- Developer: Yacht Club Games
- Publisher: Yacht Club Games
- Release Date: 10/12/2019
- Price: $9.99 / £7.99
- Review code provided by Yacht Club Games
Expectations fit for a king
Shovel Knight is undeniably one of the greatest Kickstarter successes and a phenomenal game to boot. Harkening back to the NES-era of platformers, the base game elegantly blended together nostalgic, 80s sensibilities with modern design and tight gameplay, easily making it one of my favorite 2D platformers of all time. That said, those thoughts only go as far as the base Shovel Knight experience for me, though. As the game has grown as the years have gone by, receiving a number of DLC expansions, each featuring their own protagonist and remixed campaign. The first two expansions in the trio, belonging to Plague Knight and Specter Knight respectively, didn’t capture the same magic for me. I found the movement systems exclusive to the DLC characters to be inferior to that of Shovel Knight’s Ducktales-like shovel bounce, and as such, both campaigns felt lacking.
Bearing that in mind, I went into Shovel Knight: King of Cards hopeful yet tempered in expectation, unsure if this would be the DLC expansion that would recapture the magic of Shovel Knight that I fell in love with back on 3DS so many years ago. Featuring not only a new protagonist and platforming campaign, but a digital trading card game woven into the world, it seemed like King of Cards just might be the expansion that clicked with me. Having now blown through King of Cards, I can report that this expansion does not recapture the same magic as the base experience. Yet, I say that with enthusiasm, as King of Cards does the seemingly impossible, and surpasses the magic of the game upon which it is built.
A crowning achievement in platforming
King of Cards derives its resonance and success chiefly from one source, its movement system. To speak categorically, this expansion features one of the most fluid and empowering movement systems in any platformer I’ve personally experienced. King Knight, the game’s titular protagonist, traverses the world using a momentum-based dash that operates much like the spin jump in Super Mario World. By pressing Y, King Knight barrels forward crashing into the first enemy or obstacle in his line of sight. Instead of careening through it, though, King Knight is launched backwards into the air, entering a cyclone-like spin which can be used to damage enemies, break walls, and reach higher platforms. This mechanic thrives because of the way in which it propels King Knight through stages with a feeling of heft and momentum, allowing a good player to chain together jumps, dashes and spins to soar across the world.
The core platforming feels further empowering in the hands of the player due to the masterful level design in King of Cards. Each stage is a razor-sharp platforming gauntlet which constantly asks stretches and subverts the established platforming, asking the player to stop, think, and execute upon crazy feats of timing and reflex to reach the goal. With gorgeous pixel art, varied visual motifs, and a constant flurry of new level gimmicks, each stage feels engaging. I never found myself simply going through the motions, nor did I find myself gritting my teeth in frustration. While King of Cards certainly is a challenging game, it never feels unfair. The cause of each death truly was my own incompetency or mistake, not a sloppy level-design choice.
Shuffling in some variety
Considering this is a Shovel Knight game, a commitment to and mastery of demanding yet fair level design is par for the course. Established Shovel Knight fans will be happy to know that not only does the top-notch level design return from past experiences, but the frenetic boss design does as well. The team at Yacht Club Games simply gets this style of platforming and understands what to modernize and what to leave feeling retro. Of course, the development team did not settle for simply creating a new, lean platforming experience for King of Cards, but also created a full trading card game to exist within the word of Shovel Knight.
The game is called Joustus, and it is a popular pastime for those across the realm. Narratively, Joustus is central to King Knight’s motivation, as he’s seeking to become the greatest Joustus player there is. To accomplish such a mission, he has to defeat the three reigning kings of the land before that title can become his. The narrative itself isn’t particularly deep, and it culminates in an unsurprising third act twist, but that doesn’t mean the story in King of Card is unsuccessful. To the contrary, while the overarching story leaves something to be desired, the characters that King Knight meets on his quest and interacts with in the game’s overworld are delightfully designed and written.
Entertaining the realm
Like past Shovel Knight experiences, King of Cards takes place within a Super Mario Bros. 3-like overworld map, that includes not only stages and bosses to conquer, but roaming events and towns to explore. The latter, the towns, is where Joustus is most important from a gameplay perspective, and the side characters are the most interesting to converse with. Each of the game’s worlds features a tavern of sorts with a gaggle of people interested in challenging King Knight to a round of cards. Joustus itself is a deceptively simple, deck-building trading card game.
Joustus takes place on a grid, with players taking turns placing tiles on the board as they fight for control of gem spaces. When the central, highlighted grid is filled up with cards, the game ends, and the player controlling the most gem spaces wins. There’s a catch, though, cards cannot be played directly onto gem spaces. Instead, cards have to be placed around gem spaces, and then pushed onto them. The pushing mechanic is where Joustus derives its strategy from. Each card has arrows on between one and all four of its sides. These represent the direction in which the card can push another, sliding it onto an adjacent grid space. However, cards can only be pushed on free sides, the sides without arrows. Planning ahead is essential to finding success on the Joustus board, as a defensively placed card form the opponent, an overlooked free side, or even a misplaced card of one’s own can spell defeat.
Playing without a full deck
While Joustus itself isn’t a particularly complex game, I found myself rounding engaged by it. Its relative simplicity and fast pace keep matches taught and exciting, as each turn truly carries the weight of the entire game on its back. Every move is essential and there isn’t much room for error, which keeps matches wildly engaging. Collecting new cards and customizing my deck was just as enjoyable as Joustus itself, and these elements of the experience spoke to the lapsed Pokémon Trading Card Game fan within me.
That said, I do wish that Joustus could’ve been even more. As it is currently implemented, Joustus feels mostly like a mini-game instead of a key facet of King of Cards. I would’ve appreciated a bit more depth within the actual mechanics, perhaps in the form of secondary effect cards. The game already has a sort of answer to these, in the form of cheat cards, which mess with the board and cards upon it. However, cheat cards must be purchased one at a time, and aren’t treated as a pillar of the Joustus experience. Properly integrating a system like this into Joustus properly would’ve given the mechanics a bit more weight. Likewise, it feels entirely secondary to the platforming experience, and is relegated entirely to being side content. Considering that the narrative is based around Joustus, it feels a tad boring to only use the card game itself as a plot device. Weaving platforming and trading card game action together could’ve made the game even stronger than it already is.
Long live the king
Issues with Joustus aside, Shovel Knight: King of Cards is easily the best piece of content that Yacht Club Games have released since the base game. The platforming is about as close to perfect as platforming can be, and while short, every second of the game is deliberate and necessary, filled with smart level concepts. Joustus is a bold addition as well and while it is somewhat limited in scope, it provides side content that, at its best, feels just as enjoyable as the platforming itself. This is an absolutely essential Nintendo Switch platformer, and one that all fans of the genre should check out.
- Empowered platforming mechanics
- Tight level design
- Fun cast of characters
- Engaging trading card game elements
- Joustus feels limited
Shovel Knight: King of Cards is one of the best 2D platformers on Nintendo Switch, and should not be missed.