough in this personal backstory of Specter Knight and of it popping up after all few levels and feeling a bit out of place. Even though at the same time, I also didn’t feel close enough to the two characters and this part of the story, probably because there weren’t enough and too short of these levels.
Moreover, the dialogues between Specter Knight and the other knights are all following the very same scheme in Specter of Torment of him trying to recruit them for The Order of No Quarter, them politely declining and then for sometimes more and sometimes less clear reasons (everything Polar Knight says in his recruitment scene is “...” and “hrmph”, for instance) starting a fight.
And while for one knight the lost fight means he can flee, for all others it apparently means that they’re joining the Order, which however is also not addressed, but can just be assumed from them hanging out in the hub building from then on and a stat with the number of knights that you have recruited being higher by one if you look it up.
Just as with the previous campaigns, however, the game’s production value and presentation of everything is on a top level - from the well made opening cutscenes, the flashback levels and their look and peculiarities, all the way to the end credit scenes. And what I did like about the story were the more subtle ways in which it and Specter of Torment’s premise unfold throughout the game.
As you will have noticed if you know the main game, Specter of Torment basically follows the establishment and early rise of The Order of No Quarter, the evil federation suppressing the country that you have to fight against in the main game, which is a very interesting constellation.
The game’s hub building is actually the dark tower, another location known from the previous games, at that time serving as the Order’s headquarter. While it’s a rather empty and shallow place at the beginning, after defeating the different bosses they will actually move in there and then be seen from time to time and, more importantly, their thugs will move in as well and from then on hurry through the hallways, so that with every beaten level, the tower becomes more crowded and you can really feel the progress the Order is undergoing while you are playing and that each of your wins is part of this.
I think that one of the problems I had with the story overall also was that it seemed like the rather personal story of Specter Knight, which felt more like a side story, was in the place of a main story and getting most of the focus, although there’s actually also something in my opinion much more interesting going on.
Also great did I find the ending scenes, which, too, process the Quarter’s rise and starting dominance taking over the power at the end of the game. The other two campaigns already had really great ending scenes as well, and maybe I’m exaggerating a bit, but I’d say it’s really probably one of my favorite parts of the entire game. Once again it’s just a really great way to end a game and this time, instead of them defeated, you see the Bosses moving out into their respective levels, chasing off villagers, pursuing their own projects and starting the construction of their forts. There are also many interesting small details and other stuff to be found there.
The game has in my opinion also retained not only the atmosphere, but also the wit and humor of the previous games. I remember at least one dumb joke in a dialogue that I found very funny and many more small details, interactions and ideas throughout the game that were really fun.
What else to do
Besides the levels, there’s also a new mini-game that can be found in the overworld, in which you have to climb a tower against the clock with different platforming challenges being in random order and randomly mirrored each time you play it.
It’s one of the few cases where making a lot of money actually drives you mad, as there are only so few coins you collect on every run so that seeing that you’ve earned 5000 coins while failing just tells you what an awful amount of time you’ve spent failing already.
I think I’m only able to speak for my experience here, as I was very close to winning in my third attempt or so already, which would’ve lead to a very different experience and feeling of the mini-game afterwards, but then started to sillily lose one round after another. The mini-game’s only negatives are that it’s not worked very well into the overworld in my opinion and the rather curbed enthusiasm of the game and reward when finally winning it (although honestly the own personal achievement of having done so was already more than enough at least for me).
Otherwise, it’s just a whole lot of fun and intense, and much more enduring than the similar mini-games in the previous campaigns. I would’ve been very happy with dlc just featuring 6 more or so of these tower stages, probably totally losing my mind and wasting a ton of time because of them, but having enough fun all the while to very likely compensate for it. That I liked this mini-game that much probably also is because just how nice it is to play as Specter Knight.
Beyond that, Specter of Torment also makes use of the same achievement system of the previous games, providing incentives for replaying the game and spending a bit more time with it. And there are also new ‘missions’ for Specter Knight in the missions mode that was introduced along with Plague of Shadows, ranging from actually solvable fun challenges to boss fights with very low life and one more fun idea that however seemed too hard to me personally to seriously spend enough time for.
Both I’d say are great add-ons on top of everything else, albeit not very big and for me personally partly too hard to even try to solve or too much time to replay everything again for, at least for now.
The developers behind Specter of Torment, Yacht Club Games, have really earned a lot of trust from me throughout the years with every new release to the series.
Specter of Torment is a great game, with enormously fun gameplay and the top music and atmosphere, art style, creativity and polish throughout known from the previous campaigns. The easier difficulty might actually make this Shovel Knight game more accessible to less skilled gamers if they can figure out the basic gameplay mechanics, and for everyone else there’s New Game+ if you’re really interested in the actual challenge or to replay someday. All in all it might be a rather short experience, but I don’t think that this really matters a lot as part of the amazing game collection for which this is a free upgrade for.
I especially also think that it’s astonishing how much the developers have built on top of the original game and made out of this game world with all the DLC campaigns adding many new angles on it and really cleverly extending and interweaving it in many ways. And moreover, every of the campaigns also with an own perfectly outworked new gameplay scheme. The next and last free DLC campaign is already set for launch later this year (though I wouldn’t be too certain about this time frame for the 3DS version), featuring King Knight and I’m already very excited to play all the levels again in a completely new way and see what new he might bring to the series and its world.
I would also like to see what Yacht Club Games could bring up for any of the other Knights, with new gameplay, levels, stories and ideas, sequels to any of the previous campaigns, or a full new sequel to Shovel Knight or other new game. I sincerely hope that Yacht Club Games will be around and making many more big, great games for many more years to come.