If you’re in love with Shovel Knight, you’ll no doubt be eager to get your hands on the latest expansion/sequel King of Cards. Unfortunately, however, it’s bound to be the most divisive yet.
In Shovel Knight: King of Cards you take control of King Knight. With aspirations to be the King of Cards he hatches a plan to take down the three champions of Joustus, a card game that’s popular throughout the kingdom. And while there is plenty of Joustus to be played, the King Knight is thinking a little outside the box when it comes to besting them.
In what is assuredly the most unique Shovel Knight adventure yet, you’ll find that King Knight can’t attack in the traditional way. Press the attack button and he barges forward, travelling a fair distance unless he meets an enemy or object. Much of the time when he comes into contact he’ll pirouette up into the air, unless you press the attack button again quickly to instead commence a roll. And so to damage enemies you either need to shoulder barge or roll into them, or pirouette on their heads. Also, the pirouette is the only way to destroy blocks underfoot and dig into gem piles.
Thanks to King Knight’s unconventional moves, King of Cards‘ platforming stages are more puzzle-like than ever. Using the King Knight’s pirouette to reach areas is a must: you might need to charge against a wall, for example, then pirouette on multiple light fixtures before performing another charge to a platform. Needless to say, his unusual moveset is both a source of frustration and a unique game mechanic. Even the most basic enemies become a nightmare to deal with given a lack of space, and simple platforming tasks become much more of a challenge.
You get the sense that the added challenge is accepted. Levels are shorter, and you can also acquire a skill early on in the game that allows you to restore all of your life by crying your heart out. Enemies, including bosses, also frequently drop hearts to keep you topped up. But still, even with all of this additional help, King of Cards can be more frustrating than any prior Shovel Knight game. Dare I say it? It’s not particularly fun.
The usual platforming and boss bashing is only half of what Shovel Knight: King of Cards offers, though. The card game Joustus plays more of a role than just being a part of the story. It’s an actual card game that you can play throughout your adventure, though you don’t have to, and if you want to succeed you’ll need to build a great deck.
Winning in Joustus requires you to control more gems on a board than your opponent by the time the centre slots are filled. You can’t simply place your cards on gems though: you need to push cards onto them instead. Each card can push in one or more directions, though if met with a card pushing in the opposite direction it can’t be played. To that end, things get quite tactical, with each player pushing each others’ cards to try to gain the upper hand.
You can cheat if you want: a vendor will sell you numerous tricks to assure you victory. You might be tempted to at times, too, what with certain opponents having pesky special skills. Win, and not only will you receive some gold and a medal, but you’ll also be able to steal one or more of your opponent’s cards. Lose, and you might possibly forfeit one or more of your own.
Platforming makes up the brunt of Shovel Knight: Kings of Cards though, and aside from the King Knight’s unique abilities it’s pretty much business as usual. There are checkpoints in each stage that can be destroyed if you want more rewards, feats to complete, upgrades to acquire and whole host of heirlooms providing special abilities to purchase, powered by vigor. It’s a pretty big adventure, too. You could perhaps blast through the story in a few hours if you’re skilled, but if you want to see everything the game has to offer, there’s easily ten or so hours of content.
Of course, King of Cards is wrapped up in the same quirky 8-bit style as always, and the soundtrack, retro as it may be, gets stuck in your head. This is unmistakably Shovel Knight, only with a card game thrown in for good measure, and with attacking your enemies and getting about being much more troublesome.
It’s my least favourite of the Shovel Knight entries, but with the bar raised so high, that doesn’t mean that King of Cards isn’t worth your time. Plus, if you already own Shovel Knight: Treasure Trove you get it included in that for free anyway, so you may as well give it a go. I feel like Shovel Knight: King of Cards is going to be like Marmite: some will love it and others will hate it. Though “hate” might be too strong a word. Rather they just won’t be as enamoured with it as other Shovel Knight releases.