Shovel Knight: King Of Cards (NS) – all good things… (pic: Yacht Club Games)

The five-year saga of Shovel Knight finally comes to an end, with a new story expansion and brand new fighting game Showdown.

It’s been a wild ride, but the Shovel Knight saga is finally over. We’re sure even developer Yacht Club Games never imagined it would come to this: not only four major expansions but an assist trophy in Super Smash Bros. Ultimate and the only indie character to get not one but multiple amiibo. Shovel Knight has become a regular phenomenon and the only thing left to do is to try and go out on a high note, but… not every story has a happy end.

Just to prove it’s not only big-name publishers who can be weird about release dates, this week sees the release of both new story expansion King Of Cards and also fighting game spin-off Showdown. We’d say we don’t know why they came out at the same time but actually, it’s kind of obvious: Showdown isn’t very good.

It’s not a one-on-one fighter in the Street Fighter sense, but instead something closer to a 2D Smash Bros. All the main characters from the regular games are playable, and still have their own signature moves, but that means even with a bit of nerfing it’s still horribly unbalanced, which once you add in the tiny levels, hazards, and rule modifiers turns the whole thing into a mess of on-screen noise and incomprehensible action.

Also, there’s no online multiplayer and the single-player artificial intelligence is terrible. But enough about Showdown, as by far the more interesting of this week’s releases is King Of Cards. Although that’s also not without its own right royal problems…

The previous two expansions have focused on humanising the boss characters from the original game, first Plague Knight in Plague Of Shadows and then Specter Knight in Specter Of Torment. Both turned out to be not quite as evil as they originally seemed and, more importantly from a gameplay perspective, allowed you to play as a new character with very different abilities to Shovel Knight. This final expansion casts you as King Knight, the gold-plated braggart with the running joke that he’s not actually a king, just a king-themed knight.

The dialogue is consistently amusing, without ever being laugh out loud funny, and fits the charm of the retro style presentation perfectly. Although the game’s graphics are often compared to the NES they’re clearly much more complex than Nintendo’s first console could ever manage. They’re closer to a PC Engine but it’s better to think of them as a non-denominational 8-bit style, that just feels generally old school rather than mimicking any specific format.

Unlike the previous two expansion characters, combat with King Knight doesn’t primarily revolve around the use of weapons or items, and he certainly doesn’t have a shovel. What he can do instead though is use a shoulder barge which, when it makes contact with a wall or enemy, will send him up into a dainty little pirouette that can then be combo-ed back into another shoulder barge, until you either run out of targets or your hand-to-eye coordination fails you.

There are other moves and equipment to be unlocked as you progress, but although the 2D platform antics are broadly similar to the previous outings, King Knight’s stages tend to be much smaller, as you flit from one to another via a Super Mario style overworld. There’s plenty of secret exits, optional boss fights, and treasure rooms to find, and the overall length of the game is longer than the previous expansions if you do everything, and yet it all has a tendency to feel very bitty and insubstantial.

There is one other element to the game we haven’t mentioned yet and that’s King Knight’s goal to become the champion of Joustus, a card game that involves moving around square cards on small grids in order to cover up gemstones. Most cards have an arrow on them showing which direction they can or cannot be pushed, as you and your opponent take turns laying down cards from your deck and trying to push the other out of the way and your cards onto the gems.

It certainly is strange to make the centrepiece of Shove Knight’s final expansion a card-based mini-game but it’s perfectly enjoyable and essentially optional if you decide you don’t like it. But even if you do the short levels and constant pit stops to play Joustus gives the game a very fragmented feel, that’s not really the celebratory finale we were expecting.

Your ultimate goal is to defeat the three Joustus Judges, by not only battling through the platform levels but building up your deck with better cards by winning matches with more ordinary foes. If you take the time to explore and play Joustus properly there’s plenty of content here, but it is noticeable that a lot of it is clearly repurposed from previous outings – which admittedly was true of the other expansions too.

There’s also a really nasty difficulty spike around the halfway mark, that seems perverse even for a game that prides itself on its retro-inspired difficulty. But it seems especially unfair as the odd combat system always feels so constrained, with rarely enough space to use it to what seems like its full potential.

King Of Cards is easily the worst of the Shovel Knight expansions, which is a real shame because we were going to end this review by advising everyone get Shovel Knight: Treasure Trove, which includes the original game and all the expansions (and Showdown) for £35.99. It’s still definitely worth it, for one of the best retro style platformers of the generation, but you should be warned that it starts better than it ends.



Shovel Knight: King Of Cards review summary

In Short: A disappointing way to end an otherwise epic series (especially if you take into account Showdown) but the retro visuals and excellent 2D platforming can still delight.

Pros: The 2D level design is great as always and the old school graphics are gorgeous. Amusing script and characters, with plenty of content and secrets.

Cons: Joustus isn’t really that enjoyable. King Knight’s combat frequently feels fiddly and unsatisfying. Fragmented action and lots of reused assets.

Score: 6/10

Formats: Nintendo Switch (reviewed), PlayStation 3, Xbox One, PlayStation 4, PC, and PS Vita
Price: £7.99
Publisher: Yacht Club Games
Developer: Yacht Club Games
Release Date: 10th December 2019
Age Rating: 7

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