When word arrived over the weekend that Shovel Knight's new expansion, Specter of Torment, would be a standalone prequel, there was both excitement and confusion. What did they mean by standalone? And what exactly would a prequel entail?
The messaging around Specter of Torment has confused people in large part because its rather uncommon for large expansions like these to be released for free. Unprecedented, even. But that's what's happening with Specter of Torment, which follows on from Plague of Shadows with an adventure starring Specter Knight.
Like Plague of Shadows, it will be available free to anyone who already owns the game. The reason it's being pushed as a "standalone" experience is so casual observers understand that it's more than a simple reskin with a new character—something Yacht Club Games had trouble communicating with the last expansion.
"It's important that people relate to it [as a new adventure]," Yacht Club Games developer Nick Wozniak told me over Skype shortly after the announcement. "That's also why we give each of these updates own titles. We could have said this was Update 1 or Update 2.6, but by giving it the gravitas of a title and its own trailer, its own personality, it makes it all different. It's all about making it its own thing."
Indeed, that's exactly what Specter of Torment will be—moreso even than Plague of Shadows, which was a kind of alternate version that ran more or less concurrently with the original story. Specter of Torment will be set before the original Shovel Knight, and will follow Specter Knight as he recruits the Order of No Quarter—the bosses from the original game. The idea springs from Specter Knight's close relationship with the original game's main villain, the Enchantress, who is keeping Specter of Knight alive. Yacht Club had always known that they wanted to explore that element of his character, and that it would revolve around the recruitment of the Order, making it a natural prequel.
But you won't simply be going through the same levels again. Specter Knight is very different from Plague Knight or Shovel Knight—he is somewhat akin to Ryu from Ninja Gaiden in that he will be able wall climb and dash slash—and Yacht Club is remixing his levels to match. While you will still be going through the Order of No Quarter stages, there will be new screens as well as new art. According to Wozniak, you might recognize "one or two screens if you really know the old game," but otherwise it will very different.
And in a rather intriguing twist, Specter of Torment will largely do away with the gated progression of the original release in favor of allowing players to choose any level they want. In explaining the new structure, Yacht Club's David D'Angelo told me, "All of the boss battles have been redone.
"Multiple times," Wozniak chimed in.
"I would say that it's similar to Mega Man in that there are harder and easier stages," D'Angelo continued. "It's not like Mega Man where you have to do it in this order, but it definitely has this feeling that some are more difficult than others."
Wozniak elaborated, "We point players to easier or harder levels based on the rewards they get, but it's up to the player to find their own way through the levels. You don't have to go do Pridemoor Keep first... you could do King Knight last. Maybe you're like, 'I just want to get rid of Polar Knight and never think of his spike revealing properties ever again.'"
In mixing things up, Yacht Club mainly wanted to avoid doing another level map, and they also wanted to put players in the mind of playing a new adventure instead of pushing through the same content as before. The new structure should accomplish that, as should the remixed levels, which are being designed to accomodate Specter Knight's unique moveset.
It won't be totally about the levels, though. Asked if the villages and other features are totally gone, Wozniak hinted, "There is a village, but we're being cagey about that. There is talking to NPCs, and there are story events that happen, so there is a nexus for all that."
D'Angelo added, "But you won't go to the Shovel Knight village that you know and love."
The upshot of all this is that Specter of Torment will effectively be a new game—a kind of Shovel Knight 1.5 contained within the original. That makes it much more ambitious than Plague of Shadow, which was ultimately a remixed version of the original campaign with new music and mechanics but the same levels and progression.
And yes, to reiterate: it's free.
Why make free expansions?
One of the reasons observers find Yacht Club's approach so surprising is that it runs counter to the approach most developers take these days. True, free content isn't completely unprecedented: Star Trek Online has been putting out free expansions for years, for example. But games like STO are financed by microtransactions, which drives the need for new content to keep fans playing. That's not the case with Shovel Knight, which charges a modest $14.99 up front and offers everything else for free. Yacht Club Games is also a small studio, making it tough for them to just give away free expansions like Specter of Torment.
The seed is in the increasing devaluation of games, which will often see full-priced games get discounted to next to nothing within months of release. Shovel Knight has managed to buck that trend in part because of the robust post-release support it has enjoyed to this point. Wozniak explained, "It extends our tail really far. We are still justifiably selling Shovel Knight at full price long after it came out. Our second year was pretty strong compared to what we were expecting. At this point it's gotten kind of out of control and we're going to have to rethink a few things, but for the most part having a lot of strong updates means that Shovel Knight is relevant long after its release. A lot of times a game will come out, people will be excited about it for a month, and then no one will talk about it ever again. So we're kind of setting up Shovel Knight as a thing that you're going to be thinking about for a long time, and we didn't want a copout like a different colored Shovel Knight or whatever."
D'Angelo added, "To go to your point, we have the inability to do something that we don't ourselves think is exciting. Hopefully it means that people will love Yacht Club Games forever and ever will want to support Shovel Knight forever and ever. But to us, it's more that we want to create things that people will love. We didn't think people would love going through the game in the same boring way, and we wanted them to love the characters as much as we do."
Though Yacht Club doesn't really want to go as crazy with their next batch of content as they did with Specter of Torment, they still have plenty of intriguing ideas. King Knight is still on the docket, which they think will be a reflection of Specter Knight's levels in much the same way that Plague of Shadows was a reflection of Shovel Knight. But Yacht Club is aware of the need to justify yet another playthrough, so they're laying down plans to entice back fans. One thing is certain: It will be a "lot crazier" than anything that's come before it.
Beyond King Knight's story, Yacht Club is planning to eventually put out a body swap option that will let you change the genders of any of the characters in the game, as well as a four-player objective-based competitive mode. They may also make Specter of Torment a true standalone release, though they wouldn't elaborate on what form they would take. Suffice it to say that Yacht Club will be busy for the forseeable future.
From that standpoint, Yacht Club has done an impressive job of living off Shovel Knight, which is now available on most major platforms and has managed to sell a million and a half units. They've beat the odds and built a substantial fanbase with a single-player release in a very crowded marketplace, and they're still going strong. I can't say I'm surprised: Shovel Knight was ultimately my favorite game of 2014, and Plague of Shadows made me fall in love all over again when it came out last year. Now Specter of Torment may end up being their best work to date.