Shovel Knight: Pocket Dungeon - For Shovelry!
PS4, Switch, PC
Shovel Knight is one of the industry’s great indie darlings, a game that communities all around the world have gathered around to celebrate for almost a decade now. A 2D side-scrolling platformer that drew inspiration from the likes of Mario, Mega Man, Castlevania and Ducktales, the game was an instant hit, well before it even launched, with the game becoming, to this day still, one of the most successful indie game Kickstarter projects of all time. Not only did the game exceed it’s US$75,000 goal with ease, pulling in a meagre $311,502, but the support for the game was immense, from platform exclusive boss battles against Kratos and the Battletoads, to several DLC campaigns, spanning over 5 years. The ongoing support for Shovel Knight is something of video game legend now, but the community concerns began to mount; would the ongoing support for the core game intervene in the development of future franchise entries? In recent months the answers finally became clearer with the reveals of Shovel Knight Dig (shared development with Nitrome), Shovel Knight Pocket Dungeon (shared development with Vine), and their new IP Mina The Hollower. Player’s aren’t left waiting long for this influx of titles either, with the latter Shovel Knight title, Pocket Dungeon, already being available. The question is, can the magic of the core franchise translate to this rogue-lite puzzle title?
Shovel Knight: Pocket Dungeon does its best to defy expectation; an incredibly inventive title, Pocket Dungeon blends puzzle genre troupes, with rogue-lite elements in a way that defies the usual categorisation of games. Objects fall from the sky, akin to Tetris and countless other titles that were inspired by it, but as Shovel Knight (or the myriad of others you unlock with continued gameplay), you navigate around the grid, bashing through obstacles and enemy units to eliminate them. Like many falling block based puzzle games, the objective is to maximise combos. If you take down one unit that is daisy-chained to a dozen others, then they all fall, so while it may seem easy at first to take out whatever is closest, strategists will be the big winners here as the game’s difficulty ramps up, and you can think steps ahead as your movements result in clusters of enemies forming which can then be taken out in large number, which by extension opens up the grid for further movement and manipulation. Just because strategy is a big element of the experience though, don’t be fooled into thinking that it’s slow – units drop and move as you do, while they also run on a timer, so they’ll move independently of you as well.
At first blush, this may seem overwhelming, but the difficulty curve is generous as you’re introduced to new enemy variants gradually, while early levels also have a very limited pool of enemies, making chains quite easy to build. Different enemy variants aren’t just there to tamper with your efforts to create large chains either, the different types throw different curveballs at you, such as becoming invulnerable after a hit, forcing you to redirect your focus elsewhere before returning, growing stronger in groups, putting up shields, having wider-ranging counter-attacks, and more. With each attack you make, your enemy counters, so the rogue-lite elements come into play as you hunt for relics that will boost your shields, buff your health, and imbue you with other elements that make you more potent on the battlefield (or simply survive longer).
Gems that you accumulate through play can be spent on Relics which will then spawn in the world at random. Some relics are one-off high powered attacks that can clear some room around you to give some breathing space, others may be Meal Tickets which add to you pool of health, or damage dealing buffs. There are more than 25 different Relics, and bring about their own advantages and disadvantages, so knowing what will help or hinder you in a given situation is important to deeper progression through the game. You don’t have to just play as Shovel Knight either, so recognising what relics will complement the skillset of the various knights from the Order of No Quarter, and the one you’ve chosen to play as for any given run, will be an important consideration as well. To bring new knights into your roster, you simply need to best them when they appear as a scheduled boss or they randomly appear for assuming you’ve met certain conditions first.
To expedite your progression there are fast-travel options for players to utilise though, like with everything in rogue-lite/likes there is a consequence to this choice with your collection of relics being fewer in number for the game’s toughest encounters. It doesn’t make it impossible to complete the game by skipping levels, but the difficulty ratchets up a few notches due to your relative gap in strength between you and your opponents.
All of these gameplay facets speak to a larger narrative involving your knight of the Order of No Quarter and an intriguing plot involving the aptly named Puzzle Knight, as you attempt to find your way out of the Pocket Dungeon that you’ve been drawn into. It’s not an overly convoluted plot, but it’s one that will elicit multiple completed runs before you’ve properly extracted all there is from the story. Beyond the core Adventure Mode, there are a few more straightforward modes, from Vs, where you’re pit against either human or CPU players, or the Daily mode where players compete against one another on a Leaderboard, where all players are forced to play with the same Knight. Like previous Shovel Knight titles and expansions, the 8Bit visual style has been retained for Pocket Dungeon, the cast of characters are charming, the sound design excellent, and the fun-factor of the era retained, despite the layers of complexity of integrated systems.
In spite of the fears of the fans, the Shovel Knight IP is once again firing on all cylinders. Pocket Dungeon delivers a rich, albeit brief experience, that blends two genres that would have once seemed incompatible, in a way that remains constantly engaging and consistently challenging. While Yacht Club’s primary focus has shifted from Shovel Knight for now, it’s great to see the franchise is in such good shape.
Shovel Knight was reviewed on the PS4. The copy was bought – no code was provided