Shovel Knight: Plague of Shadows

A game expansion for Shovel Knight by Yacht Club Games, originally released in 2015.
In the year following the release of Shovel Knight, the developer returned to the game with free DLC that added a new playable character in the form of Plague Knight, who appeared as one of the bosses in the original game. With an add-on character, players might expect a very similar gameplay experience, with the character having functionally identical abilities to the original protagonist. However, this is far from the case…

The DLC, entitled Plague of Shadows, offers an entirely new storyline centered around Plague Knight as he attempts to develop a potion that will grant him ultimate power. As it turns out, the recipe calls for the essences of the knights of the Order of No Quarter, which requires Plague Knight to defeat them in battle and steal this essence from each of them.

In order to accomplish this task, Plague Knight teams up with Mona, a potion maker who is a bit sweet on him, although he is oblivious to her advances. As he collects essences, he brings them back to Mona to process through her machinery and add to the grand concoction. She also helps him on his journey by selling upgrades and enhancements to modify his projectiles.

Unlike Shovel Knight, who is a melee-based character, Plague Knight’s movements and combat abilities center around the use of various types of explosive projectiles. So, even though the player is revisiting all of the same areas from his original adventure – with a few new paths and secrets to be found – the way in which he navigates these environments and deals with enemies has changed completely. This includes somewhat more slippery movement as Plague Knight skids to a halt when slowing down or changing directions.

Shovel Knight had a higher than average platforming jump, which ne needed in order to navigate the world and get above enemies to use his downward-facing bouncing shovel attack. Plague Knight, on the other hand, only has a 1x nonvariable jump and a double jump that grants him a bit of extra height. He also moves somewhat more slowly, making him less capable at basic environmental navigation.

However, by tossing a bomb and continuing to hold the ATTACK button, Plague Knight builds up a charge, and letting of the button causes him to boost upward quickly. This move can be used in combination with the double jump to send Plague Knight soaring into the air, reaching heights that would have been impossible with Shovel Knight… but the tradeoff is that boost-jumping is harder to control, as Plague Knight moves very quickly and has no midair direction control (at least until a certain upgrade is acquired).

The boost jump can be used on its own or in combination with the player’s regular jump and/or double jump abilities, allowing for a number of options when dealing with platforming challenges. Players can boost upward after walking off a ledge, or perform all three jump types in succession for a high vertical leap. Players may also opt to jump and then boost jump to leap great distances, followed by a double jump to give them a bit of extra control when attempting to stick the landing.

The player is introduced to these basic mechanics at the start of the first level, as he is presented with a barrier that is too tall to overcome with his jump or double jump, and different types of jumps are required in order to reach the end of the stage.

Players will recognize some minor differences in level construction in Plague of Shadows, such as the area where Shovel Knight originally encounters rising bubbles that he needs to bounce on with his shovel in order to reach a tall ledge. Here, there are no bubbles, and Plague Knight must use his enhanced jumping abilities to reach the platform instead.

In fact, Plague Knight has no downward attack and therefore cannot jump onto bubbles as Shovel Knight could, so when he reaches areas that have bubbles floating over bottomless pits, he has to boost jump completely over them rather than hopping across.

The sleeping dragon miniboss that appears twice in the first area poses more of a threat because he spits out bubbles that must be avoided rather than acting as platforms to put the player in a position to deliver a downward strike on the dragon’s head.

At the start of the game, Plague Knight comes equipped with a set of three bombs that he can toss at a downward angle, and these bounce along for a bit before exploding. These bombs automatically explode when coming in contact with an enemy or destructible object, and players can break blocks above them by charging and boost jumping into them.

Money earned by killing enemies and hunting for treasure may be spent in Mona’s shop to purchase a number of upgrades and enhancements to these abilities. In addition, each level (including optional levels) has a number of green coins spread throughout – called Cipher Coins – and these may be collected and given to Mona to research new upgrades. This sets up a tiered upgrade system, as it’s not possible to grind your way to all of the best gear at the start of the game. That said, later tiers offer different abilities rather than more powerful abilities, simply offering new combat options… the game can beaten without purchasing a single upgrade.

Upgrades come in four varieties: case, powder, fuse, and burst. The bomb’s case determines how it is thrown. By default, bombs are tossed at a downward angle, but the proper upgrade allows players to lob them into the air – great for aerial enemies and some bosses – or drop them straight down. Powder determines how the bomb explodes, such as sending a shockwave outward or sending fire crawling up the walls and around corners, making it easier to damage distant enemies. However, the powder type also determines how many bombs the player can throw, potentially reducing his triple bomb toss down to one or two. Lastly, the fuse determines how long the bomb will stay active before it explodes, with short and long fuses available, as well as remote detonation.

Finally, there is the burst upgrade, which determines what happens when the player initiates a boost jump. While many of these include secondary attacks, the first upgrade available is called Float Burst, which allows Plague Knight to fall slowly downward from any boost jump. This upgrade is very useful for basic environmental navigation, particularly when lining up long leaps, hopping over bottomless pits, and landing on narrow or moving platforms.

Once the player has purchased these upgrades, he is free to mix and match them as he likes to suit his general playstyle, or switch over to deal with a troublesome enemy and then switch back. Some more powerful combinations allow the player to toss multiple bombs that build up into a huge explosion and ones that seek out nearby enemies, allowing for some strategic combinations that are effective against the game’s many bosses.

As in the original game, the player must face off against each of the Order of No Quarter, and there are a number of optional boss encounters that are accessible from the world map. Each of these encounters is preceded by some humorous dialogue as the knights question Plague Knight’s intentions for visiting them, and Plague Knight takes joy in his quest to defeat them. Interestingly, the battle at the end of Plague Knight’s own domain takes place against Shovel Knight… setting up an interesting sequence when the player wins the battle.

The player has a number of indirect encounters with the blue knight on his journey, such as seeing Shovel Knight running into town while Plague Knight sneaks in through the sewers. NPC’s react to Plague Knight appropriately, with the town guard refusing his admittance and passersby running away from him. As such, he is not able to enter either of the towns in a traditional manner.

Players familiar with the game’s level layouts will find destructible walls and secrets easy to uncover, and Plague Knight is also able to find music sheets to bring back to town (although the execution is quite different here). He is also able to uncover the same relics that Shovel Knight did, even though he can’t use them himself. Whenever Plague Knight encounters one, he jokes about it being useless junk.

However, finding these relics comes in handy when the player encounters a large blue treasure chest and the oddball shopkeeper inside. The shopkeeper will offer to sell Plague Knight a new magical ability at a price, or he will take the level’s relic in trade and give it to Plague Knight at no cost. These upgrades include things like a potion that lets Plague Knight earn back health by killing enemies, as well as gameplay-altering abilities such as performing quick forward dashes and creating floating platforms at will, each of which consumes a bit of magic when used.

As Plague Knight makes progress, he slowly earns additional units in his life meter, but he can also temporarily extend the meter on his own… An interesting health mechanic is in place where Plague Knight can consume a potion to add one unit of health to his meter, and these effects are stackable, allowing him to add several additional units. This extra health remains in place until Plague Knight is killed – which can happen quickly in areas with bottomless pits or spikes – allowing players to buff their health at will. However, since the player’s potion stores are severely limited and potion pickups are infrequent, they must be used sparingly.

It is interesting to see a developer revisit a game to create a character whose abilities are such a vast departure from that of the original protagonist, and a whole new set of challenges open up as the player attempts to navigate shovel-centric environments with a bomb-powered wizard. That said, the fact that Plague Knight’s jump height is so low presents some pacing issues in a number of areas. Where Shovel Knight could just hop up onto a mid-height platform, Plague Knight must often charge a boost jump in order to mount the same platform, slowing down the action somewhat since these platforms can’t even be reached with a double jump.

Plague of Shadows is an expansion for Shovel Knight by Yacht Club Games. Our full coverage of the game and its expansions may be found here.