Shovel Knight is back, but not as you know him.
Forget the platforming action that you know and love Shovel Knight for. Shovel Knight: Pocket Dungeon, developed by Yacht Club Games with VINE, is instead a fast-paced puzzle game that sees you destroying groups of enemies to clear the screen, and see how far you can get before succumbing to death. It feels like a match-three puzzler with combat, and the result is… a little messy. Messy, but still pretty good fun when you get into the swing of things.
In Shovel Knight: Pocket Dungeon, enemies, blocks, treasure chests, keys and health pick-ups fall from the top of the screen. You’ll need to keep clearing everything; if the screen fills up, it’s game over. Enemies come in different types, all with varying levels of HP and all attacking you in different ways. Unless a blow is deadly, you’ll take damage each time you hit an enemy, so you’ll need to constantly keep an eye on your own health level. Thankfully, there are plenty of health potions, so you’ll spend your time between hitting enemies and refilling your health. Opening treasure chests whenever you can is also helpful, as you’ll find temporary weapon upgrades, armour and useful items.
Grouping enemies or objects together allows you to chain hits, clearing multiple of them in one go. You can take out solitary units – it isn’t quite like a match-three puzzler where you must have at least three matching blocks together – but you’ll be more successful (and score more gems) if you can take out groups, particularly of enemies. It’s not always possible to be strategic though; it’s easy to get stuck, where your only option is to hit whatever is directly next to you.
When you’re not moving, blocks fall more slowly. But every time you make a move or attack, time speeds up. It’s imperative that you’re aware of the speed of blocks falling and don’t make unnecessary movements as the screen can quickly fill up, putting you in a position that you can’t get out of. Get stuck between enemies with high HP with no potion in sight and you’re likely to die.
But even if you die, it doesn’t matter; back at your base camp, you can spend any earned gems on new items and upgrades that will start appearing in your next game. Sadly none of these boons are permanent but the more items you unlock, the more helpful upgrades will be available to you in future runs.
What does set Shovel Knight: Pocket Dungeon apart from the crowd, though, is the range of gameplay options on offer. You can tailor the difficulty to suit you, starting with whether you want infinite lives or play the game more like a rogue-lite. Be warned though: even if you choose infinite lives, you’ll still get a game over if the screen fills up. You can also change settings like the speed of the game, or how hard Shovel Knight hits by default. You can essentially enable God Mode, making you tougher than anything else you’re going to come across. But turning on any of these options means you’ll not be able to earn achievements, which is a bit disappointing.
The biggest problem with Shovel Knight: Pocket Dungeon, though, is just how chaotic it gets. It’s so easy to take your eye off your HP meter for a second, and doing so will undoubtedly lead to your demise. It’s also too easy to get yourself stuck in an impossible situation, bringing your journey to an abrupt end. It takes some of the fun out of it, with the game’s damage mechanism feeling unfair at times. After all, there’s no way of knowing how hard an enemy hits, or if it has any special abilities, until after you’ve already engaged with it.
Despite its frustrations, you’re likely to get sucked into Shovel Knight: Pocket Dungeon‘s gameplay loop. With an adventure mode, a daily challenge and a versus mode, there’s plenty to go at, too. Even if you do die frequently, you’ll probably want to jump straight back in, each time vying to get just that bit further. And the assistive options are a nice touch, even if they do disable trophies and achievements.
Shovel Knight: Pocket Dungeon Review – GameSpew’s Score