The original Shovel Knight was an absolute blast. It threw back to old school platformer games like Mega Man in a way that totally hooked me into its gameplay, and also reignited my love for retro games. I’ve bought Shovel Knight on at least 3 different platforms, and the titular character is one of only three amiibos I own.
Basically, I really, really like Shovel Knight.
But when I first saw Shovel Knight Pocket Dungeon I was totally flabbergasted. They took the fantastic, pixelated action platformer and… made a cartoony puzzle game out of it. I couldn’t get a read on how this game was going to work, but liked the original enough to give it a shot.
I’ve spent a few hours with Shovel Knight Pocket Dungeon now and I really dig it. Like, I’m debating giving up on writing this article right now to go play more of it instead…
A Whole New World
Shovel Knight Pocket Dungeon kicks off with the blue-clad knight getting sucked into a puzzle-ridden pocket dimension. It seems folks from all over, including the huge cast of Shovel Knight mainstays, have been getting sucked into this realm, which is ruled by the mysterious Pocket Dungeon Master.
The story so far hasn’t hooked me in nearly as much as the surprisingly touching beats in Shovel Knight. It’s not bad, it’s just not super interesting so far. Basically, it’s just a light excuse for you to venture out from a home camp to try to make your way across a map to beat a boss.
Slide to the Left…
Each level of Shovel Knight Pocket Dungeon drops you onto an 8 by 8 grid. Enemies, obstacles, potions, and treasure slowly descend from the top as you move around whacking things out of existence with your shovel.
There are two big hooks to keep in mind as you make your way through the level. First, each time you hit an enemy, they hit you back for one damage. Secondly, if multiple of the same type of enemy are next to each other, your attack will hit all of them at once. Keeping these two ideas in mind means that you end up utilizing a lot of strategy from the very beginning, in order to stay alive and clear enemies from the board as efficiently as possible.
When you run out of health or the board fills up, your run ends and you find yourself back at a camp, ready to start all over again.
Yup, Shovel Knight Pocket Dimension is a rogue-like puzzle game. At the camp, you can buy new items that can show up during a run. You can also purchase shortcuts that let you start a run further into the map of the game. Finally, once you’ve unlocked them, you can also change to other playable characters.
Each knight you unlock plays just a little bit differently. Plague Knight gets hurt by picking up potions and heals each time they eliminate an enemy. Shield Knight can block a certain amount of damage but has less maximum health. King Knight can charge across the board to inflict massive damage against enemies and himself.
The differences in characters don’t seem like they’d be huge at first, but they end up changing how you strategize your runs. This especially makes a difference in later levels, where you face bigger and stronger enemies.
There’s one last detail about Shovel Knight Pocket Dimension that needs highlighting: This game is super friendly in the options it gives the player for adjusting the gameplay experience.
I liked the game when I started it up with the default options but quickly found myself loving a slightly tweaked version of the game. I set it so that I had infinite lives, which basically means that running out of health adds a bunch of enemies to the board, but my run doesn’t end until a board fills up. The other setting I put in was to change the flow of time. By default, every enemy moves whenever you move, but if you stand still long enough they’ll move anyway. It’s basically like a turn-based version of Superhot’s lie that time only moves when you do. The way I have it set now means that enemies only move when I do.
These two settings shift the balance of this action-puzzler away from “action” and towards “puzzler”, and feel great to me. This is also how I had the most fun playing through Crypt of the NecroDancer, although this game doesn’t match movement to music the same way that one does.
There are also options for changing your HP, Attack damage, and other settings, so that each player can create the best experience for themselves.
I’m really loving Shovel Knight Pocket Dungeon. I’ve only made it through the game once, but I can tell this is one I’ll keep picking away at. It’s a great blend of old-school puzzles, bright, cartoony aesthetics, and a soundtrack that absolutely lives up to its legacy.
The game is coming out on Switch, PC, and PlayStation 4. I’ve been playing the PC version for this article, but it really would feel great on Switch. Actually, I’ve spent the majority of my time playing it on my phone using Steam Link and a Backbone One, which has really made me wish this was coming natively to iOS. It’d be a perfect game for burning a few minutes while you wait in line somewhere.
I didn’t expect the Shovel Knight franchise to go in this direction, but I’m really, really glad that it did.