There are some people out there who are tired of Shovel Knight. While I can agree that the character's ubiquity could be overwhelming to the casual observer, I find it delightful that he keeps popping up in every genre under the sun. Most of these are guest appearances, but Yacht Club Games is set to publish two proper spinoffs to the franchise while it toils away on its own new thing. One, the thematically appropriate Shovel Knight Dig, still feels like a fun time. However, the other, puzzle/action hybrid Shovel Knight Pocket Dungeon, really caught my eye.
The "Tetris but there's a little man in the well" subgenre is a small one, but there's been more than a few stabs at it over the years. The most notable early example is trivia answer Wario's Woods, where you control a Toad and try to bomb creatures dropped in by Birdo. A more recent example is early Steam indie Super Puzzle Platformer Deluxe, a fast and furious falling blocks game with a great soundtrack.
Pocket Dungeon feels like it borrows from both games just a bit, although the control scheme is wholly unique. You're not moving freeform around the blocks, you're instead moving one block at a time a-la Crypt of the Necrodancer. Pushing into any group will interact with them. You can swing at groups of enemies and watch them swing back, grab items, or unlock chests to get one-use items. Since you take damage from clearing out enemy groups, the strategy revolves around staying alive with potions while you battle an ever-evolving rogue's gallery.
Like all the best puzzle games, it's easy to pick up and hard to get your head around fully at the same time. You don't need to worry about any arbitrary time limit, but I felt compelled to keep things moving, probably just due to my Tetris instincts. That got me through a few rounds of play, but I eventually ran into issues that required a more refined thought process. For example, Goldarmors have the same mechanics they do in the main game, shielding wherever you attack them from. That means that you have to spend extra moves maneuvering around the group, possibly trapping yourself between another enemy brigade.
Other aspects of the main platformer return as well. Certain chests let you descend into Chester's shop, where you can use the currency you pick up along the way to grab specific items and upgrades. You can also play as ten different characters from the Shovel Knight series, each with unique mechanics that recall their platforming origins. No matter who you play as, you'll eventually run into boss encounters that challenge your wits and your strategic movement. It's fascinating just how much of the game translates over beautifully to this completely different experience.
When you're not busting heads in the block well, you're traversing a world map in the game's full campaign. I didn't get a sense of how expansive this portion of the game would be, but I did see enough dialogue and cutscenes to think that it'd be more than a glorified map screen. I also took in Pocket Dungeon's unique soundtrack, which goes for something completely different than what'd you'd expect. The smooth jazzy tunes fit the puzzle gameplay, although I did miss the more classic tunes from the platformer.
Sure, the gameplay may seem arcadey, but I've never known a game with Shovel Knight on the tin to go halfway with anything, and Pocket Dungeon doesn't seem to be any different. With the teaser trailer already showing plenty of enemy variaty and the promise of multiple characters to play as, Shovel Knight Pocket Dungeon could be another honorable adventure worth spending hours and hours of time on.
TechRaptor previewed Shovel Knight Pocket Dungeon at PAX East 2020 on Nintendo Switch. The game has no announced release date.