By Evan Norris 10th Dec 2019 | 2,598 views
Shovel Knight is the gift that keeps giving. What started in 2014 as an outstanding action-platformer has expanded, over the last five years, to include a fighting game spin-off and three quality expansions. The latest and ostensibly last expansion is King of Cards, which follows the exploits of King Knight before his villainous turn in the first title. With original levels and worlds, a brand new card game called Joustus, a comical story that dovetails neatly with Shovel Knight's adventure, and the same inspired, challenging action-platforming that made the premiere game an indie darling, King of Cards represents a regal finish to the Shovel Knight saga.
King of Cards is a prequel that tells the story of anti-hero King Knight, a nobody who dreams of becoming the one true king. When a new card game called Joustus begins to grow in popularity across the land, King Knight's delusions of grandeur become slightly less deluded. Three monarchs of three kingdoms assume the roles of Joustus Judges in a country-wide tournament; whoever defeats the Judges earns the title "King of Cards". Deciding this is his chance, King Knight assembles a Joustus deck and shoulder bashes his way toward glory.
Starring the dense, haughty King Knight and populated with colorful characters—some old and some new to the franchise—the storyline in King of Cards is a lot of fun. It gets great mileage out of its protagonist's baseless boasting and casual indifference to authority. It's also, at times, surprisingly tender, thanks to a ragtag coalition of citizens who join up with King Knight, and, toward the end, a little bit sad. Anyone who's played Shovel Knight knows how this story concludes, but you think for a moment it might end differently.
Despite the shift in main character and plot line, the gameplay scenarios in King of Cards match up with other titles in the series. It's a 2D action-platformer inspired by 8-bit NES classics like Mega Man, Castlevania, and Zelda II. From a top-down overworld map, which wouldn't look out of place in Super Mario Bros. 3, players will roam around four worlds and thirty-plus all-new levels, tackling monsters, death-defying leaps, and bosses. King Knight's set of moves, which focuses on shoulder bashes and spin jumps, is atypical—and ultimately more fussy and less satisfying than Shovel Knight's moveset—but lends itself to some inspired platforming trials.
Even if King Knight himself is a bit unorthodox, his adventure rivals the best of the franchise, thanks to ingenious level designs, high-risk platforming, and a few quirks unique to this latest expansion: the Glidewing, an airship that doubles as a central hub; and Joustus, the game within the game.
Early in the first world, two NPCs will invite King Knight to their airship, the Glidewing. Accessible from any point in the overworld map by pressing the minus button, the Glidewing is basically a floating hub where players can interact with NPCs, buy gear and abilities, and perform a few side-quests. There's even a fairy lady who will ready your Amiibo. When you encounter more characters on terra firma, you'll have the chance to recruit them to the Glidewing. As a result, the ship is the perfect glue for King of Cards. It takes a collection of disparate levels and challenge rooms and creates something larger than the sum of its parts. To paraphrase Jeffrey Lebowski, it really ties the game together.
Some of the Glidewing's denizens will challenge you to a round of Joustus, a card game that serves as both plot device and addictive diversion. Here's how it works: on a symmetrical grid you set down cards, based on characters and beasts within the game. Using the unique arrows on each card, you "push" cards in your deck onto tiles with gems. A card with an up arrow, wedged under an existing card, will push it upward. You won't be able to push upward on a card with a down arrow however; they cancel each other out. Joustus isn't a huge part of the game—you'll participate mostly in taverns and on the Glidewing—but it's an entertaining pastime.
It's also just one of dozens of things to do in King of Cards. The expansion's many levels, side missions, consumables, collectible Joustus cards, and feats (think achievements) combine to create a great value proposition. You can replay levels for hard-to-reach medals, which act as a secondary currency, or explore the overland map for a handful of special stages designed around heirlooms (sub-weapons). Comparable in length to the original Shovel Knight, it might take 16 hours to see and achieve everything the game has to offer. You can even take on new trials in a New Game+ mode, which is unlocked alongside Challenge Mode and Sound Test when you beat the main campaign.
King of Cards, like Shovel Knight before it, can be incredibly demanding, especially in its fourth and ultimate act. There's a noticeable, slightly-aggravating difficulty spike in the last few levels, culminating in an arduous final boss fight. Expect to fall in battle many, many times before developer Yacht Club Games treats you to a poetic final cut-scene.
That cut-scene and others spring to life courtesy of the Shovel Knight series' signature, nostalgic 8-bit graphics and tile work. Thanks to detailed sprites and vibrant backgrounds, this might be the best-looking game in the franchise so far. Despite some recycled musical tracks like "Strike the Earth!", it also sounds great, due to another excellent score by composer Jake Kaufman. Be sure to check out the up-tempo lounge stylings of "A Silly Talking Fish".
King of Cards is the triumphant end of an era. Five years in the making, the Shovel Knight saga is now complete, rounded out with one of its strongest entries. King Knight's moveset takes some getting used to and the game plows into a difficulty spike in its final few stages, but overall this is a robust package with cleverly-designed levels, tense 2D platforming, tons of side content and secrets, a silly story perfect for Shovel Knight vets, and novelties that raise the entire production beyond what is standard for the genre. Yacht Club Games, take a victory lap; you've earned it.