‘Shovel Knight Pocket Dungeon’ review: street rules ‘Tetris’

Action-adventure stylings blend with tile-puzzling to create a new experience, and one that shows Shovel Knight can genre-hop with the red plumber himself

If Cadence of Hyrule and Tetris had a one-night stand, the ensuing love child would be called Shovel Knight Pocket Dungeon. Raised by their uncle Enter The Gungeon, this puzzler could either coast through life or use this lineage to its advantage.

It’s safe to say Pocket Dungeon does the latter. It manages to balance itself between frenetic puzzle-combat and action-adventure design – alongside a few sprinkled-in roguelite elements – to make sure its 8×8 play area never stagnates.

I admit this as someone with no real expectations. I like Shovel Knight as a character and the world he inhabits, and I’ve played my fair share of puzzle games, but Shovel Knight Pocket Dungeon still managed to present me with a truly fresh take on puzzle-solving, like Cadence of Hyrule did for adventure games.

The core premise is somewhat similar to Tetris and Bejeweled, as enemies slowly move down the screen taking up space, and if it fills you lose. Here it’s street rules Tetris though, where the Tetrominoes would throw hands if you tried to match them.

Having the enemies/puzzle pieces deal damage when you attack creates a risk-versus-reward take on puzzle solving I truly found myself enamoured with. You can’t brute force each level, as the enemy will either kill you – which makes you respawn whilst the screen slowly fills, unless you play one-life mode – or put up a defence, meaning you need to rethink your strategy. This means how you approach each opponent changes as you interact with the stage: you might take out stragglers to set up bigger combos, make a beeline for the items to use against them, or always keep an eye out for the potions that heal you, making sure they’re never more than a few moves away.

Figuring out the intricacies of each level and its enemies is initially quite the challenge, as the speed of each encounter seems incredibly daunting (unless you slow it down or only have the screen move as you, by changing the options).

This difficulty plateaus quite quickly though, as you know exactly how to deal with each opponent, when to go for potions to maximise health, and how often to use keys on chests or spend the hard-earned gems you collect on each run in the shop. Unless you mess around with the settings, the core gameplay of Shovel Knight Pocket Dungeon doesn’t evolve all that much (but it’s already excellent).

That’s until you start playing as one of the many characters, as the sire and his shovel aren’t alone on this adventure. Almost every boss, some side characters, and even new faces are available to unlock. All of them offer a different playstyle: Shovel Knight is run-of-the-mill, Tinker Knight collects scrap for a mech, Prism Knight can teleport, and Spectre Knight heals by defeating enemies. The other characters all have special abilities as well, which means whoever you play as modifies the core gameplay loop to differing levels.

Shovel Knight Pocket Dungeon
Shovel Knight Pocket Dungeon. Credit: Yacht Club Games/Vine

For a puzzle game with a simple premise, the character-change-up delivers such an exotic dose of flair that could only really exist thanks to the wider Shovel Knight franchise. Every time I chose someone new how I approached the game almost reset; It takes what you knew about the core gameplay loop, each boss and specific level, and asks you to recontextualise how you tackle it all.

As an example, Propellor Knight takes one extra damage when attacking a chain, but gains an extra damage combo for every lone enemy he defeats. If you play your cards right, he can one-shot individual opponents and reset the combo by taking out a massive chain with just one hit. Mastering a character like that takes some time, and it creates a new gameplay scenario for you to experiment with.

Without the plethora of characters though, Pocket Dungeon would start getting weak at the knees. Imagine going to a top quality buffet where all the different dishes are served like tapas. Sure, it all tastes good, but before you know it each plate is empty. Every time you select a new character though, a new plate gets put on the table, allowing you to taste the flavours of the game for a while longer, and they’re delicious.

The roguelite elements of Pocket Dungeon are one such plate, with the chef making sure you taste the word lite. This isn’t to say these mechanics are bad, as unlocking characters and items, earning gems to spend on each run, and saving keys alongside other resources to net better rewards are welcome additions. It’s just I always felt I was snacking on them, not filling up.

Shovel Knight Pocket Dungeon
Shovel Knight Pocket Dungeon. Credit: Yacht Club Games/Vine

I’d unlocked all the items, most of the characters, and had completed my first run within a few hours. I couldn’t help but compare this unlock schedule with Dead Cells, a game that showers you in a tsunami of skins, weapons and secrets. I know it’s unfair to ask Shovel Knight Pocket Dungeon to have a seemingly unending number of items, but adding more in potential updates feels like it would incentivise me to really want to keep coming back over an extended period of time. DLC is coming too, so hopefully the game can create some more unique roguelite-based scenarios through more unlocks down the road.

Whilst the unlocks present do help make the game more interesting, it’s the initial difficulty, whilst short-lived, that may be somewhat off putting. Luckily there are some settings to tweak: base damage, game speed, player health, number of lives, and whether or not items spawn. Being able to force the game to only move when you do is a small, yet incredibly welcome, feature along with infinite lives and random level selection. There’s even an online instruction manual, which I love.

Touting this as “accessible” would be somewhat misleading though, as whilst there are the above assist features, there isn’t much else. You can make the game easier or harder, but there’s no options for colourblindness, for example. Whilst this lack of options isn’t a deal breaker for me, I’m absolutely sure it will be for someone else, which is a shame.

I’m not going to wax lyrical about the soundtrack too much at this point, but Jake Kaufman has done it again. As remixes of old tracks and new compositions are abound, and the chiptune style does so much of the aesthetic heavy lifting it should enter The World’s Strongest Man. The pace of each composition matches the frenzied puzzle solving so well and still sounds distinctly Shovel Knight, meaning it feels incredible to dance around a level and have the music match that energy.

Yacht Club Games has admitted that falling block puzzle games “rarely get critical acclaim,” and outside the recent Tetris Effect they’re probably right. But Shovel Knight Pocket Dungeon has once again proven that the-little-blue-knight-that-could is a gaming icon, and one which can bounce between genres like the ball hitting the pegs in a pachinko machine.

If you like Shovel Knight or puzzle games you can’t go wrong with Shovel Knight Pocket Dungeon. To get more mileage out of it though you need to be prepared to master every character, as their wildly different play styles successfully bring a new context to the game.

Shovel Knight Pocket Dungeon was developed between Yacht Club Games and Vine. It launches on December 13 for Nintendo Switch, PlayStation, and PC, and this review is for the PC version.

The Verdict

Despite tackling a completely different genre, Shovel Knight Pocket Dungeon shows this franchise is still at its peak. A must-play for fans of the original and puzzle games alike, some inventive mechanics help make it truly special to experience. Even if there are a couple of small issues.

Pros

  • Character variety and how that impacts gameplay
  • The damage system’s twist on the puzzle genre
  • Excellent style and aesthetic
  • Shovel Knight proves it can adapt genres and remain true to itself

Cons

  • Roguelite elements feel somewhat underbaked
  • Could do with more unlocks at launch
  • Lacking accessibility features outside of some small sliders
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