Shovel Knight is defined by its likeness to games from the era of 8-bit consoles. It takes inspiration from games like Mega Man and Ducktales not only in its pixel- and pitch-perfect audiovisual aesthetic, but also in its mechanics--Shovel Knight is a resolutely unforgiving 2D platformer. Peril is almost always present on screen--be it a bottomless pit or a tough enemy that can quickly whittle down your health--making this a game that demands your undivided attention as much as it does your quick reflexes. Specter of Torment is the latest expansion to Shovel Knight, a prequel that's available as a standalone campaign on Nintendo Switch or a free update to those who already own the main game, and it follows the titular Specter Knight as he sets out to gather an army for the series' primary antagonist, The Enchantress.
Specter Knight's default skillset is dramatically more varied than that of Shovel Knight, with a focus on the lightness and dexterity of his character, as opposed to Shovel Knight's heavier, brute-force feel. Specter Knight has an innate ability to wall jump, mount ledges, and vertically scale walls for a short time. Most significantly, Specter has the ability to perform a mid-air scythe dash on enemies and certain environmental objects, an attack which sends him flying at an angle and is used for traversal as much as it is for offence.
The execution of these moves is simple, requiring nothing more than a timely press of the attack or jump buttons, and together they make Specter feel like a powerfully agile character who is a joy to control. But with these abilities come more difficult challenges in Specter of Torment's new platforming levels. Unlike Shovel Knight, whose stages gradually grew in difficulty and were gated in an overworld map style reminiscent of Super Mario Bros. 3, Specter of Torment presents you with the full selection of what I personally found to be equally-challenging stages and their accompanying boss fights, available to be tackled in any order in a structure more reminiscent of the Mega Man series.
Bottomless pits and other instant-death hazards feel more abundant in Specter of Torment, and proceeding forward almost always involves more than just careful jumping. Stages often require you to chain a series of movements together in order to keep Specter Knight airborne for extended periods of time over treacherous ground, and one fumbled execution could mean a complete do-over. You might climb the side of a wall to get you just enough height to wall-jump towards a series of swinging chandeliers, letting you scythe-dash into each one and eventually fling yourself across the room to mantle an opposing wall. Managing to reach a checkpoint after perfectly overcoming a series of obstacles without fumbles or fatalities is always a thrilling relief. The dexterous demands of performing these moves means that progress always feels satisfying and well-earned, even when it feels second-nature.
Each themed stage adds its own unique mechanical twists to the game's platforming which need to be internalised too. There are some incredibly memorable ones such as scythe surfing, which sees Specter Knight ride his scythe like a skateboard and grind rails to move through stages at speed--but otherwise the majority will be familiar to those who have played the main Shovel Knight game, albeit with minor twists to better accommodate Specter's abilities. This is unsurprising, given the game's prequel nature and the appearance of many of the same characters and worlds, but the new level designs still feel more demanding.
Specter of Torment also features many of the same formidable level bosses as the original Shovel Knight, and although many of the battles with them seem a bit too similar to their previous appearances, some are altered significantly to make the most of Specter's mobility, and can come as an enjoyable surprise to those familiar. The fight with Propeller Knight, for example, no longer takes place on a static platform, but in the midst of many tiny, cascading airships, requiring you to continually scramble upwards while dodging attacks.
The completion of each level allows you to purchase additional Curios, Specter of Torment's unique version of Shovel Knight's Relics, which allow for the use of special abilities at the cost of a consumable meter. Each Curio has its own distinct use to aid in the dispatching of enemies or to ease the burden of traversal. For example, the Hover Plume gives Specter Knight the ability to float in mid-air for a short duration, and Judgement Rush allows Specter to ignore pits and walls and teleport directly to an enemy. Each tool adds an interesting new facet to the way you can approach Specter of Torment's levels, but the entirety of the game can be completed without using them. I found that relying on Curios diminished the sense of satisfaction that came from overcoming difficult obstacles using only Specter Knight's base skillset, and tended to avoid them.
Much of what made the original Shovel Knight a success can also be found in Specter Knight. Level designs also cleverly act as intuitive tutorials, demonstrating the possibilities and limits of what you can and can't do in particular stages without explicit explanation. Shovel Knight's penchant for rewarding exploration is also still present. Secret paths and areas are strewn throughout the game's stages and hub world. Some are obvious, but some can come as a small surprise to those who are willing to push the limits of the traversal abilities. The game's checkpoint system--which allows you to actually destroy a checkpoint for monetary reward at the risk of having to re-traverse more of the level upon death--is still a clever mechanic. And Shovel Knight's sense of humor and charm still manage to shine through, despite Specter of Torment's more melancholic tone. Small moments like watching a reunited skeleton couple perform a waltz, playing with a cat, or simply enjoying the lighthearted dialog of NPCs provide nice moments of levity.
While it only took us a few hours in total to complete the game's story mode, Specter of Torment felt well-paced and never unnecessarily short. The density of challenge contained within its individual stages meant that I was always entirely concentrated on the next obstacle, but Specter of Torment attempts to pace its demands on your mental state every few levels with short, interactive narrative interludes that serve as an enjoyable prequel to this prequel campaign. Specter of Torment also offers a new game plus option upon completion with a slightly more demanding health mechanic, and also offers a challenge mode which presents a variety of platforming and boss fight trials under strict restraints.
Specter of Torment is a finely-crafted 2D platformer that is satisfying in all respects. Simply controlling Specter Knight--flying through the air and slicing through enemies--is a joy in itself, and being able to push your ability to control these skills in overcoming the game's cleverly-designed and challenging levels is always an exhilarating feeling. Specter of Torment is a focussed, polished, and satisfyingly challenging game that's well worth experiencing whether or not you've had the pleasure of playing Shovel Knight.