Given the high quality of the original campaign, it would have been very easy for Yacht Club Games to take the idea of a free Shovel Knight expansion and simply phone in the effort with some mixed-up assets, some swapped-out skins, and the same exact stages. Shovel Knight: Plague of Shadows turns out to be far more than that, however. While Plague Knight's tale is set in the same Shovel Knight world, it proves to be one that fully stands on its own merits and one that actually improves on its predecessor in some noticeable ways.
Those expecting the same Shovel Knight mechanics might be surprised by some of the ways that Plague of Shadows changes up some of the game's main mechanics. For one thing, since this is an entirely different character, the concept of using pogo jumps off of enemies and digging ahead are out the window. That's not how Plague Knight operates. He's an amoral alchemist, which means he works with potions, many of which just happen to be of the explosive variety, which opens the door to the expansion's coolest concept, the bomb jump.
While Yacht Club does the best it can with the tutorial level's opening scene, the bomb jump feels so much unlike anything in the previous Shovel Knight campaign that it can be tough to nail down. It can feel frustrating to spend minutes trying to get over the very first wall in the game, but as the story progresses, it becomes clear why that was the design. The bomb jump is the most crucial element of the game and without it, players do not progress at all.
The Shovel Knight rogues are all present and the idea of using Plague Knight's arsenal is a fun one, especially since it can make some previously-difficult fights much easier. It's evident from the first encounter with a sleeping dragon that jumping in the air and raining down explosives is a far more effective tactic than timing a shovel strike. Even some of the Order of No Quarter tend to fall much easier to the sinister scientist's powerful potions, though Yacht Club does attempt to balance this somewhat with a Tonic mechanic, which only expands Plague Knight's life bar until his next death. He'll often operate with a standard five HP, which ups the degree of difficulty slightly.
But even if the enemies tend to get easier, the jumps are still as devious as ever. The Shovel Knight stages have been re-designed to suit Plague Knight's erratic jumping patterns and as the game progresses, they get much tougher. Plague Knight can just as easily be sent flying backwards by an enemy or obstacle and into the abyss or into a bed of spikes. Puzzles or jumping sequences aren't made necessarily easier or harder; they're simply altered.
Plague Knight's arsenal, as a whole, is also altered to suit the situation and it arguably makes the Plague of Shadows expansion more refined than the base game. Plague Knight has a wealth of options that alter his explosives, their effects, and the extra effects from the bomb jump. They all have their distinct uses, giving Plague of Shadows even more of an old-school "Mega Man" feel than the Shovel Knight campaign. It also gives good reason to attempt some of the more dangerous obstacles, since the Cipher Coins placed around each level is what opens the door to these new abilities.
On top of all of that, it would have been really easy to phone in a story, given that Shovel Knight was the true star of his tale. But Yacht Club has successfully taken what's been an ancillary character and made him a compelling lead in his own right. Plague Knight has his own fun cast of characters, his own personality traits, his own relationships, and all of it has you rooting for the little guy by the end. This is without even mentioning some of the genuine humor and other narrative twists found throughout the game, including an amazingly clever riff on the base adventure that won't be spoiled here.
Let's consider how many disappointing Season Pass and DLC add-ons have been passed along over the past couple of years. It's often been the case that developers put their best efforts towards one massive base game and put forth what feels like the bare minimum towards a premium expansion. Plague of Shadows is absolutely not one of those. It stands toe-to-toe with the original Shovel Knight adventure and, in some ways, even surpasses it. Shovel Knight was more than deserving of its spot on our Shacknews Game of the Year list in 2014 and Plague Knight only delivers more of that same quality.