Shovel Knight is everywhere these days. He’s in fighting games, rhythm games, 3D platformers, 2D platformers, and so much more, but a puzzle game is certainly new for the blue-clad shovelrous knight. Enter Shovel Knight Pocket Dungeon, a wonderful spin-off of the Shovel Knight series that manages to successfully merge the characters, villains, and enemies of the classic 2D platformer with finely tuned puzzle and roguelite mechanics that make it hard to put down.
Shovel Knight Pocket Dungeon is a block-matching-puzzle-adventure-roguelite, which I know sounds like I just reached into a bucket, pulled out a handful of unrelated genres, and mashed them together – but somehow developers Vine and Yacht Club Games managed to make this concoction work. It’s simple on the surface: you control Shovel Knight or one of 12 other playable characters and move them around a 8×8 grid in four directions, while blocks and a rogue’s gallery of Shovel Knight enemies drop from the heavens like tetrominos in Tetris. It’s all very simple and intuitive: You can clear enemies and blocks by moving into them to attack, but every time you make an attack you also take damage equal to that enemy’s offensive stat, with the key exception being if your attack is a killing blow on your target. All of this to the tune of an incredible soundtrack that consists almost entirely of modern arrangements of the classic Shovel Knight soundtrack, with a couple of awesome new tracks for the new knights as well.
Where things get “puzzley” is when you attack an enemy that is adjacent to others of the same type: you only take damage from the one you’re hitting, but you deal damage to the whole chain, which lets you clear entire rows and columns of enemies in just a few strikes. Since you can only take so many attacks from individual enemies, it's paramount that you seek out these opportunities to clear large groups at once. Fortunately, if you start to run low on health, you can also find life restoring potions that will restore two hearts a piece.
It’s an incredibly well-crafted design for a puzzle game and facilitates a ton of different approaches to each level. You could play it slow and focus on optimizing your chains while being extra cautious about your life, even though you run the risk of taking too long and letting the stack of enemies fill up to an unmanageable level; or you could play it fast and focus on smaller chains done quickly, at the risk of making a careless mistake by bumping into an enemy you don’t have the HP to deal with.
In general, playing it safe will get you far, but you are rewarded for keeping your pace up, too. There’s a gem meter that fills while you’re clearing enemies and obstacles and rapidly depletes when you’re not. Filling up the gem meter will grant you a multiplier that will increase the amount of gems you collect by defeating enemies, and those gems can be spent in a shop on powerful relics with effects that range from increasing your life to having each of your attacks poison enemies or making you immune to hazards like slime, fire, and ice.
But Pocket Dungeon’s real genius lies in its variety of playable characters. Picking a new knight is much more than just a cosmetic choice – it can completely change the rules. For instance, Specter Knight takes damage when he hits a potion and can only restore health by defeating enemies; Propeller Knight is incredibly good when it comes to defeating lone foes but is actively punished when he tries to chain them together; and my personal favorite, Black Knight, starts with a measly three HP but has the incredibly powerful special ability to turn his gem meter into extra attack power. That means he’s able to kill most enemies in just one hit if you’re able to get your gem meter up to x2 or x3, but the catch is that he loses that buff and is back to just dealing one damage as soon as you use a potion. That element of high-risk, high-reward, and fast paced play is right up my alley.
In just about every case, each of the 12 knights has a completely distinct style of play. Even about 20 hours in, I’m still going back and attempting to reach the end of a run with every knight at least once – not out of a sense of completion, but because each playthrough is fun in its own way and requires a unique mastery of that specific knight’s special skills and quirks.
Can You Dig It?
In Pocket Dungeon’s main adventure mode you work your way through a series of 10 levels, nearly all of which are based on levels from the original Shovel Knight and feature the same enemies you’d normally encounter there. The Plains is stacked with Beetos, Blorbs, and Boneclangs; the Iron Whale is home to the durable Hermittacks; and the Clockwork Tower is full of conveyor belts and Electrodents that will quickly make you second guess attacking them twice in succession.
There’s an excellent variety of enemies that really keep your synapses firing as you carefully consider how much damage each enemy will do, what their response will be once you attack them, and whether or not you have the health needed to defeat them before they take you out. It can be fairly brutal starting out when you don’t know all their nuances, but once you’re a couple of runs deep and you start to immediately recognize what each of them does, it’s extremely satisfying to just act without having to sit next to an enemy and read their description.
Adventure mode is structured like a roguelite, which means you have to restart from the first level if you die but keep some persistent progression. While this framework makes sense in the way that it encourages repeated runs, its progression elements feel a little half-baked. Similar to games such as Dead Cells and Enter the Gungeon, you unlock relics that are added to the randomized pool of potential items that appear in future runs. But although this system works wonderfully in those games, here it’s much less effective for a number of reasons. For one, none of the unlockable relics really make things any easier or contribute to a feeling of making any sort of progress. I actually found Pocket Dungeon easier to beat before I started unlocking any relics because the most universally useful ones – like the only two relics that give you more health, and one that gives you +1 damage on your first strikes – are part of the starting 15, and thus every relic added to the pool made the chances of getting those slightly worse.
I still kept coming back to Adventure Mode even with these slight disappointments, though, because unlocking new characters by first beating them as bosses was always a thrill, and the “true ending” was a fun challenge to strive for.
Pocket Dungeon also has a Daily Challenge that gives you one chance per day to set a high score with a particular character – but more substantially, it has a fun versus mode that lets you go toe-to-toe against either the challenging AI or a friend via local multiplayer. It’s structured very similarly to adventure mode in that, even though you’re competing against a friend and dropping garbage blocks on them by clearing chains, you’re also moving through different levels and buying a relic using your gems in between them. It’s such a fun mode that I can’t help but feel a little disappointed that it doesn’t have online play, or at the very least a more structured gauntlet mode tied to it that lets you challenge the whole roster in increasingly difficult fights.