Shovel Knight Pocket Dungeon Review

A while back, my older brother referred to Shovel Knight as the “Mario of Indie games.” That’s a pretty accurate description of Yacht Club Games’ shovel-wielding hero. His impact on Indie games, timeless appeal, and penchant for cameos in other games does bring to mind what Nintendo’s famed plumber has done for the mainstream. Though perhaps the comparison between Shovel Knight and Super Mario has never been more prominent than it is with Shovel Knight Pocket Dungeon, which removes Shovel Knight from his action-platforming norms into the world of falling block puzzle games. Just as Mario seems capable of transitioning into any genre and making it his own (whether it be RPG, sports or party games), Shovel Knight has now done something similar with Pocket Dungeon, one of the most original and engaging puzzle games in years.

Co-developed by Yacht Club Games and Vine and released at the tail end of 2021, Pocket Dungeon doesn’t just place Shovel Knight in a puzzle game, but the action elements of his titular series as well.

The game works as such: enemies and blocks fall from the top of the screen to the bottom, moving slowly over time as well as whenever Shovel Knight (or whatever playable character) moves. The game ends if the screen fills up completely, but you can also play a rouge-like mode that additionally can end if the player loses all their hit points. By bumping into an enemy, the player damages them. But the enemy also damages the player with every hit, with the exception the final blow. If multiple copies of the same enemy (or block) are adjacent to each other, then defeating them will give the player a chain, awarding them with more gems, which are used to purchase items as well as giving the player a high score. And don’t worry, potions also fall from the top of the screen to heal your hit points.

A certain number of enemies need to be defeated before the exit door of a stage appears, at which point the player can exit right away and move on to the next stage, or try to defeat every remaining enemy and block to claim an additional bonus. A boss fight shows up at the end of every third stage, with a secret boss waiting at the end of the game if you’ve managed to perform a specific set of tasks.

Also included in the stages are keys, treasure chests, shops and bonus areas. The keys naturally open the chests to reveal power-ups (which may give the player a boost in damage, a shield to block a few hits, or other such limited use items). The blue chests lead to the shop (going inside pauses the stage until you leave). Here you can purchase upgrades that give the player bonuses that, unlike the aforementioned items, last throughout the current playthrough (such as additional hit points or immunity to electric attacks, things of that nature). The bonus areas may ask the player to remove all enemies and objects within a small room, with bonus gems and items awarded if you succeed, or just provide the player with free keys and items. Of course, should you get a game over, you lose all your items and upgrades, and return to camp to start over from the beginning (though you can unlock the ability to go directly to later stages, but at the disadvantage of not having the bonuses you might otherwise have when you reach that point).

As it is, the game would already be a blast. It’s so full of variety in enemies and stage-specific obstacles, not to mention the switching around of items and upgrades at the shop every playthrough, that Pocket Dungeon successfully merges an action game with a falling block puzzler. But then the game goes above and beyond by including different playable characters, each with their own abilities that change up the game all the more.

Some characters you unlock by progressing through the story, while others are the boss characters that you unlock after defeating them (each boss stage has a number of potential bosses, so you never know who you’re going to get). Most of the characters are returning from the original Shovel Knight and its expansions, though a few new characters show up as well.

Plague Knight poisons the enemies he attacks, meaning they take an additional hit of damage after a second (other characters can purchase an upgrade that does the same for them which, yes, stacks when used by Plague Knight). Tinker Knight is unique in that he collects metal from the blocks. He is lower on hit points, but with enough metal he can gain a mechanical suit that gives him extra strength (but also explodes when the metal is used up, so be careful). Shield Knight can generate shields by defeating chains of enemies. The bigger the chain, the more hits her shield can block. New character Scrap Knight can pick up an enemy or object and move them somewhere else. My personal favorite is Mole Knight, who can dig underground to switch positions with something else on the board, giving the player all kinds of ways to move around and create chains.

With Shovel Knight alone, the game would be great and full of variety. With these additional characters (plus a number of others I didn’t mention), you can easily get engrossed in Shovel Knight Pocket Dungeon just by trying out every character and seeing how they change up the formula.

Even the enemies have their own quirks. Skeletons hit the player for extra damage, while knights put up a shield after your first strike, leaving you to attack them from a different position. Magician-like enemies will teleport once they’re down to their last hit point, while meddlesome yetis will freeze any other enemy or object (or the player) and scatter them across the board. It’s very impressive how much variety Vine and Yacht Club Games managed to squeeze into Pocket Dungeon.

I will admit, the game’s unique merging of genres may take some getting used to. And even when you’re accustomed to it, it can get so chaotic you still might not be able to keep track of your hit points or other things. But once you get the hang of it, Pocket Dungeon is incredibly fun (and only occasionally frustrating). It’s also a little bit of a bummer that the game currently lacks online multiplayer options, which will be added at a later date. Though I suppose this is a rare instance in which the game is so good as it is, I can forgive it if it wasn’t quite complete right out the gate.

In the spirit of Shovel Knight, Pocket Dungeon has great, colorful sprites (who look a little more SNES than the NES-inspired original game), and an awesome soundtrack that features remixes of the original Shovel Knight themes as well as some new stuff that’s just as catchy.

Perhaps the best thing about Shovel Knight Pocket Dungeon is that it’s one of those games that reminds me why we love video games to begin with. It’s a few simple concepts filled with creative ideas, that all come together through great gameplay to create a fun game. One of the best of 2021.

Like the original Shovel Knight, Pocket Dungeon trims the fat of modern gaming to remind us how great a pure video game experience can be.

It’s-a him, Shovel Knight!

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Shovel Knight: Plague of Shadows Review

Plague of Shadows

Shovel Knight remains not only one of the best games from the current console generation, but very likely the best indie game I’ve ever played. Taking the foundations of many of the best 8-bit games and creating its own identity through them, Shovel Knight is at once a retro charmer and a modern classic. It’s no surprise that it’s become one of the most successful indie releases in the industry.

Plague of Shadows is Shovel Knight’s first of three promised add-on adventures, and places boss enemy Plague Knight in the starring role. Although it borrows many of the same levels and elements as the core game, Plague of Shadow’s new character means new gameplay and an all-new story are at play. And it all comes as something of a steal, as Plague of Shadows is an automatically added expansion to Shovel Knight for anyone who owns the game, as opposed to paid DLC.

You would be forgiven for thinking Plague of Shadows is nothing more than Shovel Knight with a character swap from first glance. It uses the same world map, the same levels, and the same bosses (though Shovel Knight is now fought in Plague Knight’s domain, with the game keeping continuity with the outcome of the battle in a fun way). The destructible checkpoints return, as do all the levels’ obstacles and gimmicks. But Plague Knight is a vastly different character than Shovel Knight, ultimately turning Plague of Shadows into a new experience within this treaded path.

Whereas Shovel Knight was confined to a grounded and jump attack, along with the various items he picked up along his journey, Plague Knight has a more versatile and customizable means of attack.

Plague of ShadowsPlague Knight’s weapons of choice are bombs. Throughout the game, players can purchase new casings, powders and fuses for Plague Knight’s bombs. Casings determine how the bombs are thrown (some are tossed in an arch, while others are rolled or bounced on the ground), powders determine what happens when the bombs explode (one sends flames in both directions of Plague Knight, for example, while another works as a homing missile), and fuses determine how long it takes for a bomb to explode.

Additionally, Plague Knight is not nearly the jumper that Shovel Knight was, being able to double jump, but with both jumps not equalling the distance of even one of Shovel Knight’s. To compensate, Plague Knight can also gain “Burst,” which are moves performed by holding and releasing the attack button, which give Plague Knight an added boost in his jumps.

The relics that Shovel Knight collected in his adventure can still be found, but instead of being used as their own weapons, Plague Knight can trade them in to a merchant in exchange for Arcana, which basically function like Shovel Knight’s relics and use magic points, but they are an entirely new library of moves.

At any given time, you can go to the character menu and customize which casings, powders, fuses, Bursts and Arcana that Plague Knight is using, giving the game a great sense of variety. You’ll probably find a particular setup that suits your liking, but you will still need to change things up every here and there when certain situations are better dealt with different moves.

The vastly different approach to Plague Knight’s gameplay makes the experience feel brand new again. Though on the downside, you may find that some of the platforming has become considerably more difficult, due to Plague Knights purposefully awkward jumping. And repeatedly holding the attack button to perform Bursts can feel a tad cumbersome (sometimes you’ll have to be careful not to overshot your jumps with a Burst, making them as risky as they are helpful).

Plague of ShadowsConversely, the boss fights now feel a great deal easier, as you can continuously bombard them with bombs thrown from the air ground (of the game’s returning bosses, only Propeller Knight gave me any notable challenge). The difficulty is therefor not as consistent as that of the original game, and it’s easy to see many players preferring Shovel Knight’s balance over Plague Knight’s on-again, off-again difficulty.

Plague of Shadows introduces a whole new plot, which takes place concurrently with Shovel Knight’s story (you can even spot some of Shovel Knight’s exploits at various moments throughout the game).

Plague of ShadowsPlague Knight, as it turns out, is a traitor to the knights of the Order of No Quarter, as he plans on stealing the “essence” of each of his fellow knights – as well as that of Shovel Knight and the Enchantress – in order to create a potion that will grant him any one wish.

He is not allowed into the towns from the original game (most the townsfolk fear him), so instead Plague Knight takes refuge in a secret lab with various tertiary and background characters from Shovel Knight, the most notable of which being Mona the witch, who serves as Plague Knight’s assistant and most trusted ally.

The game does a mostly good job at turning a boss enemy into a more fleshed-out character, though Plague Knight’s snide personality isn’t as immediately likable as Shovel Knight’s chivalric charms. The story itself has a similarly effective simplicity to the original game, and it connects with Shovel Knight’s plot in some amusing ways. Though some of the optional bosses have some pretty goofy reasons for battling Plague Knight, which makes them feel tacked on to this adventure out of obligation, instead of giving them a meaningful purpose to return.

This expansion provides a secondary challenge in finding all of the hidden Cipher Coins, which are used to purchase the customizable moves from Mona. The Cipher Coins are usually obvious to spot (though some are hidden in walls), but it will take quite a bit of platforming skill to collect them all.

If Shovel Knight is one of the better modern games, it is only fitting that Plague of Shadows is one of the better DLC packages out there as well. It doesn’t quite match Shovel Knight’s campaign due to the more fluctuating difficulty, and some people may simply not find Plague Knight’s sense of control very appealing. But the simple fact that this is a DLC campaign that feels like a worthy successor to the outstanding original is a massive accomplishment in of itself. And it’s free. What a steal.

 

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Shovel Knight Review

Shovel Knight

On the surface, Shovel Knight might resemble any one of the countless retro-inspired indy titles that have been released since Mega Man 9 made 8-bit graphics popular again. While most such NES-inspired indy games seem to completely fallback on nostalgia, Shovel Knight is a much wiser game. It doesn’t bother to hide its inspirations of Super Mario Bros. 3, Castlevania and, most prominently, Mega Man. But Shovel Knight understands that there were more to these games than 8-bit sprites and chiptunes. These games aren’t remembered for nostalgia alone, and they continue to endure because of the genius of their game designs. Shovel Knight seeks to replicate a similar genius, and while its inspirations are obvious, it does so in its own way. If you didn’t know any better, you’d be forgiven for thinking Shovel Knight was a NES classic from gaming’s earlier days.

Shovel KnightShovel Knight works like many platformers from the 8-bit era, though its titular character has two primary means of attack: A simple strike with his mighty shovel or – pulling a page from Scrooge McDuck – a pogo stick-like jump. Shovel Knight also gains magic items throughout his adventure, akin to Castlevania, which grant him additional attacks or defensive actions.

Naturally, wielding a shovel as a weapon also means that Shovel Knight can dig up dirt to find gold and gems, which he’ll need in order to buy upgrades to his armor, shovel, hit points, magic points and the aforementioned magic items. But be weary, because defeat means that Shovel Knight loses a chunk of his collected treasure. If Shovel Knight can return to the spot he fell he can reclaim it, but should he fall again before regaining his lost treasure, it’s gone. The game lacks a traditional ‘lives’ system, so game overs are never a concern even in the game’s most difficult moments, but losing your collected goods is a fun, modernized compensation for the traditional game over.

The gameplay really is as simple as that. Run, jump, shovel, dig. But the game uses these simple mechanics to their fullest, and through some incredible and varied level design, it ends up being a deep gameplay experience.

Shovel KnightThe stages are strewn together through a Super Mario Bros. 3 style world map, separated into four different segments. Shovel Knight allows players to select which order they want to tackle the levels in each segment, but every main stage in each must be completed before moving on to the next segment.

The main stages are lengthy platforming romps that not only grow progressively more challenging, but also more creative. Each main stage is capped off with a boss fight against a different themed knight (all of which includes the title of “Knight” at the end of their name, in a nice tribute to Mega Man’s Robot Masters). Additional challenges, boss fights and optional stages can be found on the world map, should you want to go the extra mile for completion and treasure.

Like many such indy games that build on old school blueprints, Shovel Knight is a challenging game. But whereas many of its peers feel the need to throw insurmountable obstacles at players right out the gate to prove their difficulty, Shovel Knight instead has a nice difficulty curve. It starts off with a simple introductory level to ease players into the game, and continuously becomes more difficult as the game goes on. This helps Shovel Knight’s difficulty feel more fair and, as a result, more fun than its contemporaries.

Despite Shovel Knight’s challenge, it finds a brilliant means to cater to players of varying skill levels through its checkpoints. The levels all feature numerous checkpoints, so more easygoing players don’t have to fret about starting a stage over should they run into a particularly difficult section. But those wanting to test their abilities can destroy the checkpoints – gaining additional treasure in the process – to render them moot, meaning they’ll have to go through the whole stage all over again should they fall. It’s a simple but genius mechanic that adds an interesting twist on difficulty and balance.

The game features an appropriately simplistic story, with Shovel Knight traveling to defeat the knights of the Order of No Quarter in order to unlock the Tower of Fate, hoping against all odds to defeat the evil Enchantress and rescue his (presumed dead) partner, Shield Knight. What’s interesting about Shovel Knight’s story is that, simple as it is, the game finds time to provide some quiet story moments to make Shovel Knight a more sympathetic character than most of his 8-bit kin. And despite what the game’s title and its hero’s weapon of choice might suggest, the game and its story never once feel tongue-in-cheek. It earnestly pays homage to retro games and their simplicity, never falling prey to cheap and easy parodies.

Shovel KnightNaturally, Shovel Knight also includes a soundtrack reminiscent of the 8-bit classics that inspired it. Shovel Knight’s soundtrack is full of personality and energy, and can be compared favorably to many of the Mega Man soundtracks, which is no small feat. It also takes advantage of modern hardware by allowing more colorful visuals than the 8-bit games of yesteryear.

It’s hard not to be wowed by everything Shovel Knight accomplishes. Its tight, polished gameplay is complimented by fantastic level design, a nice difficulty curve, fun visuals and stellar music. It not only draws its inspiration from Mega Man, Super Mario Bros. 3 and Castlevania, but it can sit comfortably alongside them in 8-bit glory.

 

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