Shovel Knight: King of Cards Review — Long Live the King!
Yacht Club Games proves that their final Shovel Knight expansion, King of Cards, is no fool’s gold by making their best game to date.
It is no real secret that I love Shovel Knight. I’ve bought five copies just for myself and three more as gifts. I’ve got each soundtrack on vinyl, I’ve bought magazines with special interviews with studio, Yacht Club Games. Heck, I even did my own interview with some of the developers back in 2017 and covered the game for DualShockers at PAX East 2019.
Something that has been a secret was how I was not too hot on King Knight winning one of the Kickstarter backer polls to become one of the playable campaigns. Frankly, he seemed like the most boring choice when compared to the other knights in the Order of No Quarter. I have always had a hesitation to the decadent dandy having his own campaign, despite having the utmost faith in the overachievers that make up Yacht Club Games.
That hesitation has been replaced with enthusiasm. Shovel Knight: King of Cards is the best game in Shovel Knight: Treasure Trove. The character of King Knight soars in his jaunty tale alongside my favorite 8-bit knight gameplay to date. King of Cards is more of a sequel to the 2014 indie delight than some simple stretch goal checkbox. Yacht Club Games has outdone themselves in every single way for the grand finale.
Set as another prequel in the Shovel Knight video game universe, King Knight is on a quest to defeat the Joustus Judges, three regal representatives of an increasingly popular card game that is sweeping all the lands. The winner will be showered in riches and could even become a king of their own. It is a simple and silly premise that aptly fits the persona of King Knight. Yacht Club Games’ pun-packed writing shines as you explore three worlds in search of treasure and glory.
The meat of the story comes from its colorful cast of characters. Traveling across the world maps lands King Knight on board of an airship that steadily fills up with tons of characters; both old and new. King Knight’s interactions with the cast, especially those with his mother, are a comedic delight. The plot is a foil to 2017’s Shovel Knight: Specter of Torment and its dark, tragic backstory. I frequently chuckled throughout the King of Cards plot as King Knight did a quest all his own way. There are plenty of delightful references throughout the game for fans that made me smile, too.
Unlike Specter of Torment, King of Cards brings back an overworld map. This is not some cut and paste with a map like that in Shovel Knight: Shovel of Hope or Shovel Knight: Plague of Shadows. This time around, Yacht Club Games took inspiration from Super Mario World. Instead of one map that reveals more of itself the more you play, there are three entire maps: Two of which are brand new two the series. Each world map is slammed with alternate paths that can only be unlocked by finding hidden alternate routes within the levels themselves. Red paths indicate that an alternate route can be found within the level. Never mandatory to advance, these hidden paths encourage you to replay levels and fully explore each dense world map. Replaying a level is equally enticing due to them being so much shorter than the previous games’ levels.
Almost every level in King of Cards contains only one checkpoint. These levels are snappy with a tight focus. Death never feels like a major setback, even if you shatter the checkpoint for the loot inside. While not as quick as respawning in platformers like Celeste or Super Meat Boy, King of Cards benefits from having the entire level be shorter. I found myself far more willing to stick with a tough challenge or to hop right back in a level to find all three Merit Medals or to hunt down a secret red path.
This short design also is far more adaptable to the numerous platforms that the game is available on. Out of the nine platforms King of Cards is available on, three of them can be played portably (3DS, Vita, and Switch). It is far more convenient to pop in and play one level or two than it has ever been for Shovel Knight. It also does not hamper the home console and PC platforms, giving players a sense of great accomplishment to complete and explore a bunch of levels in a single sitting.
The traditional start-to-finish levels are not the only level types packed into King of Cards. Items (dubbed heirlooms in the Shovel Knight universe) get their own short levels. They force you to use the item to complete them with an endless supply of vigor, the game’s version of mana or magic. I prefer this design rather than buying items from chests or at the hub world. It taught me practical use cases for each item I picked up. Each of these item levels also ends with a character joining your motley crew aboard the airship. I love meeting the wider cast this way. I learn about each character while accomplishing something I was setting out to do.
These heirloom levels alongside the traditional levels give players an active choice in how they want to spend their time. It keeps the game fresh over long periods of play, while giving the portable crowd a quick hit of gameplay before they have to put their console down. There is one more level type that gives folks a choice in how they want to spend their time. Actually, it’s quite more than a level type. It’s a whole other game, entirely optional, but a surprising delight worth every player’s time: Joustus.
Joustus is a grid-based, board possession focused card game. The cards have arrows that indicate which way they push other cards. Your goal is to have your card placed on the most green gem tiles by the time all the main squares have been occupied. The closest game I could relate it to is those sliding block puzzles that when arranged correctly make a picture. Joustus is more a positional puzzle than an attack/defense card game.
Each players’ deck can only have 16 cards and three are revealed to both you and the CPU at all times. This limited deck keeps Joustus from feeling overwhelming like Gwent or Pokémon TCG. The board can have a center of 2×2, 3×3, and plenty of other combinations. There is a border of “graveyard” squares where cards get pushed out to and can no longer be manipulated by players, unless a card with a special perk is used. The loser has to forfeit a card of the winner’s choosing from any card out on the board. If you happen to lose a card you wish you hadn’t, the salesman, Chester, can sell you back any card you lost, which is a nice option for completionists. Chester will also sell you cheat cards that can make the games easier, something that seems perfectly in character with King Knight. I did not use a cheat card, in part because I wanted to challenge myself, but also because there is an achievement for not using them.
I truly love playing Joustus. It triggers that puzzle solving part of my brain without having to memorize too many rules and abilities for cards with attacks and whatnot. It is simple in just the right ways, while allowing for mentally engaging rounds against the CPU. I wish there was some way to play Joustus against another person, but the Joustus houses and numerous characters on the airship offer plenty of opportunities to deck it out against foes.
As for the knight in shining armor himself, King Knight’s move set is platforming design gold. He has two main abilities that are intricately intertwined. Pressing attack will trigger a shoulder bash that dashes King Knight a set distance to either the left or the right. When King Knight makes contact with an enemy or a wall, he triggers his second move; bouncing into the air like a spinning top. This spin has the same bouncy properties of Shovel Knight’s down thrust letting players hop all around the screen. If you manage to spin off the top of an enemy or object, the shoulder bash recharges allowing you to keep the chain going.
What I love about this move pairing is the versatility of it. They work wonderfully against baddies while providing both horizontal and vertical platforming movement. If you fall into a pit and should bash into the wall, you can pop back up with the spin. Bouncing around feels incredibly precise, especially on the 8Bitdo SNES-inspired controller I was playing with. King Knight’s moves feel like an evolution of Shovel Knight’s slash and down thrust. This evolution has turned the gilded goof into my favorite knight to use.
Back with the original release of Shovel Knight back in 2014, Yacht Club Games established themselves as pixel wizards with their 8-bit vistas and iconic characters. Shovel Knight has always been a looker. King of Cards is pixelated eye candy, no matter what type of screen you are playing on. The visual design of each level is engaging. They are all connected, too. You can see a clear geographical story that is told through the visual design. You can clearly tell where one level leads into the next and where on the overworld map the level is located. It is a subtle touch that ties each level and the world-at-large together.
Yacht Club Games also got to stretch their art team to new lengths. With the inclusion of two brand new worlds, we get to see places never-before-seen in the Shovel Knight kingdom. It’s refreshing and exciting to experience, especially as a long time fan of the series.
The graphical achievement rings even louder when considering all the types of screens that King of Cards can be played on. Nine different platforms had to have become a daunting visual task. Consider the franchise’s origins on the Wii U and 3DS. The stereoscopic 3D is killer for King of Cards! It is a shame to think fewer people will get to see this effect in action the further away from the 3DS the market gets, but the 3D shines. The multiple planes bring new life to the NES aesthetic. On my New 3DS XL’s larger screen, I got a diorama feel from the 3D on full blast. It also helps separate the action by literally placing it front and center, which is a nice perk.
What about the Wii U? I mention the Wii U selfishly, because of one particular picture setting the system has—component video. You know, those green, blue, and red video cables? Because I am a mad man and my wife lets me keep a 24-inch CRT in the living room of our apartment, I decided to try playing Shovel Knight on a screen from the era that inspired it. The results filled me with a warm, fuzzy feeling of imagining a world where Shovel Knight did launch on the NES. King of Cards simply looks fantastic; no matter what screen you play it on.
Perfectly paired with the 8-bit art is composer Jake Kaufman’s chiptune soundtrack. Three expansions in, I was excited to see just how Jake would mix up his iconic Shovel Knight themes once again. Previous games expanded and built upon the themes, giving them a new edge to strike out with against your ears. For King of Cards, the themes you know and love are almost all the same. For the grand Shovel Knight finale, Jake opted to make brand new music for all the new content in King of Cards.
There are tons of new songs just for Joustus. They perfectly blend into the scene of the card game and may cause you to bob your head along while dealing out the cards. All-new themes were also made for new level themes like Troupple Pond. One classic that received a new spin was Pridemoor Keep, King Knight’s stage in the previous games. It has inspired the world map theme for the whole land of Pridemoor. Jake’s soundtrack is an exuberant delight that is a wonderful finale for Treasure Trove as a whole.
King of Cards has reinforced that age-old saying of not judging a shiny knight by his armor, even a Joustus Judge. Years of development, five total games, and countless hours of work shine through every pixel. Yacht Club Games has taken what could have been a palette swap far beyond what anyone imagined. King of Cards may be a narrative prequel to Shovel Knight, but it is truly a sequel in every way. Yacht Club Games has raised the bar for what Kickstarter stretch goals mean to their communities and the video game industry at large. King of Cards is the crowning achievement in the long and rich history of Shovel Knight. The decadent dandy proves to have more beneath that gold exterior than I ever thought could be possible. I haven’t been this happy to be proven wrong in a long time.