The appeal of Shovel Knight relies heavily on the novelty of a modern 2D side-scroller seeming like it could have been released on the 8-bit Nintendo Entertainment System. This nostalgic approach could be seen in the game’s world map, which echoed that of Super Mario Bros. 3; the titular warrior’s downward air attack, which was pulled from Duck Tales; and destructible walls that, a la Castlevania, revealed treasure and health-restoring items. With Shovel Knight’s prequel, Specter of Torment, developer Yacht Club Games dares to make Specter Knight a more uniquely challenging character to control via automated wall-climbing and air-dashing. This break from the past is complemented by boss fights and level ideas that revise, rather than mimic, those of the game’s predecessor and its old-school influences.
At first, Specter of Torment might feel like a janky version of 1988’s Ninja Gaiden. Like the ninja hero of the latter game, Specter Knight can jump back and forth between walls to reach higher platforms, but instead of you having complete control of his movement, the character will automatically run up the wall a few paces after making contact with it. In another example of unusually streamlined acrobatics, Specter Knight will diagonally dash toward hanging lanterns, enemies, or other objects—assuming he’s close enough to them—if you press the attack button while leaping. This command can be initially off-putting given that it rejects the action convention of the simple midair attack and turns your avatar into sort of a homing missile that must be carefully aimed, lest you ram into a target in such a way that leads you to a fatal pitfall.
Once you become accustomed to this counterintuitive style of play, you can better appreciate Specter of Torment’s distinctive rhythm, which has you alternately feel connected with and disconnected from your avatar during feats of agility and pathfinding. Elation can come from something as simple as an update on a classic video-game trope, such as frequent cannon fire (in the vein of Super Mario Bros.) serving as a means to air-dash across a long pit, provided that you press the attack button while facing the projectiles from the appropriate 45-degree angle. In an exhilarating spin on a Contra 3 boss fight, you must fight a villain, Propeller Knight, with only flying planes preventing you from taking a deadly fall, and sometimes dashing into the villain is the best way to keep from dying as the planes gradually leave the screen.
The sense of excitement is even greater when you experience Specter of Torment’s revisions to Shovel Knight’s rules. In a level called the Lost City, you must bounce off green objects (while making sure to avoid nearby harm like spikes), which allows the game to flip the script on the hanging lanterns you frequently dash through in other stages. When the lanterns are green, they knock you backward, so you have to dash into them from the opposite side that you normally would in order to propel yourself toward ledges. The game also brings back several bosses from Shovel Knight but never without ramping up the danger, as when Tinker Knight’s surprise giant robot chases you as you jump from platform to platform and plan your next air-dash toward the miniature guy controlling the machine. While Specter of Torment keeps an eye glued to the past so much that it still resembles the video-game equivalent of a very good cover band, its superior kineticism also shows that Shovel Knight was an amateur’s first stab toward something a little greater.