Indie Shortieland: Specter of Torment

So, here’s the thing. The game I want to talk about this week isn’t so much a full game as it is long-awaited DLC. I’m talking (of course) about Specter of Torment, second in a line of three DLC expansions for Yacht Club GamesShovel Knight. There’s a limited audience of interest for this sort of thing: Either you already own Shovel Knight and by extension Specter of Torment and you don’t need any purchase advice, or you don’t own slash haven’t played Shovel Knight yet, in which case a Specter of Torment review is probably of limited value. For this reason, I’m keeping this review a little shorter than usual; it’s definitely only this reason, and nothing to do with the fact that I hecked up my screenshot key bindings during play. I’m sure you guys would be riveted by a series of nigh-identical pictures of me swapping through items, but alas. Better luck next time.

for real, though: Specter of Torment is still worth talking about, if for no other reason than to help you decide if you should actually spend time playing it. 2017 is proving itself to be a ridiculous treasure trove of great games; I can count up to half a dozen amazing releases I haven’t been able to give the time they deserve yet, and the number’s only that low because I don’t own all consoles yet. I’m in the stage of my life where free time has supplanted money as the prime limiting factor for which games I can play, which means I have to ask myself the same question on every new release I get my hands on: Is this actually worth investing some of my precious time of life?

Hence, Specter of Torment.

(Spoiler levels: Narrative, low-medium. Mechanical, high.)

(Game source: Bought it myself, a long long time ago..)

Specter of Torment, or: Third Time’s The Harm

There’s one word that I keep coming back to when trying to describe Specter of Torment to myself, and that word is competent.

Second only to ‘radical’, as I’m sure you understand.

A little quantification is in order here. Yacht Club Games’ base game opus, Shovel Knight, was released in 2014 to overwhelmingly positive reviews. I myself had very little prior expectations of it (or even much knowledge), but I was happily surprised by the way Yacht Club Games managed to combine nostalgic pixel-art look-and-feel with modern gameplay sensibilities, sharp controls, and a slow-building story that saw me care about several characters near the end. It was a blast to play, that’s for sure: I played the normal campaign twice and even got some distance into NG+ mode, which is fairly unprecedented for me.

As part of the Kickstarter campaign that made Shovel Knight possible, Yacht Club Games eventually promised to release — over time, as free DLC for owners of the game — three ‘boss campaigns’, that would let players play through the game as three of Shovel Knight’s knightly enemies: Specter Knight, Plague Knight, and King Knight, chosen by popular poll in that order. The first of these campaigns to come out was Plague of Shadows, the Plague Knight campaign, which saw the light of day in 2015. I didn’t really know about it at the time; had it not been for the friendly prodding of Ninjustin, I might never have played it. I didn’t have great expectations, either, going in. ‘Boss campaign’, what a silly idea.

I was 100% wrong. Plague of Shadows is an exceptional piece of work. Rather than being a simple character swap, which is what I was expecting, Plague of Shadows focuses on retelling the original Shovel Knight/Shovel of Hope story from a second perspective. It uses many the same locations and characters from Shovel of Hope, but recontextualized them, adding new meaning to places and new depth and backstory to characters — most noticeably to the titular Plague Knight and to Mona, bit-character alchemist from the original campaign. It tells a surprisingly cute story about believing in yourself, and believing in the others that believe in you, while still providing good narrative reasons for why Plague Knight would go around fighting the same bosses in the same levels as Shovel Knight. It has fun with its premise and with itself: The Explodatorium boss fight in particular is one of the funniest and well-executed expected twists I’ve seen in recent memory. And to top it all off, Plague of Shadows manages to incorporate a new set of movement and combat mechanics that feel equally balanced and slick, while neatly preserving the image and style of Plague Knight as players knew from Shovel of Hope. It is, in short, a DLC masterpiece.

Remember these cute kids?

So. I just said that Shovel of Hope was received ‘overwhelmingly positively’, and I called Plague of Shadows ‘exceptional’ and ‘a masterpiece’.

The word I keep coming back to for Specter of Torment is ‘competent’.

W…woo?

The thing I immediately want to impress here is that Specter of Torment isn’t bad. It’s a competently executed boss campaign, that once again goes above and beyond just transplanting characters into existing settings. Specter of Torment tries an ambitious step: Rather than provide a third retelling of the main story (which would be silly, if probably not unwelcome), it goes back it time, telling a prequel story about how the Enchantress’ Order Of No Quarter came to be. It (slowly) characterized Specter Knight to a similar degree as Plague Knight, introduces a new area with new characters that you may or may not know, and again puts new gameplay twists on original ideas.

And it does so competently.

Thing is, Specter of Torment feels less well-designed and less polished than Plague of Shadows and Shovel of Hope on pretty much every front. There’s a second phrase I keep coming back to when thinking about this game, and that’s cutting corners. It feels, and I apologize in advance if this turns out to be a major misfire, like a product made by a group of people who are pretty much done with this. It feels like Yacht Club Games wanted to get this over with.

The biggest thing that jumped out at me, right from the start, is the lack of an overworld. Shovel of Hope and Plague of Shadows both have your character run around a Mario 3 style connected-box overworld, picking levels and visiting towns and occasionally fighting wandering bosses. Specter of Torment does away with all that. Instead, between missions, you are confined to the Tower of Fate, Specter Knight’s appointed hub area that fills mostly the same role as Shovel Knight’s town and Plague Knight’s underground labs. It’s full of NPCs you can talk to, there are merchants for upgrades and new gear, it has some secrets to get you used to the idea of finding secrets. You get the idea. But where Shovel Knight and Plague Knight would leave their hubs to go to the overworld map, Specter Knight uses this:

Mirror, mirror, on the wall…

Straight-up level select. You pick the level you want to go to, and then, you are there. There’s not even any barrier to selection: You can explore any location and fight any knight right out the gate.

I appreciate that this feels like a minor complaints: Oh no, they let you teleport right to the boss level instead of having to navigate three boxes! But this change has two big effects. One, it reduces the sense that this world is an actual world, a real place you inhabit and move around in. As annoying as it was to have to walk back to the Troupple King every time, the chore at least had its roots in the way the world was built. Nothing of the sort is found in Specter of Torment: Bosses might as well be living on the moon. And two, making all bosses available from the start removes any sense of gradual escalation or build-up. It’s just… Every boss in and by itself is still fine, but the overall effect is that fighting all of them feels less like a grand adventure and more like a shopping list.

Oh, and that Troupple King I mentioned earlier? He’s out. Third effect of this boss selection menu is that every game location that isn’t directly tied *to* a boss has been dumped.

I will immediately say that Yacht Club Games has at least followed through on this idea where it counts: All bosses are some degree of challenging now. Where in Shovel of Hope and Plague of Shadows the designers could count on some bosses being fought earlier and later, Specter of Torment doesn’t have this luxury. So all bosses have been boosted: Even simple ‘starting’ bosses like King Knight now have a wider variety of moves and attacks.

More than Plague of Shadows, Specter of Torment is *really* aimed at people who’ve already mastered Shovel Knight.

All bosses have been updated, in fact. Look at this weird thing Mole Knight is doing:

Eeeeew.

To not even mention this madness:

My expectations! Noooooooo

Just as the bosses have been overhauled, so are the levels themselves. Specter of Torment no longer makes the claim that you’re playing the exact same world as Shovel of Hope: In fact it very much makes the opposite claim, taking place in the little-documented ‘sad armored farmer’ part of Shovel Knight’s life. I’m not big enough of a Shovel Knight fan to tell you where exactly the levels differ all the time, but I did appreciate this:

Specter Knight’s secret room. Don’t touch anything.

Which you might remember more fondly as this:

This was the moment the disconnect really clicked for me.

The level change seems mostly done to accommodate Specter Knight’s moveset, which focuses primarily on wall-climbing. Specter Knight doesn’t have a lot of jump height / vertical traversal, but he can run up most walls for a short time. Every level has one wall texture that’s expressly forbidden to climb on, but a very large part of the world is open to you. Lots of secrets rely on this, too: There’s even one secret area in the actual hub that you might never find if you don’t think to wall-climb everywhere.

Specter Knight’s second big trick is the ‘dash slash’. When standing on the ground, pressing the attack button is a straightforward scythe slash. But why Speccy’s in the air and close to a target, his attacks become dashing air slashes that attack and travel at the same time. It’s not hard to see how between this and the wall-climbing (and -jumping), Specter of Torment focuses on a lot of fast-paced aerial acrobatics. Most levels are filled with convenient swinging lamps to whoosh past, and lots of optional puzzles and areas are accessibly only if you dash-attack the right enemies at the right time. It’s a cool mechanic, whenever it does what you want it to — which is often, but not always, as the difference between an upwards-angled dash indicator and a downward-angled one can be tricky to judge in the heat of the moment. Add to that the (odd) mechanic that you break breakable blocks by jumping off of them, and you start seeing the hectic pattern.

Better not misjudge, or you’ll fall to your death forever!

Apart from these two tricks, Specter of Torment offers an experience that’s fairly comparable to Shovel of Hope. Attack the enemies, traverse the gaps, find the gems and the collectibles, tag the waypoints, try not to die, and at the end there’s a big boss battle. You’ll see a few new enemy faces, but plenty of old hats, too. Mechanically, Specter Knight’s toolset feels very similar to Shovel Knight’s: You’ve got the same health blips, and a mana bar — sorry, ‘will blips’, and a ‘darkness bar’ — that governs your ability to use the special items. They’re called Curious in this one, which is such a better name than Relics or Arcana that I immediately forgot they ever weren’t called that. But on the downside, unlike Relics and Arcana Curios aren’t found in levels. Rather, you collect floating red skulls, and then trade these to a Tower of Fate NPC for whatever Curios he’s got handy at the moment. I’m given to understand from the wiki that this list updates based on the levels you’ve visited; it’s possible, but I’m not feeling it right now. All I know is that there are two Curios that involve floating/flying movement and neither of them were unlocked after I visited Propeller Knight, so if you told me it was strictly number-of-levels based (or based on moon phases, hell, make something up) I’d have believed you all the same.

Most of the Curios are nice, but forgettable. Only a few recreate what I’d call iconic Specter Knight moves, like this stone that lets you do a homing, terrain-ignoring dash slash.

All in all, it’s okay. Competent. The levels are cool to navigate, the new enemies are interesting and colourful enough, and I appreciate that the new music is appropriately Specter Knight-themed. It never really blew me away, but all the same, I was always most into Specter of Torment while I was actively playing the levels.

Now, the connecting story…

The opening half, maybe third of Specter of Torment‘s story is honestly pretty terrible. I don’t enjoy having to say that, but there it is. The backdrop is simple: The Enchantress wants eight knights for her Order, she’s got some hold over Specter Knight that’s going to be broken once eight knights have been recruited, so off you go. It’s serviceable, but bound by the fact that every level has to end in a boss fight. So the vast majority of them go like this:

Specter Knight: Fellow knight, you should join with the Enchantress! She has use of your skills and will give you what you desire!
Other knight: Oh yeah! What if I fight you instead?
Specter Knight: So be it!

And you fight, and Specter Knight wins. And then that knight is never brought up again, until the very end of the game.

Polar Knight doesn’t even give you that satisfaction. He just says nothing.

The story starts coming together a little in the second half, particularly through a very clever mechanic that I’m going to not spoil here. Still, it doesn’t really land until the very end of the game — and even then it only works if you’re already invested in these characters. I was, but then I get invested in characters ridiculously easy. I’ll befriend a toaster, you don’t even know. Specter of Torment at the very least tries to get you to care, and at least for the main cast, I think it can work. It is worth playing to completion, I don’t regret the time I invested getting that done. Or even getting all the red skulls. All the same, it just as easily cannot: There’s a dearth of character building and sustained development for everyone who isn’t Specter Knight, two characters I won’t talk about, or Red Skull Skeleton Guy. There was definitely room to incorporate that character building, but… I don’t know. It’s like it was cut. No scythe intended.

And this is what I meant when I mentioned ‘cutting corners’. Specter of Torment is a functional game, competent, but compared to its stellar forebears it can’t help but feel slapdash. The stuff that works, works, but there is so much here that just has me question the process. Why aren’t Curious hidden inside the levels this time around? Why is the lack of on-the-spot training clumsily solved with ‘cursed dungeons’? Why is the overworld map gone? There’s a grinding mechanic in this game, where Specter Knight can grind his scythe on particular rails: Unless you buy the gear upgrade that lets you do that everywhere, it comes up maybe five times throughout the game. Why is it here? Why isn’t this incorporated with the rest of the aerial-acrobatics theme? There’s a bar in the Tower of Fate that steadily gets populated with minions from the places you conquered, serviced by a vulture bartender. Why are they here? Who is that vulture? Why does he talk like I’m supposed to know who he is? Why doesn’t he ever talk more? Why is the tower-climbing minigame hidden? Why isn’t Specter Knight the reason the museum was haunted in the first place? Questions bubble up like over-shook champagne.

Why is any of this?

Like I said at the start, I won’t pretend that this review is going to sway anyone’s purchase decision. If you don’t care about Shovel Knight as-is, Specter of Torment won’t change your mind. And if you own Shovel Knight already, you own Specter of Torment. And if you enjoy the basic Shovel Knight formula, you’ll have a decent time with this. I certainly did. All the same, Specter of Torment fills me with uncertainty regarding the upcoming King Knight campaign. Yacht Club Games deserves heaps of praise for following through on their campaign promises with the level of investment and care they’ve mustered. But if Shovel of Hope was a leap, and Plague of Shadows was soaring, Specter of Torment feels too much like the inevitable descent.

Let’s hope King Knight will manage to stick the landing.

Image inserted apropos of nothing.

Jarenth isn’t half as scary as the rumors would have you believe. Follow him on Twitter or hang out with him on Steam, if you like. Do not bring weapons. And if you dig Indie Wonderland and Ninja Blues in general, why not consider supporting our Patreon campaign?

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