Last year’s 8 bit masterpiece Shovel Knight has returned with a free expansion, Plague of Shadows. Forget about the shovel, this time it’s all about science as the nefarious Plague Knight takes center stage. Packing a pocketful of destructive potions, the beak-faced bad guy invades the familiar world of Shovel Knight. Introducing an entirely new set of mechanics, Plague of Shadows drastically alters the original's gameplay while retaining every stage and boss battle. Is the experiment a success? Or are Plague Knight’s bombastic practices better suited elsewhere?
No longer content with his role in the Quarter of No Order, the villainous Plague Knight strikes out on his own with a sinister plan. By stealing and combining the essences of his former comrades, Plague Knight and his alchemist partner Mona begin development on a powerful new potion. With the entire countryside seeking revenge against him, Plague Knight must blast his way through hundreds of enemies to achieve his most ambitious concoction yet.
While Plague of Shadows centers its story around a psychopath, it still packs a lot of heart. Despite his protagonistic role, Plague Knight is a creepy little dork with little to no redeeming features. He’s cruel to his enemies, careless with his henchmen, and betrays his friends. But it’s his relationship with Mona that ekes out his few enduring qualities. The brief exchanges between the two excellently portray an evolving relationship with subtle hints and comical misunderstandings. By the end, it’s hard not to root for spooky anarchist, and that’s a real testament to Yacht Club Games’ storytelling.
As an expansion, Plague of Shadows does little to change Shovel Knight’s level design reward mechanics. Every stage and boss encounter is simply carried over from the original game with only slight adjustments and a single new environment. Purchasing new items, sacrificing checkpoints for currency, and losing loot after every death is still the status quo. Instead, Plague of Shadows differentiates itself with an entirely new projectile gameplay system. Plague Knight’s arsenal of potions and fuses allow him to quickly alter their duration, trajectory, and effect whenever needed. This results in a far more strategic and methodical approach than it’s predecessor, tasking players with evaluating environments and enemies for explosive opportunities. Discovering your own successful approach to boss battles and complex platforming sequences is both intense and satisfying.
Yet one significant issue overshadows this accomplishment throughout the 6 hour campaign. The base game was tailor made for Shovel Knight’s melee abilities, not Plague Knight’s long range attacks. Even with selectable stages, the difficulty chaotically spikes and shallows mostly due to Plague Knight’s jumping. Mastering double and triple jumps are mandatory to victory, which is made all the more frustrating by the Blast Jump’s steep learning curve. Both the platforming and potions feel like overcomplicated solutions to alter a simple game. While the plethora of customizable options is Plague of Shadows’ greatest accomplishment, they feel undersold in Shovel Knight’s world.
Plague of Shadows is result of two amazing ideas that don’t always fit together. As a free update, it over delivers with a touching story, new concepts, and enjoyable challenge modes. It’s unfortunate that it never quite gels together, creating a whole that’s lesser than the sum of it’s parts. For those eager to dispense The Order of No Quarter once again, Plague of Shadows is an enjoyable addition to an already incredible game, even if it can’t live up to the original's pedigree.
VGAD Score 8.0/10