Spin-offs are a tricky thing to get right. For every Simpsons, there’s a Young Sheldon; for every Better Call Saul, a Torchwood. Shovel Knight: Pocket Dungeon takes the original game’s spade-wielding protagonist and throws him into a whole new genre: a rogue-lite puzzle adventure. Such a huge change could easily have resulted in a Joey-esque failure. What developers Yacht Club Games and Vine have achieved with Pocket Dungeon, though, is nothing short of a Frasier.
Can you dig it?
2014’s Shovel Knight played like a forgotten 8-bit NES platformer that never was. Pocket Dungeon, however, takes inspiration from the dormant genre of the falling block puzzle game. Our hero finds himself transported to a strange dungeon made up of grid-based levels that slowly fill up with ghosts and ghoulies. His only guide is the eccentric Puzzle Knight, who informs Shovel Knight that he must bash these foes to death with his shovel before they fill the screen in order to escape.
Be warned, though: the ghoulies hit back. Every time you damage an enemy, they inflict damage on you in turn. Some will even leave pools of acid or lava behind, damaging you from beyond the grave. With only a handful of health points to your name, combat is a delicate dance of whacking your foes and making pit stops for healing potions. This tension results in a rush of satisfaction when things go your way, but is rarely frustrating when they don’t. Fallen enemies drop gems, the game’s currency, and the tinkly sound they make as they enter your purse quickly inspired an almost Pavlovian response from my dopamine centre.
Time passes slowly in Pocket Dungeon, and only speeds up when you move. I felt the urge to try powering through as quickly as possible, and quickly learned to do the opposite; patience is often a virtue. By allowing enemies to stack up, you can attack one and harm the rest for huge combos. It’s immensely gratifying to obliterate a swarm of twenty or more Boneclangs at once. The longer you keep your combo meter up, the more gems you’ll earn; this is something that I had to figure out for myself, and that I would have liked the game’s tutorial to be a little clearer on.
Ace of spades
All of this makes for a very fun and addictive core gameplay loop. Levels only take a minute or two to beat, making them a wonderful diversion for when you only have a short time in which to play. In my time with the game I’d often tell myself ‘Just one more level before bed’ and soon find that entire hours had melted away. I’d wake up each morning and immediately think of Pocket Dungeon, plotting ways to carve out time for the game throughout the day.
Pocket Dungeon’s addictiveness is partly a product of its structure. This is a rogue-lite game, meaning that if you die, you head back to your campsite and start from the beginning. That doesn’t mean there isn’t meaningful progression though; you keep the gems you earn in each run and can spend them on items and relics at the campsite’s shop. From the moment you buy them, these power-ups will randomly appear in chests in each level. Every time you play Pocket Dungeon, your arsenal grows a little stronger, and it gets a little more likely that you’ll live to see your adventure to the end.
By default, Pocket Dungeon only lets you die once before starting over. The game encourages you to toy with its settings, though, to give yourself as many lives as you’re comfortable with. After several hours of the default experience, I experimented a bit with the settings. I found that giving myself three lives smoothed out the potential frustration of dying while still presenting a formidable challenge. Extra lives aren’t without penalty, though; each time you die and return within the same level, you’ll lose a bundle of gems and have to go out of your way to get them back.
Meet the new boss
You’ll encounter a boss every few levels, rival Knights from the villainous Order of No Quarter. When you defeat them, they join your party as alternate playable characters. Shovel Knight himself is something of a basic bitch; he really can only whack enemies with his shovel. The other Knights, however, each have a special ability that can completely change the way you play, creating dozens of hours worth of replay value.
Plague Knight can poison enemies, while Shield Knight can grow resistant to damage after chaining attacks together. My personal favourite was the portly Mole Knight, who can tunnel underneath enemies and swap places with them. This proved to be a great way to manoeuvre foes into huge chainable groups; once I’d unlocked Mole Knight, I found it hard to imagine playing Pocket Dungeon as anybody else.
As with the original Shovel Knight, Pocket Dungeon’s visuals capture the spirit of classic 8-bit games while making some modern improvements. Characters and environments are a bit more detailed and colourful than the NES games of old, but they still feel satisfyingly retro. Each enemy has a unique design, invaluable for quickly identifying them and changing your approach as needed. The game also boasts a rousing chip-tune score, and satisfyingly crunchy sound effects as you swat foes and set off explosions.
Dig for fire
Shovel Knight: Pocket Dungeon proves there’s still a lot of untapped potential in the universe that Yacht Club Games created. Though it might seem like simple fun at first, it offers a pleasurably complex and more-ish experience. This is a game I’ll be returning to many times in the future to uncover more of its intricacies and secrets. If future games in the Shovel Knight franchise are as much fun as Pocket Dungeon, the future looks very bright indeed.