Shovel Knight has been praised for its ability to recapture fond memories of retro gaming. It’s a nostalgia-induced celebration of early video games like Castlevania, Super Mario Bros., and Mega Man. It looks and feels like something you could boot up on your NES – even using an NES-style controller for the button layout in the game manual.
Shovel Knight: King of Cards is the third expansion to the original Shovel Knight: Shovel of Hope story. Like previous add-on campaigns, it turns a boss from Shovel of Hope into a new playable character. It’s also the first to add a completely new game mechanic: the card game Joustus. You control King Knight as he journeys across the kingdom of Pridemoor to defeat the three Joustus Judges and be crowned the king of cards.
King of Cards is a royal send-off for the series, adding grandeur and finesse rather than introducing anything new. It’s also really, really hard; Shovel Knight and Cuphead are notable examples of modern games actively trying to recreate the retro aesthetic, and a big part of that is the difficulty. While King of Cards doesn’t drastically alter the formula the same way as Plague of Shadows or Specter of Torment, it retains the grinding difficulty the series is known for.
King of Cards Review | A king amongst knights
Shovel of Hope delivered impressive depth for an 8-bit game (and indeed a game with ‘shovel’ in the title). King of Cards’ story is certainly more comedic, leaving depth and, at times, any semblance of sense by the wayside.
King Knight, as much as he argues to the contrary, is not a king. He is merely a childish Knight who styles himself as a king in the hopes that he will one day become one. He is obnoxious and short-tempered, more keen on achieving victory via brawn than brains. He is intently focused on his quest to be crowned Joustus King, refusing to let anyone stand in his way. Fortunately, most of the story’s events sort of fall at his feet. Early on, you defeat Specter Knight, who decides to give you a base deck of Joustus cards as a reward. You learn the basics of the game at a nearby tavern and play some rounds against the patrons, before a chicken and a bard offer to fly you around the kingdom on their ship. The story is unapologetically bizarre and tongue-in-cheek, its humor compounded by King Knight’s entitled, childish attitude. There are grandiose insults on how bad his enemies smell and tantrums whenever his mom flirts with the current King of Pridemoor.
The journey to the Joustus Crown is not long if you want to take the quickest possible route. King of Cards is split into three maps – laid out in a similar style to Super Mario Bros. 3 – with a Joustus Judge near the end of each one. The quickest route isn’t necessarily the hardest; there are ways around any stage you want to avoid. But in King of Cards, the most challenging levels are often the most varied and the most fun.
King of Cards Review | Back in action
Shovel Knight is a beautiful take on the 8-bit era. It’s filled with bright and bold design, colorful characters and a bouncing chip-based soundtrack. But the heart of its retro appeal is in the control scheme.
You are limited to a jump and an attack (hence the idea of using an NES controller – although you do need a third button for your secondary attack). So, like most old-school games, skill stems from the precision and timing of your inputs. Your main attack is a horizontal charge, but colliding with anything will lift you upwards in a spinning motion, letting you do damage to anything you land on. You can also buy a variety of weapons, from a hammer that recovers hearts to a shield that absorbs damage and fires it back at enemies. Despite the limited input, King of Cards’ combat creates an excellent ebb and flow that yet again reimagines how you approach the game – which is important as every Shovel Knight campaign uses many of the same stages, enemies and bosses as the original. The feeling of familiarity might creep in a little sooner in King of Cards, as King Knight plays more similarly to Shovel Knight than other playable bosses.
Using a controller is recommended over a keyboard, as is using the D-pad over analog sticks. You need the tactile feel of directional arrows to perform King of Cards’ harder platforming sections, and things sure do get hard.
King of Cards Review | Unruly difficulty
When you get into a rhythm, you can clear some stages in one fluid set of actions. Others will test you time and again until you finally crack the code – or get by on sheer luck. King of Cards is happy to tread that fine line between challenging and infuriating. I’m 90% sure that my every failed attempt was due to user error and not a fault of the game. But that doesn’t stop my patience wearing wafer-thin. At these points, King of Cards can start to feel repetitive – the soundtrack grows incessant, your inputs don’t quite match up with what happens on screen (why else would he fail that jump? why?); the amount of coins you lose upon death seems increasingly cruel, checkpoints seem unfairly infrequent. You start to question the challenges King of Cards asks you to complete, like draining a boss’ final two hearts in total darkness.
As I mentioned, there is usually a way around any level that becomes too much. But the structure of each stage means that you’re inches away from the finish line by the time doubt creeps in. Each level starts out easy, introducing you to a new mechanic that helps you traverse the level. Slowly, more obstacles and enemies appear each one pushing your reactions and temperament to their limits. Maps are full of bonus levels and secret pathways, each one neatly embedded into the main experience. A rope dangles in front of you, unassumingly, as it will only take you a couple of extra minutes to complete. You only realize your mistake 20 minutes later when you finally finish and all your money is gone. Those familiar with Shovel Knight have come to expect and even relish in its unforgiving nature, and King of Cards’ provides more of the same.
King of Cards Review | The game of Joustus
Breaking up combat and platforming is Joustus. The rules are simple: you must end the game with your cards covering the majority of gems on the board. Cards cannot be placed directly onto gem spaces, but must instead be pushed via each card’s directional arrows. The tutorial lays everything out, but Joustus has a steep learning curve. Things get more complex when opposite arrows negate one another, stronger arrows overpower weaker ones, and special cards introduce abilities such as pushing every turn or switching the color of other cards.
It took me several attempts (by which I mean losses) before I got to grips with it. Still, the premise is simple enough that I enjoyed the process. But there are moments where Joustus seems too unforgiving. After each round, the winner takes a card from the loser’s deck, creating situations where the game asks you to beat an opponent with an increasingly weaker hand. Persistence will almost always prevail – just get used to hearing the ‘you lose’ soundbite over and over again.
If you’re not much for card games, you can skip the taverns and conquer Pridemoor by force. But I found Joustus to be a welcome respite from King of Cards’ more taxing levels.
King of Cards Review | A worthy sendoff
Joustus is also a welcome addition because King of Cards is probably the least experimental of the Shovel Knight expansions, choosing instead to stick to the series’ roots. Fans are sure to see that as a positive and rightly so – King of Cards is certainly a sendoff fit for a king.
King of Cards was released alongside Shovel Knight Showdown, the new multiplayer mode that includes all playable characters. The two new expansions mean that Shovel Knight Treasure Trove – the complete collection of all things Shovel Knight – now contains every Kickstarter stretch goal the developer laid out back in 2014.
TechRaptor reviewed Shovel Knight: King of Cards on PC with a copy provided by the developer.