When Yacht Club Games formed way back in the distant sepia-toned past (2011), there was a good amount of buzz around a studio predominantly staffed by WayForward veterans. The prospect of outstanding pixel-art gaming was then fulfilled when Shovel Knight was unveiled in 2013, with the game going on to have a hugely successful Kickstarter campaign. It then became a true evergreen title, with regular content updates — fulfilling Kickstarter stretch goals — keeping sales high years after release; it even had multiple amiibo figures. When the annals are written about Indie success stories of the 2010s, Shovel Knight will be front and centre.

Yacht Club Games has naturally grown since then, last year publishing the excellent Cyber Shadow and co-developing Shovel Knight Pocket Dungeon. Yet the sheer scope and volume of Shovel Knight expansions has somewhat restricted the core development team's ability to make something entirely new. As revealed this week, though, the studio is finally ready to start sharing its 'next big thing', Mina the Hollower. We've given an early PC build a whirl, too.

Much like with Shovel Knight, it's pretty easy to draw early comparisons to retro classics, and in this case we have a blend of Castlevania in terms of the setting and items (more on them soon), and top-down Game Boy Color Zelda. In fact the world and characters are chunky enough that Link's Awakening is a decent comparison, with this early iteration going big on hefty pixels rather than the tighter 'modern retro' look we often see.

As is the curse of early access demos, our initial minutes were spent just testing every button to figure out the controls (having foolishly ignored a mini manual that was provided). Mina the Hollower, like Shovel Knight, has some layers of complexity to grasp, which is a good thing as we envision how a full campaign will shake out. Mina has a Link-style somersault jump and a basic four-direction whip, but there are other key details we had to understand quickly, as it's not a game to show much mercy.

For example, the health potion system. You have a limited number of potions to drink, but they only fill the yellow 'plasma' section of your bar, which seems to relate to how aggressive you've been in hitting and killing enemies, making it a risk-reward system. When we died, which was relatively frequent, there was also an orb that would be dropped, the Spark Orb. Yes, it's the classic mechanic from Dark Souls — if you get back to the orb and retrieve it you keep your 'Bones' (currency for items and levelling up), but if you die again the orb and your Bones are gone forever.

Even checkpoints are only just generous enough, with some long-ish and tricky treks to retrieve our orbs; yes, dear reader, we lost a few.

This is a tough game, which is normal for Yacht Club Games' output; after all, Shovel Knight got pretty tasty in later stages and the expansions. It's also a lot of fun, as we found ourselves drawn into that familiar loop of irritation at dying, and then going into try-hard mode. Even checkpoints are only just generous enough, with some long-ish and tricky treks to retrieve our orbs; yes, dear reader, we lost a few.

A bit like in Dark Souls, balancing is maybe something that can improve as development progresses. Early-ish in the demo there are some enemies that are so fast that no matter how frantically you attack with the whip, it breaks through and gets a hit. You can try hopping over them of course — and it's on us to git gud — but there were a few deaths that flirted on the line between being tough or cheap. At one point we spent a bunch of Bones on boots to minimise the brutal knockback, but it didn't help much on narrow bridges with crows dive bombing us.

Another area we'd like to see improve a little as development progresses is movement and control. It is mostly excellent, but Mina is a tad more slippery than is typical for top-down games like this. When you add high difficulty to movement that doesn't always feel perfectly tight, there's a little frustration.

Minor complaints aside (and it is an early build), there's a lot to like. Mina's moveset shows a potential to flesh out beautifully in the full game. Secondary weapons follow Castlevania classics like the arching axe throw and the horizontal sword throw, but this time with that Zelda-esque top-down perspective. As the demo progressed, encounters required clever tactical use of these sub-weapons, with screens that reminded us of the developer's mastery of level design.

That mastery applies to its approach to teaching a player, too. No prompt windows, it all relies on the player experimenting, learning the signposting and finding solutions. Hidden walls apply this way, and a clever move of Mina's to burrow down and move a little underground is also taught without any handholding. We found that latter move a bit fiddly to execute at times, but the way it's incorporated into challenges is excellent.

And, as per Yacht Club Games tradition, boss fights are impressive, teeth gnashing affairs. Visually and mechanically a boss we fought was clever and also gruelling, and we found ourselves trying to call upon every item and trick the game had taught us. We still died.

Jake Kaufman is back doing the soundtrack and good grief, it is brilliant.

In terms of the presentation, the visuals pop as you'd expect. That said, we think a few tweaks could be necessary in terms of the art design. It looks good, the chunky pixels are pleasing on the eye, but some of the layering and colouring could be initially confusing in terms of parsing objects that were obstacles and so on. This was only an issue on a small number of screens, but in those few cases it lacked the visual clarity of the classics it builds upon.

Sound design, though, is outstanding across the board. Jake Kaufman is back doing the soundtrack and good grief, it is brilliant.

After battling our way through the demo, and dying a lot, we were ultimately left excited by what we played. After years of Shovel Knight expansions, publishing projects and spin-offs made alongside other studios, Mina the Hollower feels like an excellent return for the core team of Yacht Club Games. By venturing into a new IP and a new playstyle, too, the studio is able to flex its creative muscles; that is definitely a good thing.

We're looking forward to seeing and playing more.