It's hard to believe that Shovel Knight is only just now reaching its true finish line. After three campaigns, it was worth wondering whether Yacht Club had anything left to put into its retro platformer. But after playing through Shovel Knight: King of Cards, the fourth and final expansion campaign, the answer turns out to be... quite a lot. King of Cards is both a great achievement in old-school platforming, as well as a game that's not afraid to experiment by crossing over with a totally different gaming genre.
Presence of royalty
King of Cards stars King Knight, one of the first bosses from the original Shovel Knight game. On the surface, he looked to be one of the least interesting of the Order of No Quarter, a ridiculous dandy cosplaying as royalty. He is still definitely that, but Yacht Club makes King Knight a fun protagonist by leaning into his vanity and his goofiness. King Knight is like a bad Renaissance Fair actor who's gotten too far into his role. And he's a mama's boy, to boot. But as the story goes forward, Yacht Club not only leans into the more humorous elements of King Knight's character, it never forgets the very root of who he is, something that comes into play with the game's bittersweet ending.
Every Shovel Knight protagonist has played differently so far and King Knight is no exception. The biggest change is that he can't jump on enemies in the traditional manner. Instead, his offense involves performing a Wario-style shoulder tackle, which launches him into the air like a spinning top. Only when King Knight is spinning can he harm enemies by jumping on them. The regal villain also has a slew of gadgets that can help him out, like rats strapped with bombs, a New Super Mario Bros.-style bubble to save him from danger, and a flaming sword that gives him a little more height on his jumps. King Knight's equipment feels far more useful than his predecessors' gadgets and truly comes in handy near the end of the game.
This opens the door to some of Yacht Club's most clever level design to date, implementing challenging jumps and new mechanics that can hinder or otherwise alter King Knight's approach. The developer could have just as easily recycled earlier stages and concepts and called it a day, but Yacht Club has approached King of Cards stages in an entirely new way. Order of No Quarter stages aren't just one-offs, they're now split into three different levels, with the object mostly to make it to the goal at the end. Boss battles are less frequent, but no less challenging. While the other Order of No Quarter fights feel familiar, King of Cards does add some new battles that prove to be some of the toughest in the series. The Troupple King, for example, has players navigate a boat while looking for openings.
The sole source of frustration comes with the final boss battle, which will be a little tough to explain without going into spoilers. Yacht Club's affinity for the 8-bit gaming era includes a strong love for the sort of thing that used to make adults throw their controllers as kids. The final boss certainly falls into that category, but after the 15th death, it started to feel like it was more due to unfair design. While I got what they were aiming for, I grew increasingly frustrated by the boss' face causing damage, given how much screen space it took up. As for the other frustrating elements, you'll know them when you see them, and I certainly saw them as I saw myself die for the 35th time. (Yes, the end credits keeps tracks of how many times you die in each stage.)
To go into King of Cards' most fascinating innovation, let's go into the game's story. In an effort to fulfill his dream of becoming a king, King Knight's main goal is to win something called the Joustus tournament. Joustus is a card game that's played across the land. So yes, King of Cards, as it turns out, is part card game.
Joustus' rules are fairly complex at the beginning, with the idea to fill in the middle of the board while controlling the majority of the gems. Cards cannot be placed directly on the gems and players must follow the movement patterns on their cards in order push other cards onto the gems. If this sounds complicated, it certainly can be. However, it takes time to learn in the same way that Gwent from The Witcher took time to learn. There isn't enough depth in Joustus to carry it into a spin-off, the way Gwent has, but there's just enough to present challenges across the game's campaign.
Even if Joustus games prove to be frustrating, there are ways around it. Because he's King Knight, he's prone to cheat. So it's possible to buy cheat cards from Chester in order to make the game a little easier. The problem is that if you use your cheat and still manage to lose, your cheat is gone and you'll have to buy it all over again. So there is a small element of grind here. And you'll definitely lose more than one game of Joustus, especially as "boss" characters use their own cheats.
Joustus isn't a requirement to finish the game, but it's one of the most fascinating experiments to what's been a pretty formulaic Shovel Knight series. It truly makes King of Cards stand out and adds a great sense of levity to the campaign, especially since it gives more of the game's characters a chance to try out their comedic chops.
Anyone expecting King of Cards to be more of the same Shovel Knight formula will be stunned by how many new ideas Yacht Club brings to the table. The implementation of Joustus, the total overhaul of the level design, the flood of new and returning characters, the challenging boss battles, and the total expansion of the overworld map make King of Cards the developer's most ambitious outing so far.
It's also a strong way to put the Shovel Knight saga to bed, essentially bringing everything full-circle in such a way that it encourages players to go right back to the original Shovel Knight story. King of Cards is aces, in ways I never expected it to be.
This review is based on a Nintendo Switch code provided by the publisher. Shovel Knight: King of Cards is available now on PC, PlayStation 4, Xbox One, Nintendo Switch, PlayStation 3, Nintendo Wii U, and Nintendo 3DS. It is free for anyone who owns the core Shovel Knight game on any of those platforms, but it is also available as part of Shovel Knigh: Treasure Trove, available for $39.99. The game is rated E.
Shovel Knight: King of Cards
- King Knight uses fun and quirky moves
- Level design feels refreshed with new challenges
- Overworld expanded more than expected
- Humorous characters and fun story all the way through the end twist
- Joustus mixes up the platforming action with a one-on-one card game
- Old and remixed soundtrack leads to the best collection of tracks so far
- The final boss feels cheap
- Joustus rules can be difficult to understand
Ozzie Mejia posted a new article, Shovel Knight: King of Cards review - Crown jewel
I keep forgetting to get started on this. I also need to turn my Wii U back on to complete the collection there.
Hell yes, great review.
I'm enjoying it!