Is there anything Shovel Knight can't do? He's starting to become the indie genre's Mario, so recognizable and appearing in so many different games: platform fighters, Metroidvanias, runners, and everything in between. It's about time he got another game for himself, and lo and behold: we have Shovel Knight Pocket Dungeon. Shovel Knight Pocket Dungeon introduces a new adventure for indie's favorite knight and friends, and this time in the form of a match three-like puzzle adventure developed by Vine and Yacht Club Games. And don't let the title fool you -- Shovel Knight Pocket Dungeon isn't as bite-sized as the word "pocket" implies. There's a lot here to discover with plenty of surprises in store.
Shovel Knight Pocket Dungeon's Puzzling Adventure
Puzzle games are fine, but unless it really interests me, I'll pass. When I saw that one of my favorite video game characters was starring in a new puzzle game, I was immediately interested despite being a match-three type of game. I'm glad I decided to play Shovel Knight Pocket Dungeon; it infuses so many fun ideas, twists, and turns into the puzzle genre. There's never a dull moment when playing Shovel Knight Pocket Dungeon.
The premise is quite simple: Shovel Knight and other characters such as King Knight and Polar Knight are thrown into a new world. This "Pocket Dungeon" is filled with enemies from the platformer Shovel Knight, except now these enemies fill up a grid, like Tetris or Puyo Puyo. The unique twist here is that you're not controlling a bunch of tetrominoes or other types of blocks. Enemies are constantly falling onto the grid and you, as Shovel Knight, bump into and attack the foes as they stack up. The more of the same enemy that is stacked together, the bigger the combo, and thus the larger the reward.
It appears simple at first, at least, but soon shows a great amount of depth. Shovel Knight has a finite amount of life points and can die. Enemies also have health, and they have attack values and unique behaviors. Goldarmors in the Pocket Dungeon's version Pridemoor Keep raises their shield once you attack them. They'll only raise their shield in one direction, so it's up to you to navigate around the shield and attack an exposed point. Some enemies produce electricity, and others turn into blobs of caustic goo once you attack. The decision to have enemies as the blocks, each requiring individual strategies to conquer, is a genius idea. It makes for a wildly chaotic puzzler with a deep strategy layer. It also keeps the gameplay from feeling stale since you are constantly on your toes.
There are so many other fresh, innovative gameplay components to Shovel Knight Pocket Dungeon. Potions fall on the board to keep your character from dying. This is important because you want to make sure your gem meter is as high as possible. Racking up combos accrue more gems for you to spend. Almost every level, a blue chest will spawn on the map. Unlocking this chest allows the player to jump into the chest and purchase items from the shop. These items enhance your abilities but are lost upon game over.
With the inclusion of these pieces of equipment, Shovel Knight Pocket Dungeon feels almost like a roguelite. It's randomized and items add a myriad of effects, ranging from something as simple as increased health to more complex items such as ones that increase damage against lone opponents or cause poison upon hit. It's likely that you'll find a certain set of items that cater to your playstyle and attempt to buy the same ones during each run, which makes this puzzler feel something like Hades. This is much to its benefit since I was always excited about finding items I know I could do well with.
You'll also come across different items on the field by unlocking regular chests -- these can also have a wide range of effects such as increasing your attack power or shooting beams to destroy a bunch of enemies at once. Again, the variety here is nice and the randomized element assures that every chest you open is exciting. The caveat is you can only equip one of these pieces of equipment at a time and have durability, so you'll need to be strategic and use them wisely before they disappear.
The Roguelite Feel of Shovel Knight Pocket Dungeon
All of this leads to the end goal of getting four pieces of a key in order to escape the Pocket Dungeon for good. Chances are, you will not escape on your first run, or even your second and third. The difficulty curve at the start is significant and did lead to some frustration; the aforementioned Pridemoor Keep's Goldarmors is especially brutal for new players. That said, players can return to a camp filled with a cast of characters to unlock permanent upgrades with the currency you accrue. You'll be able to unlock items from a shop, and these items will in turn start to appear on your runs. You'll also unlock the ability to cannon yourself to different stages if you want to skip ahead.
Again, it feels a lot like a roguelite, and I love that. It's frustrating when you lose in Shovel Knight Pocket Dungeon, but that feeling is mitigated when you unlock more things on each subsequent run. The most significant unlocks are, no doubt, more characters. You see, you're not just going to play as the eponymous Shovel Knight. You'll get to play as all of the bosses from the platformer and more. I'm talking about Mole Knight, Treasure Knight, Plague Knight, and some new characters too.
You'll unlock these knights from boss fights, which is, yet again, another fun and unique twist Shovel Knight Pocket Dungeon introduces. Every few stages, you'll take on a boss in the form of one of Shovel Knight's rival knights from the original. They drop enemies and blocks like every stage does, but these knights also have a gargantuan amount of health and unique abilities. These fights are really exciting and add even more variety to this robust puzzler. Polar Knight, for example, lets loose a hail of snowballs that you'll definitely want to avoid. Tinker Knight has a deceptively low amount of health at first, but then he'll hop into his mech and up the ante by being beefier and throwing around a bunch of buzzsaws. If you succeed in defeating them, you unlock these characters for play.
Indeed, my favorite part of Shovel Knight Pocket Dungeon is playing as all these different knights. Each one has a unique set of abilities and caters to different styles of play. Mole Knight is my favorite. This bulbous digger can switch positions with almost anything on the board, and there's no limit to the amount of switching you can do. It allows you to get out of sticky situations and set up larger combos. Propeller Knight is another fun one. Armed with his rapier, every single enemy he attacks increases his attack power. When some enemies have large amounts of health, you can imagine that this would come in handy after accruing a huge amount of attack power.
Although I do enjoy all of the different knights, some just don't feel as useful or powerful as others. Plague Knight has a pitiful amount of health and dies so easily. Specter Knight gains health from killing enemies but is damaged by potions. There's usually a pretty abundant amount of potions on the board, so it turns out to be really difficult to manage. Meanwhile, Treasure Knight deals more damage to enemies if he attacks from below them. It's a pretty mundane ability compared to someone like Propeller Knight. There's a versus mode packed in with Shovel Knight Pocket Dungeon, and you can face off against players or CPU. As CPUs, characters like Plague Knight struggled to live for more than a minute even on the highest difficulty, leading me to believe that there's some balancing that needs to be done.
A New Look and Feel in Shovel Knight Pocket Dungeon
The original Shovel Knight knocks it out of the park with its retro NES aesthetic. Shovel Knight Pocket Dungeon doesn't have the same style, although what remains constant are the pixelated graphics. Trading the old-school look for chunkier sprites and brighter colors makes for a pretty game nonetheless, and it certainly fits the bill for Shovel Knight despite the new look. At first, I was a little concerned that levels looked crowded or muddled. Gameplay can get chaotic, but the bolder outlines on sprites do aid in a clearer look. It might just take a few rounds to get used to.
The word I can think of for this new style is "faithful." Fans of Shovel Knight aren't going to find any trouble identifying the enemies and characters they know and love, and frankly, I think they did a bang-up job. But, for all the praise I can give the graphics, I'll double my praise for the music.
The soundtrack is excellent, with wonderful remixes from the original game. Jake Kaufman's remixes immediately jotted my memory and I recognized the same tunes that I loved from years ago. It is truly hard for me to say if Shovel Knight Pocket Dungeon's score is just all remixes or not, but that's just a testament to how faithful and recognizable this new soundtrack is. Either way, the soundtrack is fresh and gets you pumped up in the midst of battle.
Shovel Knight Pocket Dungeon | Final Thoughts
Despite its heavy departure from the original Shovel Knight's gameplay, Pocket Dungeon stays true to the spirit of what makes this series so fun. It's charming with its character design and humor. Shovel Knight Pocket Dungeon's innovative puzzle gameplay makes it one of the genre's best, too, and there's plenty of content to keep players coming back. You'll want to escape the dungeon with every single character and even play the Versus, Endless, and Daily modes. There's a staggering amount of content for a game called Pocket Dungeon. If anything, don't let the title fool you - there's plenty of depth in this puzzling adventure.
TechRaptor reviewed Shovel Knight Pocket Dungeon on PC using a copy provided by the publisher. It is also available on PS4 and the Nintendo Switch.
- Fun, Innovative Twists for the Puzzle Genre
- Diverse Cast of Unique Characters to Use
- Bold Pixel Style and Awesome Remixed Soundtrack
- Steep Difficulty Curve at Beginning