Welcome back to the world of Shovelry, in Shovel Knight: Pocket Dungeon. I am a huge fan of the original Shovel Knight title and his quest to rescue his beloved Shield Knight from the evil Enchantress and the Order of No Quarter due to its massive personality and addictive gameplay. The original game gave so much to the player, and this pocket dungeon that borrows heavily from a multitude of genres has the original’s DNA all over it.
The introduction sees our hero Shovel Knight sucked into a small cube outside his iconic campground. He is then confronted by a newcomer, Puzzle Knight. To get some introductions out of the way first, for those who have not played the original title, almost all notable characters in the Shovel Knight universe have their name, then Knight after it. There is a Shield Knight, King Knight, Plague Knight and although their names seem uninspired, each character’s design and personality are seeping with depth so the names being trivial is welcome.
Puzzle Knight asks us to solve the pocket dungeon which the game is named after, after rudely calling our hero “blue guy.” Puzzle Knight and the Merchant character Chester walks the player through a series of tutorials, that don’t overstay their welcome. I believe the tutorials leave something unsaid, allowing the player to figure out some mechanics for themselves. This felt very rewarding when utilizing new mechanics properly. Without spoiling the charming storyline, the beginning infers Puzzle Knight is a coward, because he doesn’t help us with the initial wave of enemies due to hiding in a tent, how shovel-rous.
First thing to mention about this feast for the eyes of a game is the music is dynamite. The returning Shovel Knight composer Jake Kaufman gave fans a delightful ensemble of epic tunes, that not only hearken back to the original, but have its own special place in the Shovel Knight world. This nostalgia is present even when starting a level, as the level-start sound is the same as the original’s small jingle. Shovel Knight raises his weapon in “I’m ready” fashion every time you start the dungeon, giving an air of LET’S GO!
“First thing to mention about this feast for the eyes of a game is the music is dynamite.”
After the tutorial, the player is brought to another colorful section of the game, the hub world campfire setting. More on this later though, as diving into the game is the best bet at this point considering the campground is kind of barren in the early stages.
The gameplay is simple to understand yet very complex to master. The best comparison I can make to this rogue-lite gameplay is Crypt of the Necrodancer, except without the rhythm aspect, and your inventory gets shredded when you fail a dungeon run. Each time you move on the grid-like game board, the board speeds up a little. Upon defeating enemies, you obtain gems. The gems can be used during a dungeon run for upgrades during the current run (in a Blue Chest Square) or can be saved for spending back at camp to unlock new relics from Chester’s shop to have new upgrades available in future dungeon runs (from the Blue Chest Square).
There is a boat load of mechanics here, there are many square types in the pocket dungeon.
- Enemy squares – each function differently, some enemies put up a shield to guard from attacks, some get stronger when your character becomes weaker, some move around the board, the mechanics are shown on the upper right of the screen when first highlighting them.
- Potion squares – by hitting a potion the played Knight gains 2 HP.
- Key Squares – Hitting these grants a key to unlock a Chest Square, Blue Chest Square, or a Door Square.
- Chest Squares – Grants the Character an upgrade, such as a shield for damage, a usable item, etc.
- Blue Chest Squares – Grants the player access to Chester’s shop mid dungeon, this is where you accrue powerful relics that allow the player to level up. A max life boost (called a meal ticket ALWAYS GET THESE), or other upgrades that allow your shovel to banish evil faster.
- Door Squares – Lets the player advance to the next level.
- Portal Squares – Upon hitting and walking into it, the player needs to either clear a room of enemies, have a free upgrade room, pay a magician for the chance at an upgrade, or sacrifice some inventory to obtain a piece of a key for the ‘true ending.’ (there are 4 pieces total to collect and can only be done by starting all the way over.)
- Block Squares – Have a health gauge, stops the player from advancing until they’re broken, a nuisance, but no match for your mighty shovel.
*Deep breath* There are even more mechanics to get through. Chains allow the player to deal damage to all enemies touching each other at once, and upon defeating an enemy, Shovel Knight does 1 extra point of damage to all chained adversaries. Chains also provide the player with a boost in gems to get those sweet upgrades to banish foes easier. Each enemy has animations and functions differently, forcing the player to strategize.
I personally, am not an expert at these games, so I immediately ran out of the dungeon after dying to a skeleton enemy that grates your HP 2 points on each strike, to turn on a more forgiving mode that allows the player to resurrect in the dungeon (call me the coward Puzzle Knight). Even in this mode, however, the player must remain sharp at all times because when the screen fills with squares, it’s game over and a restart is in order.
“Shovel Knight raises his weapon in “I’m ready” fashion every time you start the dungeon, giving an air of LET’S GO!”
The gameplay is very simplistic, yet every time I failed a dungeon run, I couldn’t wait to throw myself back at the challenges the world had to offer. Playing with a shovel is ridiculously fun and addictive, minus the sandcastles and being 5 years old. There are boss fights from Shovel Knight lore that feature their iconic moves, Plague Knight is immune to poison and bombs you with poison during his boss fight. This adds yet another gameplay element that can become overwhelming, but it never feels that way due to the gradual increase in difficulty being tailor-made for the player. After defeating a boss, you recruit them.
Back in the hub world, the boss that was defeated at the hands of your mighty excavator, is now a playable character. Simply bump them twice to swap characters. Each swapped character has different abilities that give different playstyles. You can even unlock the nefarious Black Knight as a playable character. Call me old-fashioned though, Shovel Knight is the greatest.
The hub world gains more interactable things, such as a level warp, costume change, and a character funnily named Tipp that gives the player tips on what to not do during a run. The whole game is saturated with game mechanics, great design, and the storyline is just enough to keep the player engaged the whole way through.
After completing Shovel Knight: Pocket Dungeon once, one still has more Knights to defeat the dungeon with, such as the returning King Knight, Spectre Knight, Shield Knight, and a new Prism Knight. All the characters are intricately designed and have completely different playstyles giving this small title a HUGE shelf life. Not to mention, there is a two player VS mode that gives the opportunity for you to claim prowess over friends. May the best Shovel win.
Shovel Knight: Pocket Dungeon is a worthy little title that has a lot of colour, sounds great, plays smoothly, and even gives the player a few laughs in between. Although sometimes it is infuriatingly hard, I’d always swear “one more run” after my latest failure. The game only has 10 levels so far, so it is relatively short and going through the same thing over and over again may become tiresome over a long play period. The game is also a little intricate and may become tiresome to learn, but it is entirely worth the squeeze. Shovel Knight: Pocket Dungeon uses nostalgia for fans of the original, and yet you do not need to play the original to enjoy this title, a game that is truly for everyone.