In a weird way, the best puzzle games and the best roguelike games have one notable feature in common: simplicity. Or rather, a foundation of simple gameplay mechanics with several unique twists, attractive style, unique worlds, etc, built on top of it. The end success should game something that creates a highly-engaging gameplay loop that can easily keep players addicted for hours. So it makes sense that Yacht Club Games would spin off Shovel Knight and its memorable universe and characters off into one of the games. But why settle for one genre when you can have both? Yes, Yacht Club has teamed up with VINE for Shovel Knight Pocket Dunegon, a roguelike dungeon crawler/puzzle game hybrid.
Shovel Knight Pocket Dungeon has a simple story to go along with a seemingly simple game: one day, our titular hero stumbles across a mysterious cube of some kind, which promptly sucks them into the Pocket Dungeon. It turns out that the other Knights have been sucked in as well, and the prodigious Puzzle Knight has built up a camp to help everyone out and eventually find a way to escape, with the apparent solution being to find and defeat the Pocket Dungeon Master. Of course, the dungeon has a series of enemy-filled areas to traverse on the way to the Pocket Dungeon Master, including the other Knights that wouldn’t mind a chance to defeat Shovel Knight in battle, so that sort of makes things trickier.
Mastering the gameplay isn’t that tricky, though. Each level takes place on a rectangular grid that you move Shovel Knight around in in four different directions, all while different enemies, blocks, potions, chests and more drop down from the top of the screen. While all of these elements move slowly while Shovel Knight stands still, space by space, they notably speed up when you move him around. So you have to figure out how to properly get similar enemies and such group together in order to form a chain, allowing you to take out many at once (trading blows along the way), all while adjusting for the possibility of more stuff falling on you even faster along the way. Defeat enough enemies, and the exit door to the next level can be opened with a key.
Needless to say, Shovel Knight Pocket Dungeon has controls that are easy to master, basically just requiring you to move around and bump into things, either to attack or interact with everyone at the camp in between runs. Though there are special moves that can used by some of the Knights unlocked by beating them in boss battles, like Tinker Knight being able to craft explosive mechs or newcomer Prism Knight being able to teleport that only require one or two buttons as well, along with items to deploy in a similar manner. Things are nice and simple, but the game still manages to be nice and challenging along the way…depending on how you like it.
While Shovel Knight Pocket Dungeon may be a roguelike/puzzle hybrid, it does open by asking you which of the two you’d prefer to lean towards via its Stock. Choose Single Stock, and the game goes by roguelike rules, that being you die once and the run is over. Choose Infinite Stock, though, and you get rules more suited for puzzle fans, allowing you to die as many times you want via combat damage, but let the screen fill up and it’s game over (which goes for Single Stock as well), and the respawn time allows for it to fill up quicker. Or you can just select how much stock/lives you like to have after a while. The game knows how to deliver a great amount of accessibility options, allowing players to randomize levels, deal more damage, remove bosses or even remove items and relics, whatever makes for a better-tailored difficulty level.
Regardless of what options you’ve chosen, however, you’re always in danger of running across the most vile enemy in any sort of roguelike or roguelike hybrid: Mr. RNG. Yes, sometimes it’s possible to simply get a series of bap drops or spawns, be it a lack of potions you might need in between dealing with enemies or winding up with a cluster of enemies with huge health bars. It’s the one notable flaw with Shovel Knight Pocket Dungeon, though by this point it’s arguably a default flaw for the genre in general. Still, things are always kept challenging and fun even with these moments, especially during the boss battles that emphasize the timing and strategy needed to succeed in the game, and nicely show off each character’s skills and personalities.
Of course, getting to bosses also require another enjoyable roguelike tradition, that of trying to find the right combinations of unlockable relics that provide enough passive buffs to help break things, be it the ability to have more bombs spawn or letting you float above floor hazards, among other things. To get the relics means you have to spend your hard-earned gems gained from successful chains back at the camp with Chester, who opens up shops in chests you can find as well. Or you can always give your gems to Percy instead, who operates the cannon that can shoot you ahead to levels you’ve already visited, which helps things even further, even if it means lacking the equipment you can normally find in previous levels.
Another reason to be thorough when searching those previous levels, though, is the addition of secret portals that contain bonus chests, challenge rooms and areas that lead to further secrets beyond the “normal” ending. Again, the story isn’t a deep one, but the characters still get to shine even with the minimal dialogue they have, along with their previously-mentioned unique skills (which allow for a lot of unique strategic moments, like with Specter Knight’s ability to regain health by defeating enemies at the cost of potions dealing them damage). Heck, even the basic enemies are charming in their appearance and even some of their unique movements, which nicely work with the level designs and additional enemies. It helps that, as expected, the pixel art is once again astounding, with crisp and cartoonish visuals that give this entire world life, with nice and fast-paced music on top.
There’s not much to say here about Shovel Knight Pocket Dungeon; it’s simply just a great blend of puzzlers and roguelikes. It succeeds via every little thing giving it additional flavor, from the ice sculptures you can craft, to the mini-games you can find, and the joy and satisfaction in taking out a massive group of enemies and earning a ton of gems in the process. But as mentioned in the intro, what matters most is that it has easy to learn/hard to master gameplay that keeps you hooked for hours, just like the greats of either genre.
Shovel Knight Pocket Dungeon may seem like a minor yet unexpected twist for the franchise, but it’s a twist that pays off big time. The core gameplay is easy to get into, but you quickly discover that there’s a deeper level of strategy required, and the next thing you know, you’re on a streak of multiple runs, trying to get past that one particular level. Throw in multiple characters with different playstyles that allow for variety, amazing graphics and a nice chuck of stuff to unlock, and you have a true gem, be it roguelikes or puzzle games (or both) that you prefer. Shovel Knight Pocket Dungeon might be a pocket-sized dungeon, but there’s a huge amount of fun in it.