I love retro gaming, so I'll be the first one to admit that, sometimes, to go back to the classics is to swallow a bitter pill. Sometimes they just don't hold up quite like we hope they would. We tend to think of the games we played as kids like a high-schooler thinks about his or her ex, remembering only the highlights of the relationship and missing those as if they were representative of the whole.
I'm glad to say that Specter of Torment, the third part and prequel to what is currently a trio of story campaigns set within the Shovel Knight universe, is one 8-bit treasure that is absolutely able to challenge, entertain, and delight modern audiences. It's a wholesome and thoughtful adventure fit for gamers of any age, and even if you don't have a soft spot for pixel art and chiptunes (what's wrong with you?!), Specter of Torment is still likely to stand out as an exemplar of intentional level design and clever storytelling.
Specter Knight will provide a vastly different feeling and play-style for all who are already familiar with Plague Knight and Shovel Knight. Our pensive, tortured hero has the spooky ability to run up most walls and vertical surfaces; he can catch and flip over ledges; he can also flip his scythe 'neath his feat and grind on rails.
Specter Knight is also able to perform a "Dash Slash." This special attack allows Specter Knight to lock on to an enemy or obstacle while airborne and perform a special attack which sees Specty rend the air and tear forward with his scythe. While in the air it's possible to perform Dash Slashses on things above or below you, and when slashing upward, this basically serves as a double jump, allowing you to reach new places or seek out secret treasures.
In fact, if you have enough floating or rotating objects to lock onto (see gif above), Specter Knight is able to Dash Slash back and forth, up and down, remaining in the air indefinitely until a platform comes along, a hazard clears out of the way, or an opening to strike an opponent presents itself. Perfecting the Dash Slash is the key to remaining highly mobile -- and highly lethal. This, along with the previously-mentioned elements of mobility, make Specter Knight an incredibly agile and capable platformer, and Yacht Club Games makes sure that you use his abilities to the utmost.
The stage designs in Specter of Torment are impressive and devious indeed. Many sights and sounds will be familiar for loyal Shovel Knight patrons, but make no mistake: Specter of Torment is a wholly unique campaign with its own hand-crafted levels, wonderful new mixes of tunes and medleys, and challenges worthy Specter Knight's abilities (and your skill). I encountered multiple platforming challenges that had me squeezing my controller in rage, but I found in much greater measure sequences and stretches of gameplay that made me beam with pleasure. This game is damn fun to play.
Boss fights serve as a very welcome reprieve from the tough-as-nails platforming. Each stage ramps up in difficulty at a consistent pace, so by the time you finally reach the boss, it's nice to know that you only have one more challenge to tackle, and like in past campaigns, you'll primarily be using one attack to 'persuade' these knights to join you. The Dash Slash is the new pogo! With Shovel Knight it just makes since to pogo on top of a boss as long as possible so as to deal as much damage as you can before they launch an attack sequence.
As Specter Knight, staying airborne and Dash Slashing repeatedly is the go-to method when dealing with pretty much any boss, but some bosses will switch things up enough to force you to think on your feet. The final showdown is a spectacle that flips the normal combat loop on its head; prepare for that. 'Curios' also bring further strategy and novelty to the longer battles.
Throughout each stage are hidden many red skulls, which you'll want to collect and bring to a certain skeletal vendor who resides in the Tower of Fate. This love-struck sack of bones is looking for the skull of his lost lover, and is willing to offer you many curios (think relics) which grant Specter Knight wonderful powers. Some of the simpler curios are the most imminently useful, like a special skull that restores your life (which is called "will" in this game). Other curios let you throw miniature scythes, float for a limited time, or home in on an enemy from far away with a special attack.
Curios will offer you a lot of great offensive abilities, but they're equally useful for exploring your surroundings. Specter of Torment rewards you for poking around and checking ever corner for secrets and treasure. Most of the time, if you're willing to go looking for something, you'll find something worth looking for.
Your home base, the Tower of Fate, houses many secrets of its own, and it's my very earnest wish that all of you get to discover all of those secrets for yourself. There are characters who aren't what they seem. There's a playful and wealthy cat-creature waiting to be entertained. There is an incredible dance number just waiting to be triggered (of course there's a dance).
I was charmed to see that with every Knight defeated and recruited, different minions and followers would populate the Tower of Fate with their own little personalities and quips. Make sure that you don't mistakenly breeze through the Tower of Fate as an interim space meant only for armor upgrades, curios acquisition, and stage selection. Walk around explore; take in the sights; talk to everyone, often.
Specter of Torment weaves a touching and effective tale that plays out with brevity. It's a tale of loss, duty, and love that I think will surprise you. If you really enjoy yourself, your first playthrough should yield about 5-6 hours of play time, and you'll be treated to a story that gives the world of Shovel Knight much more context and weight. Characters major and minor are connected and given a significant place within what is generally a very light-hearted canon. There are some hilarious cameos and setups that will hit home with anyone familiar with the previous campaigns, and the entire package comes off as a complete labor of love, from the opening stage to the scenes that unfold throughout the credits.
If for no other reason, that's why I can absolutely recommend Specter of Torment to you. It's a game that feels like it was made with love, and it's a game that I loved playing. Yacht Club Games has an invigorating passion and respect for its characters and its community, and that shines through in the work of these talented developers, programmers, artists, and creators. What's more, it's one of the only 8-bit games you'll boot up years from now and actually enjoy as much you remember and hoped.
WWG's Score: 4.5 / 5