Shovel Knight released last year to ubiquitous praise, and when I played it I immediately knew why: with its NES-inspired gameplay and aesthetics, but without the limitations the thirty year hardware has, Shovel Knight managed to have a lengthy campaign with varied environments, enemies and tools to use, never wearing out on its players and tossing in several collectibles, feats and challenges that kept me buried in it for a long time. Plague of Shadows comes more than a year later as its first DLC, free of charge and with a twist of its own: the new protagonist, a seemingly vial alchemist, plays out a similar adventure to the main game and does so at the same time Shovel Knight does his own quest. And he can dance.
While still very much a platformer, Plague Knight’s gameplay is radically different from Shovel Knight’s: the witty scientist and his thrown bombs offer what I considered to be a faster and more mobile gameplay element while making his jumps and movement more erratic and harder to control, allowing him to traverse greater distances both vertically and horizontally at the price of making it harder to predict how his movement would pan out. Plague Knight can not only jump twice, but also charge himself for a third jump – better called a “directed burst”, given how sudden and far it goes -, keep himself afloat by tossing bombs and multiple other unlockable mobility implements. As a trade-off, he’s also prone to greater knockbacks than his armored counterpart.
The differences don’t stop there, however. Gone is the simple bash-them-on-the-head combat Shovel Knight excelled at, in its place a complicated and highly situational bomb crafting & tossing variant. You start with a limited set of ingredients but quickly expand it by researching with the new Cipher coins, and before you know it you’ll have thousands of combinations to work with and use depending on which enemy you’re facing and where it is: you can lob grenades that cluster up before exploding, slide others that burst into flames or even create an orbiting armor of black powder pellets that explode when enemies touch it. You’ll need to adapt and experiment, as switching often according to what needs to be done is the key ingredient to success in Plague of Shadows. Another change I much welcomed was that Plague Knight’s resource-consuming attacks – the Arcana, analog to Shovel Knight’s relics -, have a replenishing pool to draw from, and I found myself using them more often and with greater enthusiasm than I did Shovel Knight’s.
Plague of Shadows matches Shovel Knight’s length by using levels that are nearly the same as in the base game, but with two or three different sections scattered across each one that are exclusive to Plague Knight’s moveset. While this could have resulted in a repetitive DLC, the fact that Plague Knight plays radically different from Shovel Knight, alongside the new perspective, different level sections and novel challenges meant the DLC never bored me – even playing it and the main game back-to-back – instead making me glad it was as long as it was because there already was so much previously created content for it to use. The different interactions and dialogue Plague Knight has with the NPCs we already know, from being prevented entry into the city (his hub is instead an underground laboratory) to learning how to dance with the troupple king, offered the same funny and punny experience we had in the base game.
Plague of Shadows has the same long-lasting appeal Shovel Knight had, its tight gameplay and NES-inspired aesthetics placed atop an extensive amount of content, replayability and feats and challenges to create a DLC where the player can spend just as much, if not more, time as he did in the main game. That a platformer as great as Shovel Knight – one of the better, if not the best, in recent times – received a DLC as good as Plague of Shadows, and free to boot, is enough cause for celebration to any platformer fans. If I digged Shovel Knight, I was positively inflamed by Plague of Shadows.