Having made a big splash in Yacht Club Games’ Shovel Knight in 2014, the titular hero has certainly kept busy but also under the radar with a full-on sequel still a distance away, though the hero has been appearing in countless other games while also preparing for two spin-offs titles. Digging its way out first is Shovel Knight: Pocket Dungeon, a spin-off that takes familiar characters and places them in a puzzle setting and while the gameplay formula has changed, there is no doubt it adds to the polish of the franchise, and at the same time adding one of the best puzzle games in recent memory to the genre.
The premise is the Pocket Dungeon itself, which has trapped our hero in a dimension with its own rules. The introduction of the new Puzzle Knight gives us a hint of how to escape, and there is definitely more than meets the eye as you attempt to master this new genre for Shovel Knight.
To call it a puzzle game is kind of simplifying the many different mechanics at play. There is a tile-matching element, where enemies or other objects can be chained to eliminate more of them at once. Players can do this by manoeuvring a physical character about, with strategic thinking required to lay the foundation for bigger moves down the line.
Enemies move as you do, but also on a timer that generates independent movement. It is also not as simple as a one-hit kill, as both the hero and the foes have different amounts of health, essentially turning Shovel Knight: Pocket Dungeon into a puzzle-action hybrid.
It can sound complicated, but just like the purity of the 2D side-scrolling action in the main game, Yacht Club and fellow developers Vine have done an excellent job in easing players in.
Death is inevitable, but so is learning about all the various parts in motion. Once you think you have a good grasp of the best strategy moving forward, Shovel Knight: Pocket Dungeon then throws new enemy types with special properties into the mix, constantly keeping players on their toes. The same goes with special items that can be of immense help, all instantly recognisable by brilliant art and useful descriptions.
Although the game is named after the blue knight, Shovel Knight is also not the only star in this puzzle circus. As you progress through the many stages and repeat the cycle, other knights from the Order of No Quarter will stand in your way as bosses to overcome.
Beat them, and they will join the roster of available characters to choose from, bringing their own unique abilities from the original game and adding a twist in this puzzle realm.
The flexibility and abilities of these knights contribute substantially to the overall replayability of the game, and it helps that they are a ton of fun to play. If you are all about killing, Spectre Knight will be a good choice as he recovers health from eliminating enemies, but also takes damage from healing potions. Polar Knight is able to freeze enemies in a chain when dealing fatal damage, while Prism Knight can teleport and swap places with enemies to gain an advantage.
This cycle of learning, mastering, and discovering new ways to play within the confines of the rules of Shovel Knight: Pocket Dungeon is utterly enjoyable, and the fun does not just stop there.
The game also features a roguelite take on dungeon crawling, starting you fresh for each run with random treasures up for grabs. As you accumulate more gems from consistently putting together chains, you can spend those on powerful Relics that bring a host of benefits. It could be as simple as an HP boost, or more specific boosts such as +1 damage on the first hit or being able to avoid hazards by floating.
As you get stronger and outfitted with more useful Relics, it can change how players approach the different levels in Shovel Knight: Pocket Dungeon. This journey is well worth taking each and every time, even with the option of skipping certain levels, and that growth will help you become better at surviving all the way to the end.
Keeping an eye out for certain secrets and conditions will lead players on a slightly different path, and unlock the way to the true ending. Discovering how everything fits into place is a wild ride, and provides players with yet more motivation to see things to the end. It all culminates in making the main Adventure mode a neverending treat.
Outside of the main story, there is also the option of a VS mode, channelling a vibe similar to Puzzle Fighter with the added caveat of character-specific abilities. A Daily mode also throws specific challenges that require a set character at the global player base for bragging rights on the leaderboards. Lastly, there is also the unlockable Endless mode that is reserved for the best heroes out there, where survival will test all of the skills you have mastered.
And even though Shovel Knight: Pocket Dungeon rewards mastery and the understanding of its overlapping systems, the developers have included some helpful accessibility options to welcome players of all skill levels.
You can tweak the game speed, how much health you have, the damage you can do, and more, allowing beginners to get the ropes first without the frustration of death constantly staring them in the face.
When the world was first introduced to Shovel Knight, it was meant to be a homage to the classics of gaming with its pixel-perfect platforming. Now, seven years on, we are still getting the same level of polish and attention to detail in Shovel Knight: Pocket Dungeon, all while paving the way for a new gold standard in puzzle games.
GEEK REVIEW SCORE
A refreshing take on the puzzle genre, Shovel Knight: Pocket Dungeon combines different mechanics seamlessly to produce an invigorating experience that is both challenging and accessible for players of all kinds.
Gameplay - 9/10
Story - 8/10
Presentation - 9.5/10
Value - 9/10