Shovel Knight Pocket Dungeon Review: Breaking Ground in a Strange New World
As an early adopter and proud fanboy of the Shovel Knight series, I was ecstatic to get a chance to review Pocket Dungeon. It’s the latest in the renowned series, and a collaboration between Yacht Club and Vine. It takes the trademark aspects fans have come to love and melds them, pretty seamlessly, with puzzle game mechanics. But as someone that’s seen offshoots of the main series miss the mark before, I wasn’t sure how well this hybrid would work. Keep reading this Shovel Knight Pocket Dungeon review to see if this game successfully breaks new ground for this amazing indie series.
It all starts when Shovel Knight finds a present. Fitting timing, what with the December release, right? Well, actually it’s not that sort of present. Inside is a mysterious and arcane-looking puzzle box, and it quickly draws the blue hero inside. He finds himself brought into a pocket dimension, but luckily he’s not alone. He quickly meets his old ally Chester, along with someone new named Puzzle Knight. They’ve both been trapped inside the box for a while now, but upon the chance meeting with Shovel Knight, they glimpse a path forward involving magical key fragments. Getting them all will take courage, strength, and brains, but Shovel Knight’s just the hero to lead them to victory.
You have your choice at the beginning of how you want the game to proceed. You can take your lumps with Single Stock mode, which plays out more like a rogue-lite. If you prefer being less frustrated, however, you can instead pick Infinite Stock mode. This is more traditional, since death doesn’t immediately return you to the HUB camp. However, you can still die if the board gets completely full. Either way, Shovel Knight will have his work cut out for him, since Pocket Dungeon is not an easy game.
Bump and Grind
By now, you’re probably all wondering how Shovel Knight works as a puzzle game. The answer is surprisingly well. Items and enemies fall slowly on their own, or fall in accordance with every action you take. Almost everything is controlled with simple directional inputs. Press a direction, and Shovel Knight will fling his shovel in that direction. If there’s an enemy or obstruction, you’ll whack it with your shovel. If there’s an expendable item or free space, you’ll move in that direction. The thing to keep in mind is whenever you attack a foe, you’ll take some damage. You’ll have a handy preview displaying how much damage each enemy deals, which is a literal lifesaver. Cause if you can’t beat them before you run out of health, it’s game over.
Luckily, Shovel Knight himself has a rad ability where if he deals a fatal blow to a foe, he won’t die in the process, no matter how low his health is. Each of the unlockable playable characters has their own unique characteristics they bring to battle. King Knight can bash through foes at the expense of damaging himself, and Specter Knight actually heals by killing opponents. That’s really handy, but in general, the way you’ll heal is with potions you’ll find in stages. And the key to everything is making smart use of chains. Chains are essentially when more than one type of item is grouped together. If you hit them, you’ll hit all of them. This is especially handy in dealing with groups of enemies, since you can exploit a weakened foe to destroy a whole group of enemies with full health. Additionally, the faster you make chains and defeat enemies, the more you’ll keep your gem meter full, which will reward you with glittery goodies. And those, in turn, are used to unlock more features in Shovel Knight Pocket Dungeon.
It’s a good thing defeat returns you to the HUB camp, cause you’ll spend a lot of time there unlocking more content. You can spend cash with Chester to unlock Relics, making it possible for them to show up in subsequent runs. There’s a huge variety, from some that make bomb explosions larger to items that bring you back from death’s door and much more besides. Just keep in mind, unlocking something doesn’t mean you constantly have it with you. You’ll still need to find Chester in levels and pay more cash to get the equipment you want that run. Besides unlocking relics, you can also give money to a weirdo so Shovel Knight can change into different colored suits of armor. Or maybe you’ll want to pay so you can warp to previously beaten areas. There’s a lot of options, and tons of secrets to ferret out, which is both in line with the Shovel Knight series, as well as a great incentive to keep playing.
Besides all the stuff you can unlock, you’ll also randomly find items in stages. These can range from bombs that explode in a set radius to various weapons that change how Shovel Knight attacks. One of my favorites is a shield that prevents one damage from every encounter, which is incredibly helpful. Just keep in mind, equipable items have limited uses, and you’ll need to find them in treasure chests. To open them up, you’ll need a key first. Luckily those will spawn around the time the chests appear. Just keep in mind that you’ll have to defeat a sufficient number of foes first to beat any level. So you’ll need to manage your greed alongside your strategy.
One of the things I appreciated about Shovel Knight Pocket Dungeon is how every enemy fights differently. For example, ghosts will go intangible after being hit, forcing you to whack something else before you can hurt them again; Goldarmor will block in the direction you hit them, requiring you to reorient your next attack to break through; and there are even giant octopus tentacles that will expand until they get stopped, forcing you to slay them to free up the board. There’s a ton of variety, and it’s all very true to how these foes worked in the original game.
If that wasn’t enough, there are also challenging boss fights in Pocket Dungeon. Every few stages, you’ll encounter a random boss fight. The first one I discovered was Specter Knight, and he was not pleased. He threw his scythe around, summoned undead hordes, and generally made things difficult. But he’s not alone, and you’ll face off against the Order of No Quarter the farther you get. The good news is, successfully beating any of them also unlocks them as playable characters. So even though Pocket Dungeon isn’t a huge game, there’s a ton of replayability just begging you to keep at it, which is good, since most stages can be beaten in less than 2 minutes, at least once you have the proper equipment.
Glorious Chibi Sprites
Visually, Shovel Knight Pocket Dungeon is gushing with glorious sprite art. There’s a chibi quality to everything that’s both very endearing and visually attractive. I honestly think the art here is more vibrant than in the original game, and that’s really saying something. You won’t get bored as you play, and can marvel at all the little touches hidden in plain sight. As for the music, it’s more great work from Jake Kaufman. It’s loud, catchy, and bombastic. That said, I’m not sure if I prefer the music here to that in the original, which still strikes me as genre-defining. That said, visually and musically, this is a really fantastic game.
I have very few complaints about Pocket Dungeon, but here’s a couple that held it back from a higher score. One issue, and hopefully one that’s addressed once the game is officially out, is the complete lack of Steam screenshot functionality. I love taking screens as I play games, for review and otherwise. The lack of it here forced me to use other means to grab screenshots, and it really slowed my process down. The other more substantive issue is I feel the game is a wee bit too hard for its own good. Don’t get me wrong, I know puzzle games tend to get challenging, but any wrong moves here can rapidly lead to your death. I think some small rebalancing would go a long way to addressing this issue.
A Worthy New Adventure
Ultimately, Shovel Knight Pocket Dungeon is a great success. It managed to meld a classic indie series with a dynamic new style, and for the most part, it works pretty well. Yes, it may be a bit too challenging for its own good, but not so much I ever put it down for long. If you’re a fan of the series or just enjoy new puzzle games, I’d definitely check it out. Besides the main adventure, there’s a ton of other modes to explore, as well as secrets to uncover. Here’s hoping the next offshoot title from Yacht Club Games continues this positive trend.
Final Verdict: 4/5
Available on: PC (reviewed), Switch, PS4; Publisher: Yacht Club Games; Developer: VINE, Yacht Club Games; Players: 1-2; Released: December 13, 2021; MSRP: $19.99
Editor’s note: The publisher provided a review copy to Hey Poor Player.