In March 2013, one of the greatest success stories in video game crowdfunding began when the Kickstarter campaign for Shovel Knight was launched. The next year Yacht Club Games released this retro style platformer, and gamers and critics alike were enthralled by a blend of Ducktales, Mega Man and Dark Souls. Since then the game has had several massive updates that included entirely new campaigns and playable characters, but fans have been eagerly awaiting a new adventure for our shovel wielding hero. Perhaps a roguelike puzzle game wasn’t the first thing most of us had in mind, but Shovel Knight Pocket Dungeon is every bit as exciting as its predecessor.
On his latest quest, Shovel Knight finds himself trapped in the titular Pocket Dungeon. With the help of his new guide Puzzle Knight, you’ll need to make your way through multiple stages without dying in order to solve the riddle of this intriguing place. Each stage is made up of enemies that drop in from the sky, and it’s up to you to shovel through the lot of them and escape through the exit. All of this is done by moving towards an enemy to attack them, and although this might sound simple you’ll soon realise that life in the Pocket Dungeon is anything but.
Shovel Knight Pocket Dungeon: damage all-round
When you move into an enemy you’ll both deal damage to each other, but you’ll also damage any enemies next to them. This means that in each enclosed stage you’ll be aiming to line up as many foes as possible to dispatch them all at once, to ensure you take less damage. It’s a really clever system for a puzzle game, which really lends itself to fast paced gameplay I wouldn’t necessarily associate with the genre.
You’ll have to learn quickly how to deal with each type of enemy you face, because there is a huge variety as you progress through the stages. There are slimes that leave pools of damaging poison, spikey knights that block attacks from the first direction you attack, and even ghosts that vanish after each hit. Each new stage brings a whole host of new mechanics to discover, and I really enjoyed getting to grips with them in each run.
The element of random
Enemies aren’t the only thing you’ll find in the dungeon, with blocks, potions and chests littering the area too. Potions will heal you if you’ve been damaged, but just like the enemies if they are next to each other you’ll chain them together. Whereas taking enemies down in a massive chain is ideal, drinking 10 potions at once just means you’ll have less to use later in the stage. Balancing hit points, potions and enemies quickly becomes a tricky task, and if you slow down for too long to think about how to best survive you’ll lose your score multiplier.
As you might expect from a Roguelike, Pocket Dungeon features random elements every time you play and permanent death is only ever one step away. On each run you’ll come across different items and power ups as you progress further into the dungeon, and any gems you gather can be spent at camp to unlock new items for future attempts, shortcuts, and even snazzy outfits. Although I appreciated that you can progress between failed runs, I did run out of new things to buy quite quickly.
Challenging but fair
Shovel Knight Pocket Dungeon is almost immediately a challenging game, but fortunately there are a bunch of power ups, relics and items to help you survive in the dungeon. Opening chests will give you a handy temporary item, which might reduce damage for the next few fights or freeze enemies so they can’t hit you back. Relics are more permanent upgrades you’ll find in shops that will buff you for the rest of the run. Some relics are fairly straightforward, like meal tickets that boost your max hp, but others have more interesting and situational effects. If you’re good at keeping the pace you can buy relics that boost your attack when you’re at maximum multiplier, or maybe you’d rather make yourself stronger against enemies not chained to their pals for a completely different play style.
Every few stages you’ll come across a familiar face for a boss fight. All your favourite Knights from the original game are here, and taking them on in grid based combat is always a nice change of pace. Boss fights usually involve working out the attack pattern of an enemy Knight and rushing over for a slap of the shovel or two once they’re vulnerable. With enemies and potions still dropping from the sky though, you’ll have to keep your wits about you if you want to survive. Once you beat a boss, they become available as a playable character back at camp for even more opportunities to shake up the gameplay.
Shovel Knight Pocket Dungeon: each character plays differently
Each character you unlock in Shovel Knight plays completely differently from the last, and it’s really fun to experiment with them all. There’s Specter Knight who heals by killing enemies but takes damage from potions, Treasure Knight who can deal extra damage from below, and my personal favourite Scrap Knight who can put enemies in her bag and place them somewhere else. There are over 10 characters to unlock, and I can’t even begin to imagine how long it would take to master them all.
As well as the main campaign that you could easily sink dozens of hours into, there are a handful of other exciting modes to dive into too. The Daily run works the same way as it does in other Roguelikes, with an identical challenge to try each day as a specific character, with leaderboards to challenge your friends or the world. There’s also Versus mode, which sees you taking on a friend or the AI in a puzzle battle to the death. Getting big chains sends extra blocks over to your opponent, and whoever fills their screen first loses.
Incredible audio and visuals
It would have been easy for less attention to have been paid to the visuals and soundtrack in Pocket Dungeon, but both are simply incredible. The visuals are an upgrade from the NES style of the original with charming results, and the audio is fantastic. All new tunes have been recorded by Jake Kaufman, and getting to listen to one of the greatest soundtracks of the year makes every run worthwhile.
Shovel Knight Pocket Dungeon is frankly one of the single greatest puzzle games I have ever played. With varied and compelling gameplay, interesting Roguelike elements and a shed load of content, this new instalment in the Shovel Knight franchise does not disappoint in the slightest. Even if you only have a passing interest in puzzle games, Pocket Dungeon is not a game you can afford to miss.
Extremely enjoyable puzzle gameplay.
Fantastic Roguelike elements
Loads of characters
Versus mode is a blast
Not enough to spend money on