Shovel Knight: King of Cards is at least as good as fellow DLC campaigns Plague of Shadows and Specter of Torment, which is already high praise. But it is evident that every level of this adventure was crafted by a team firing on all cylinders. With this release, Yacht Club Games has solidified itself as the premier developer of platformer games. Oh, and it also includes a card game.
Becoming a king of cards
Shovel Knight: King of Cards follows King Knight on his adventure to becoming an actual king, as opposed to a weird guy with a crown living with his mother. He soon gains an airship as his base of operations, which amasses a huge group of shipmates and supporters as the narrative progresses. Ultimately, the story is light, quirky, and fun, with the highlight being how flustered King Knight gets whenever a certain gentleman flirts with his mom.
King Knight’s basic attack is a shoulder charge (borrowed from Wario in Wario Land) that is immune to gravity and always goes straight forward. If he collides with an enemy or a normal wall, he jumps into a drilling twirl maneuver that hits anything under his feet, hurting enemies or breaking blocks. If he hits something with his twirl, he can continue twirling or do another shoulder charge in midair. These two attacks alone offer a huge amount of unique combat and mobility situations, making for thrilling gameplay. But since his base attacks inherently require him to throw his body at enemies, there is more risk to playing as King Knight compared to as other Shovel Knight protagonists.
Purchasable items that require weapon energy offer the usual assortment of extra attack and mobility options. There is an attack that sends you careening to the other side of the screen, a spinning fire sword attack, a shield that absorbs damage and redirects it back, and a bubble that keeps you floating safely in the air, among other options. Their use is optional, but the bubble will likely save your life.
There are purchasable extra abilities and different armor types as well, plus health and weapon energy expansions. By far, the most surprising and useful ability is one that makes King Knight cry, gradually restoring five hearts at no cost, which seems to be usable once per life. The move is also a great reflection of his personality in King of Cards — an arrogant egomaniac who is basically still a little boy.
The king of gameplay
The adventure is divided into three-ish worlds across an overworld map, but unlike in previous Shovel Knight campaigns, King of Cards’ levels have myriad hidden exits. Finding them opens paths to new levels. This mechanic (and other aspects of the game design) is directly inspired by Super Mario World, but unlike that game, King of Cards makes no effort to hide the fact that more levels are available on the world map. Rather, exploiting hidden exits makes it possible to skip past a ton of levels, but you almost certainly won’t want to.
Every level of the game has some unique platforming mechanic to offer, with new elements still being introduced during the final levels. The amount of variety on display is dizzying yet awe-inspiring, and it never feels like Yacht Club Games is just throwing half-baked gimmicks at you. Every level feels like an organic extension of what has come before, using the gameplay fundamentals in smart new ways to keep you engaged.
And the difficulty feels fair throughout. Seasoned players will have little issue progressing if they make use of all the options at their disposal, but the game could become brutal fast for those who, for instance, dare not to buy health upgrades. King of Cards can become as easy or difficult as you want it to be all through organic options.
Finding the three medals within each level adds a bit of extra replay value, and beating the game unlocks the usual short Challenge levels to further extend the game’s life. Regardless, King of Cards is the biggest Shovel Knight campaign: I played only a paltry amount of its included card game, and my first playthrough still ended at just shy of 9 hours.
Play Joustus as much (or as little) as you want
Joustus is a collectible card game that practically everybody plays in King of Cards, and you can buy cards or find special cards in levels. The game is all about card placement on a board, trying to push the opponent’s cards aside to collect gems and win. Unfortunately, Joustus only receives one short tutorial that really isn’t enough to absorb the game’s mechanics, which keep evolving as better cards become available. And it’s certainly not enough to understand how to build a strategy.
I suppose the intent is for players to learn as they go, but because losing a match almost always comes with a penalty of losing one of your cards, Joustus features a disproportionately high amount of risk in the beginning. Risk-averse people (like me) will probably just not enjoy it. Those who thrive on high stakes and enjoy old Final Fantasy card games might love it though.
The good news is Joustus is entirely optional. Beating opponents unlocks more medals, but they’re not crucial to unlocking most power-ups. If you don’t love it, you don’t need to play it.
Shovel Knight: King of Cards is an experience not to be missed
Shovel Knight: King of Cards is an almost flawless platforming experience, between King Knight’s unique mobility and the endless variety of levels. Joustus could have used more tutorials, and the game recycles a lot of existing assets. But considering this is cheap DLC (which is free if you own Treasure Trove), who cares? Shovel Knight: King of Cards offers some of the best platforming game design ever seen in a video game.
While you’re here, check out our review of Shovel Knight Showdown too!
A review code was provided by the publisher.