The new Shovel Knight expansion has finally dropped, and while it may not be an entirely new game in the Shovel Knight franchise it still brings enough new content and ideas that it warrants a sort-of-review. Remember, this expansion is entirely free with the game, we're just going to share our thoughts on it and how it differs from the main campaign.
Plague of Shadows follows the adventure of Plague Knight, a fan favourite character who was one of Shovel Knight's foes in the original game. Each of the other members of the Order of No Quarter is in possession of an "essence" that's a crucial ingredient in the Ultimate Potion that he's trying to brew up. This provides a convenient excuse to run through all of the same levels and bosses again, but things are kept interesting by the witty dialogue and a subtle love story sub plot. It's particularly interesting to see how characters respond differently this time around, such as how a guard won't let Plague Knight into the village due to his infamous reputation. Rest assured, the story is entertaining throughout the lengthy campaign and also does an excellent job of fleshing out Plague Knight more as a character.
Gameplay is the same - generally speaking - but Plague Knight possesses a completely different moveset and the stages have all been redesigned around this. You'll still be fighting the same enemies, hunting for treasure chests and visiting the same locations; yet everything has been switched up this time around with a whole slew of new collectibles, secrets, and power-ups to keep things interesting and mostly prevent you from feeling déjà vu. One major takeaway is that this campaign seems to be more difficult than the original, as Plague Knight's chaotic abilities - such as the triple jump - open the door to some devilishly difficult platforming challenges. Make no mistake, you will die a lot.
The switch from Shovel Knight to Plague Knight affects more than just the character you play as, with several new game mechanics nearly seamlessly replacing others. For one, Plague Knight's health bar is significantly smaller than Shovel Knight's, but it can be boosted by drinking consumable health potions that have a catch. Each one adds one more cell to your health bar, but if you fall in battle you lose all the cells that were added by drinking them. This adds an excellent layer of strategy to stages, as the player must decide when to best use their limited supply of potions to give the health bar a bit of a boost.
Another interesting switch up is the new equipment system that's been employed. Plague Knight primarily fights by tossing lots of volatile bomb potions and there's plenty of scope for customising the perfect bomb that suits your play style best. Players can spend coins back at the lab to buy new fuses, casings and powders that affect when the bomb explodes, how the bomb is tossed, and what explosion results. Different bombs are useful in different situations, leading to a combat system that feels a little more in depth than the original campaign. Plague Knight also has his own system of alchemy themed relics called Arcana, which can be obtained rather humorously by selling off the "worthless" relics that can be found in chests around each stage.
Also included in this major update, beyond the Plague of Shadows campaign, are fiendishly difficulty Challenges, just for those that want to put their skills to the test. Adopting a range of scenarios and settings, these may be beyond the skill-set of some but are a welcome addition nevertheless.
The soundtrack is comprised of a mixture of old, new, and remixed tracks, and it's an excellent follow up to the original. It really does an excellent job of capturing the spirit of the 8-bit era and there's wonderful range to the mood and tempo of the tracks. Some tracks are upbeat, some are atmospheric, and it seems that there's a subtle sense of mischief behind it all to match the personality of the villainous protagonist.
Overall, Shovel Knight: Plague of Shadows, provides an experience that's easily equal to, if not better than, the original game that it remixes. The perfect marriage of old and new provides a distinct experience that manages to stand well enough as its own entity; this is more than just a reskin with a new character. Smart level design, tight controls and a lengthy campaign filled with secrets and collectibles all combine to form an excellent and surprisingly meaty addition to what was an already awesome game.