Specter of Torment is in many ways a sequel to Shovel Knight. Yacht Club Games is in a very unique position with its renowned franchise, now falling under the moniker “Shovel Knight: Treasure Trove,” with the release of subsequent campaigns. As part of a stretch goal to the developer’s original Kickstarter campaign, the ability to play through the campaign again as different characters was promised. During the development of the first playable character, Plague Knight, the developers found a way to add depth and something new in the expansion Plague of Shadows. Not only did it feature a playable Plague Knight, as promised, but it created a brand new story to follow and gave new insight to the original game, as Plague Knight is always about sixty seconds ahead of the original campaign. As most of the stages played out, Plague of Shadows felt like Shovel Knight 1.5. It was a remix, giving you the high level of what you loved originally, while adding new and intriguing flavors to it.
Specter of Torment joins the Treasure Trove as the third playable campaign, but plays like Shovel Knight 2.0. The entire game has been created seemingly from scratch. I’d argue that save for a few enemy sprites (who make sense from a story perspective) that all of the animation and art in the game is brand new. My review for Shovel Knight said:
“Shovel Knight feels like playing a game that I didn’t know existed when I was a kid, and it’s being released 25 years after I was born.”
Three years later, I find that Specter of Torment is the sequel that was never released on North America and I’m discovering it through emulation. It is in every way the right step for the series and absolutely what I was hoping for as the evolution of Shovel Knight.
Shovel Knight, now known as “Shovel of Hope,” draws its influence from 8-bit classics like Mega Man and Zelda II: The Adventure of Link, among many others. Specter of Torment is seen pulling from the same, while adding the right flavors of Castlevania to the mix- and learning a lot from its predecessors. Specter Knight is and plays entirely differently than both Shovel Knight and Plague Knight. He comes equipped with a scythe, that provides both a forward slash and the ability to dash through the air using specific pieces of the environment. He’s also capable of scaling walls for a short period of time and like both other games, comes with his own set of secondary weapons, or curios as they are referred to here.
Compared to the two games before it, Specter of Torment is incredibly fast. The character model reflects this idea, always seemingly charging forward to inspire the idea that you need to keep moving. Combined with the ability to Dash Slash, or use airborne enemies or set pieces to propel Specter Knight through the air, the speed and motion of the game lend itself to finding secrets in new ways and discovering otherwise forgotten areas of the game. I was very curious as to how Specter Knight would play, particularly after feeling Plague Knight, and happily I think he’s the best of the three.
In fact, this entire game feels like the best of the three, and I love that Yacht Club Games has been able to take an already incredible game and improve upon it in so many ways. My affinity for a more gothic style and desire for everything to be a little darker certainly implied that this game would be my favorite, but the execution of everything from design, gameplay, sound, and feel solidified that idea.
The game’s story acts as prequel to the events of Shovel of Hope, and sees our playable hero Specter Knight as he attempts to convince and recruit the Order of No Quarter. It means that there’s another opportunity to fight each boss, but just like the rest of the game, each fight has been redesigned entirely. Defeating a boss sends them back to Specter Knight’s headquarters- specifically to the dining hall where they hang out for a feast and willingly engage in some conversation if you initiate it.
In addition to the story beats that play out as Specter Knight wrangles up a team for Enchantress, we get to play through key moments of his backstory and find a little heart within the rouge reaper. By the end, I was left a little heartfelt and learned so much more about the motivation of not only Specter Knight but what drives everyone in this world.
As Specter Knight is working under Enchantress, he calls her fortress home. Not only does the fortress act as the village did for Shovel Knight or beneath the village did for Plague Knight, but it doubles as the world map as well in a really neat way. Within the fortress, Specter Knight can obtain and upgrade weapons, as well as unlock new suits and secrets.
In order to obtain and use secondary weapons in Specter of Torment, the player is dropped into a test stage that forces you to learn how to use it before exiting the area. It helps to define what you can and can’t do with each curio, and immediately opens up new possibilities for finding secrets or moving through a more difficult area within a stage. Each curio also contains a way to upgrade for a small price, and upgrading usually extends duration of an effect or strength of its outcome.
Part of what made Shovel of Hope such a masterpiece and homage to the best games on NES was its soundtrack, and Specter of Torment carries the legacy forward. Jake Kaufman takes the base of each piece in the original and strips it to its core melodies. Then, each one is redesigned and crafted to fit perfectly with this new adventure. Each track develops on the ideas of the first and recapitulates them into the beautiful score you find within this world.
That too, goes for what Yacht Club Games has done for the rest of Specter of Torment, as it becomes what feels like the next movement in the developer’s sonata of perfection. The ideas of the first, stripped down to the core and reimagined in a different key. Specter of Torment is a tremendous continuation of the Shovel Knight legacy and it easily falls into the rotation of games that I replay every year, and a strong contender for game of the year.