A common songwriting technique is theme and variation. Establishing a melody, and then repeating the original material in an altered form, tweaking elements to create something new. Such elements could be the rhythm, the instrumentation, or even burying the original melody deep within another theme entirely. It’s a fascinating tool that pops up time and time again in video game soundtracks, but what about using this technique on the games themselves?
Sequels and expansion packs often serve to tell a novel story within an established universe, visiting new areas to follow different narrative threads. However, there are times when a developer will take their original title and follow the idea of theme and variation, changing certain pieces of their game to create something new and wonderful.
Since the original release of Shovel Knight in 2014, Yacht Club Games has released two expansion packs for their flagship title: Plague of Shadows in 2015, and the recently released Specter of Torment. Despite using similar narrative and progression as Shovel Knight’s original quest, both of these expansions provide very different gameplay experiences for the player. By introducing as Plague Knight and Specter Knight as protagonists, it’s as if Yacht Club Games is using entirely different instruments to play the ballad of Shovel Knight.
At the start of 2016, I spoke very highly of Plague of Shadows. I found exploding through the world as Plague Knight preferable to bouncing along as Shovel Knight. When combined with the adorable love story of a crazed alchemist, I assumed that Yacht Club Games could provide no better expansion to their already excellent game. Little did I know that Specter Knight would come along with plenty of spooky goodness steal his brother’s crown.
Specter of Torment serves as a prologue to the original Shovel Knight story. Players take control of Specter Knight, recruiting the main villains that would impede Shovel Knight’s journey. Similar to Plague of Shadows (and the newly rebranded Shovel of Hope), Specter Knight’s quest involves defeating each member of the Order of No Quarter in combat. But instead of bouncing or exploding his way to each boss, Specter Knight uses slashing melee attacks and a platforming technique called the Dash Slash. Combined with unique subweapons and wall running, Specter of Torment plays like a wonderful mix of Bionic Commando, Castlevania, and Ninja Gaiden.
In addition to the gameplay changes, Specter of Torment presents the world of Shovel Knight in a much spookier setting. The hub world is the filled with all manor of monsters and undead creatures that live to serve the Echantress (and by extension, help Specter Knight on his quest). The color palette of the game features sharper contrasts, and composer Jake Kaufman created a soundtrack with more baroque and classical theming to match Specter Knight’s mournful quest for redemption. In short: Specter of Torment is my jam.
While playing this excitedly eerie take on the Shovel Knight world, I also enjoyed an appropriately spooky spirit from Adroit Theory Brewing Company. Recently bottled with a truly haunting label, All I See Is Carrion is a Belgian Quad brewed with tart cherries. It pours the color of black tea with hues of red plum and a fizzy tan head. The nose is reminiscent of almond cake, with rich hints of cherry and cinnamon. This ale starts smooth with flavors of fig and black licorice. This flows into a malty body of dark chocolate with soft cherry notes haunting the background. Bitter flavors of tobacco and a boozy sweetness compete for the finish.
As it happens, I was also able to try a bourbon barrel aged variation of All I See Is Carrion at my local bottle shop the same week I enjoyed the original beer with Specter of Torment. Visually, the barrel aged version is very similar to its bottled sibling. However, one whiff of the barrel aged rendition reveals its differences. A strong nose of toffee and cherry licorice with oak notes have replaced the almond and cinnamon aromas. The barrel aging has also altered the taste, leading with a sweeter start of maple syrup and soft bourbon notes. A body of baking spice slashes through the rich start and quickly dashes into a tart cherry finish. A lingering aftertaste of a well-made Old Fashioned cocktail rounds out this delicious deviation (which paired nicely with the smoked Gouda, spicy mustard, and salami on our small plate).
I am quite pleased that I was able to enjoy two great variations in the same week. Specter of Torment has turned out to be my favorite Shovel Knight expansion, featuring frantic and fun gameplay along with an aesthetic I particularly enjoy. All I See Is Carrion is a delicious Belgian Quad that balances the typically rich dried fruit flavors with sour cherry notes, and the barrel aged version provides a complex and tasty alternative. Both Yacht Club Games and Adroit Theory Brewing Company have proven quite adept at adapting their existing creations into awesome alterations.