Only a few physical releases have landed alongside the launch of the Nintendo Switch, but the catalogue starts to look much healthier if you also take into account what the eShop has to offer, with its lineup that includes Shovel Knight.
Specter of Torment is DLC for Shovel Knight and, at the same time, it's not. For those of you that aren't aware of its origins, the base game is a side-scrolling 2D action platformer. It was also the first game developed by Yacht Club Games, and following its initial release it surprised players with its fusion of retro style and modern sensibilities, and how it improved on the past by using the tricks of the present, all the while being respectful.
Yacht Club Games promised us free expansions, and this is how the DLC Plague of Shadows arrived, along with other updates. However, the studio then realised that they couldn't continue to improve on the game without money, so they had to find another business model. Starting in March the base game will be called Shovel Knight: Treasure Trove, and each of these expansions will be integrated in a different way, because they're less like expansions now, and more like new games or campaigns that belong in the same world. The studio then keeps its promise of providing existing players with all the content they already have for free, but newcomers will have to pay piece by piece (on top of everything that's included so far). This, in turn, will also allow these expansions to be sold separately, and this is how we get to Specter of Torment. It's a game that, for more than a month, will be exclusive to Nintendo Switch, whether it's purchased separately as a standalone title or as part of the Treasure Trove package.
The main character is, once again, a knight, and if you're up-to-date with Shovel Knight, you'll know that you've already faced him on two occasions. Specter Knight has a semblance to death, and he's armed with a scythe that he uses to attack, so he's pretty much like the Grim Reaper. We're told that events herein date back 100 years before the appearance of the main character, and as we progress through the game we discover what happened to this world and why it's ruled by the Enchantress and why it's in such a miserable state, reigned as it is by a tyrant in each zone.
It's an arcade-inspired game above all else, and it only has a handful of written phrases and vignettes between the main characters before and during the missions, but at the end of the game you still get the feeling that, now, narrative matters. Neither the jovial spirit of Shovel Knight nor the teasing of Plague Knight can be compared to the depth of Specter Knight. You don't have to read anything to enjoy the action, but this time we like to highlight the brief but effective storytelling.
The new gameplay twist in Specter of Torment is that this knight is able to pierce enemies and objects with a clean diagonal cut of his scythe, and you can use this to move the character in a new way. The team has recreated all of the levels again too, it's the same theme but now it comes with a refreshed structure, and thus players gets a completely new experience. It is, however, the third take on the formula, and we have concerns that the formula might start to show fatigue sooner rather than later.
We also found that the game has gotten a bit easier to finish than it was before, and perhaps we got to grips with it sooner after playing the earlier iterations of the game. Or maybe the studio lowered the bar after the arrival of the Game+ mode and new challenges, which you can unlock after the first pass. The level design is still excellent, but this time it doesn't ask you to pull off as many difficult moves and secrets are much easier to discover.
The skills and armour we obtain throughout the game don't really make much of an impact either, at least the first time around, because they're too badass; they're so cool and powerful that it almost seems like too much for this level of difficulty. It would be fun if there were more enemies, but the Game+ mode is actually focused on the opposite, and the difficulty therein relies on efficiency.
Yacht Club Games keeps improving on the game's high quality pixel style by using new lighting techniques and by adding in new textures. The studio has reworked all of the scenery to make you feel like you're elsewhere, in another game, and in this regard there's no world map or intermediate villages, instead there's only a couple of floors in the Tower of Fate and a dimensional portal to travel to each zone. But there, in that narrow tower, the studio has managed to fuse nostalgia, fun, challenge, reward, dancing, conflict, and intrigue. The soundtrack is also a huge positive, composed as it is of both old and new arrangements alike, all of them available in an unlockable jukebox.
You get total satisfaction when you complete the game, and it's absolutely rewarding, especially when you take into account the price. It's sublimely presented, offers addictive gameplay, and a story more powerful and better told than ever before. Nevertheless, the level design somewhat lowers the bar and this prevents us from making the most of the new playable character's abilities. It's on the brink of being a must-have title, and it comes highly recommended.