Thanks to Yacht Club Games for the review code
Title: Shovel Knight Pocket Dungeon
Release Date: 12/13/2021
In this puzzling adventure, Shovel Knight ends up in a cursed box, containing a twisted dimension that reflects the knight’s old adventures. It’s up to him and several of his former enemies to work together to escape the Pocket Dungeon! While there is a narrative here, it’s rather simple, and you’ll absolutely be able to predict some aspects from a mile away. Thankfully, the plot doesn’t take itself seriously, leading to the main game being the focus!
The original Shovel Knight was known for being the biggest instigator of a ton of 8/16 bit sprite tribute games… For better or worse. Whatever you think of the original game, you can’t deny that the influence it had by going back to basics and faithfulness has been felt for years to come. So where does this side game trek to on this spectrum? Well, it still goes for a pixel look, but with much higher detailed sprites, so much to the point I don’t even think it’s trying to model a particular generation, it just looks like really lovely art, with tons of color galore.
The characters all have several costumes with differing colors, the hub world is easy enough to distinguish between, and the core gameplay looks pretty great as well. The animations here get the job done, and while all the enemies and obstacles that flood the screen can seem overwhelming initially, I was able to get used to my small playfield and enjoy the style.
I’m also super happy to say the music here is pretty good, even if a lot of tracks are remixes of songs from the original game. While I found the OG SK tunes to get rather generic at times and not too memorable, my favorites from there got a nice boost in quality, and a few of the brand new original compositions are outstanding background tracks. Considering how you’ll be hearing these songs a lot due to the nature of the game, I feel remixing them for catchier loops was absolutely the smart thing to do, and it fits right in with the universe. You even have the same funny dialogue sounds for conversations!
The main goal of Pocket Dungeon is to go from stage to stage, defeating waves of enemies and making your way to the exit in order to find a way to escape from the titular location. You start off in a small hub town, that gradually expands as you unlock more characters/locations/NPCs and fund expansions, before heading off into the main dungeon to attempt a run. These runs guide you through a twisted series of levels that sorta go over the worlds of Shovel Knight, while throwing in some brand new areas and diversions to mess with your expectations.
The core gameplay is a bit tough for me to describe, since it seems to blend a bunch of things together to make something semi-unique, yet at the same time, it feels like a bunch of other puzzlers/action games that I enjoy, just combined. Basically, you’re thrown in an enclosed arena that slowly fills up with enemies, hazards, and items, and you can move in four directions as the arena continues to fill up. In order to clear a stage, you need to let it empty of all enemies and gather a key to the exit door that spawns in, meaning that for a good while you’ll have to deal with waves of tricky foes to counter.
Of course, you can speed up the pace of the dungeon with a button, if you want to try and go through levels as fast as possible, but if you end up with a full screen, you’ll immediately get a game over due to being unable to do any actions. Likewise if you enable it, you’ll get a game over if you simply die once, just like a roguelike, though for the sake of this review and my own enjoyment, I went for the setting where death just causes more enemies to flood the screen while you respawn. Either way, it’s a race against time as you survive until the exit door and key come down for you to make a getaway.
So, if the dungeon is filling up constantly, how do you prevent the arena from getting all cramped? That is where the action mechanics come in, since your character interacts with an object by bumping into them, which in turn, impacts anything else of the same type that’s nearby, so if a group of eight ghosts are together, damaging one will damage them all. Of course, they’ll do damage to you when hurting them, so that’s where potions come into play, as they restore a certain amount of your HP when you come in contact, and also can group up akin to enemies, though this is more of a nuisance since it’ll eliminate extra potions you’ll almost certainly need, unless you get a certain relic that stops the chaining. This means in order to get the most gems and free up space, you’ll have to balance a rhythm between movement, enemy placement, and healing in order to clear the biggest groups of foes all at once, eventually clearing enough of them to spawn the exit key and get out of the stage.
Yes, just like the base game, there are a wide variety of relics and items that are dropped and available to be bought from Chester in stages. These can be permanent for the duration of the run, or temporary buffs to your attack in some way, whether that means longer range, extra damage, or elemental effects on enemies. There’s even the ever so handy Meal Tickets, which add to your max HP and are almost essential purchases for surviving a casual run. Of course, when you meet your end, you’ll be sent back to camp with not a thing to your name save for the amount of gems you have… Hence, the rogue aspect.
By some miracle however, Pocket Dungeon manages to do this aspect in a way that really isn’t as infuriating as it easily can get in other titles of the genre, by offering a variety of things to unlock and tinker with over the course of your game. You can go to the in-town shop and buy new relics that’ll show up as drops in the core game, buy costume colors for the knights of your choice, and even buy shortcuts to later stages in the game! This means that if you just want to beat the game, you could just use some gems to start a run later on… But on the downside, you’ll be starting fresh, meaning that any benefits you’d get by approaching that stage with a nice assortment of relics and buffs are gone, and thus the challenge level becomes way, way higher. Still, it ends up being a fun risk/reward system, where you have to decide between a longer, easier game, or a shorter, brutal game.
That’s not even taking into account the multiple playable knights on offer: Sure, Shovel Knight is a fairly decent all-rounder that’ll get you pretty far, but every now and then you’ll run into a Boss Knight, and will have to duel them in a special arena. Once you defeat them, if they weren’t previously unlocked, you’ll be able to play as them! There’s even some other characters available that are obtained in slightly different ways, so as you keep up the run attempts, you’ll gain a nice variety of playable comrades with their own playstyle. Spectre Knight takes damage from potions, and restores health from defeated enemies, while Shield Knight gains temporary defense that protects her from damage and can be exploited to hardly ever take a scratch, if you get the routine down.
There’s also the biggest plus to the game, one that completely came as a pleasant surprise: the sheer amount of accessibility options on offer! Outside of some standard, typical settings, you can outright adjust several difficulty related settings to make the game completely easy, or much, much tougher. It is notable that achievements are disabled when you tweak the game too much in this manner, but if they don’t phase you at all, then anything stressful about the difficulty here can be completely mitigated: or you can make it hyperspeed and low-health for a nightmarish run, your choice.
Last but not least, there are some minor extra modes alongside the lengthy campaign: you have a fun versus mode, albeit a local only one, where you have to outlast the other player in a gauntlet of dungeons. It’s amusing to play against CPUs and friends for a short while, but there really isn’t much merit to this mode and without online multiplayer or some sort of arcade mode, it’s more of a throwaway thing. The more intriguing mode on offer is the daily challenge: one shot at a customized run for the highest possible score!
This is where Pocket Dungeon truly shines, since while the core gameplay loop has a great addictive feel and provides plenty of incentive to try and try again, the daily challenge mode is where the scorechasing aspect comes into gear, and it truly is a great test of skill. I just wish there was something like this which wasn’t limited to daily attempts, such as a caravan mode, or maybe a randomized hi-score dungeon!
In conclusion, Shovel Knight Pocket Dungeon was a game that I had next to no expectations for going in, originally thinking it’d be a decent puzzle spinoff at best, and just a licensed attempt at worst. Leave it to VINE and Yacht to surprise me by finally making a Shovel Knight game I actually really really enjoyed and couldn’t put down, save for having to work at my job and this review.
This puzzler definitely struck tons of cords for games I like: the satisfying multi-burst mechanics from classic puzzler Collapse, the randomly generated rooms of a Mystery Dungeon game, the linear stage-by-stage progress of an arcade game, and the multiple characters with differing abilities of a fighting game. All together, you get quite the outstanding blend of addicting gameplay, and just that alone would be enough to make this an easy recommendation.
But what boosts this game a bit more for me in my eyes? The sheer amount of customization, if you don’t mind the lack of achievements when doing so. With this, anyone can beat the game and unlock who they want, or they can make it outright demonic and a true test of strength. Add in alternate routes, an addictive daily challenge mode, and hidden secrets, and you have a content-packed addictive puzzler that I’ll absolutely be buying for my Switch to play on the go for months to come. It’s brilliant how crazy you can make this Pocket Dungeon, and it gives me a proud joy to say that this puzzler was easily the biggest sleeper hit of the year: despite being tough to explain, it just has a flow that is silky smooth!
I give Shovel Knight Pocket Dungeon an 8 out of 10.