Review – Shovel Knight Pocket Dungeon
The puzzle genre is an intriguing one, continuously challenging our brains. The games that comprise it come in many forms, too, from the classic Dr. Mario to the sophisticated Portal. Growing up, I’ve not been shy to admit my JRPG fascination is thanks to my father. Well, he wasn’t the only gamer in the family, as my mother was usually on the SNES. One title she’d regularly play was Wario’s Woods, an obvious inspiration for what’s here. Shovel Knight Pocket Dungeon immediately caught my eye upon its reveal. Its simplistic visuals are crisp and the reason why it’s so compelling. The graphical representation left me reminiscing over my youth. To date, there’s an overwhelming positive consensus amongst critics, but what do I think? I’ll be diving into the PS4 version, with an analysis of the Nintendo Switch one, too – it’s a two-for-one deal. Am I an outlier? Let’s find out.
For those familiar with the franchise, the narrative won’t be extensive. What it is, however, is lighthearted, with charm dripping from the words. The story tries introducing a twist, too, which I appreciate. My mind was never blown, though, as it’s uncomplicated. Given how fast-paced and quick each level can be beaten, there’s no time to plant seeds. Even in hindsight, I couldn’t connect the info tidbits sprinkled throughout the journey. There’s an endeavour to try foreshadowing, don’t get me wrong. The thing is, those hints are cryptic or nonexistent. That’s not to say the narrative isn’t serviceable; the execution is elegant. There’s also enough fuel to get you to the finish line. It gives context to what you’re doing, and realistically, that’s all you can ask for. What’s important is the gameplay, so how’s that?
The short answer is it’s bloody brilliant. Although, it does suffer growing pains. Before beginning the game, I was prompted to decide on my method of play. The two choices are enjoying it as a traditional puzzler with unlimited lives or going the hardcore route with one. I suggest the former because the latter promotes pointless frustration. See, RNG can turn things sour, resulting in death out of your control.
For example, bombs sometimes come in and when activated, they demolish everything within the explosion radius. If the monsters surrounding you are weak, escaping harm is plausible. If not, that’s it: game over. There were also times when an enemy stood between me and the exit. My life points had depleted enough that a single hit would kill. Basically, I couldn’t sacrifice myself to chip away at my foe, meaning losing progression was my only option.
For those curious, every knight that has been in the mainline titles are present. As a treat, two unique ones were created exclusively for this release, and both are quite nifty. What’s truly compelling about them are the distinct abilities that reflect themselves. For instance, Polar Knight is proficient in freezing their adversaries for a short period, while Tinker Knight can build a badass robot. To do so, it requires metal chunks found within various types of blocks. I realize it’s a frivolous detail to mention, but there’s a reason – to shine a light on the balance. I never had a hard time collecting what I needed. This extends to the locked chests that occasionally appear on the battlefield – there are always enough keys.
The strategy the special abilities provide is refreshing, too, and masquerades as a kind of pseudo-difficulty setting.
To those folks wanting a challenge, know that the outlay of a puzzle never changes. While distinct techniques help add that hard spike, it isn’t the only facet to doing so. See, a couple of knights boast health that’s dependent on their skill. The better it is, the less you can expect. Now, this is reserved for the elite, as most can stomach three attacks, but there are exceptions.
It’s a fascinating mechanic as it forces you to adapt and strategize based on lessened defense. I was encouraged to acquire more items, too, to help gain the upper hand. These do have a durability stat and can only be used a set amount of times, so be wary. Since chests frequently appear, however, it’s never detrimental. Some permanent relics are used for light character customization, too, but thanks to a limited amount of them, it means little experimentation.
Shovel Knight Pocket Dungeon is a sheer joy and ideal for bite-sized gaming. Rounds are relatively short, averaging around thirty minutes. It’s entirely possible to finish in even less, giving you a self-imposed goal to strive for. For anyone that’s driven by leaderboards, that’s also been implemented. You can battle head-to-head with people from all over the world, fighting for the best score amongst your fellow gamers. If achievements are more to your liking, though, there are feats that ask specific objectives to be conquered. It won’t ask for anything ludicrous and supplies a nice departure from the core plot. Finally, because there’s a gem multiplier, all my actions were swift. The game wants you to constantly be on the move, meaning there are rarely lulls in the action. Thanks to the constant play stream, I kept engaged and hungry.
The main difference between the two versions emerges with performance. As expected, the one on PlayStation 4 runs at a buttery smooth framerate with zero issues. There’s never any disturbances to the overall experience. I can’t say the same for the port on Nintendo Switch, sadly. There are serious, albeit rare, problems. The first occurs whenever I’d die. Typically, the knight becomes an angel before fluttering offscreen. After a handful of seconds, they’re supposed to respawn, but every time – sometimes, the player character ceases to exist. As a result, the game soft-locks, giving me no other choice but to restart my entire run from the beginning. Another hiccup is one I could consistently replicate. As I was gunning for the final key item, if I was hurrying, an error popped up. It resembled a grey window of death, and within mere moments, my whole game would crash.
The music is nostalgic chiptune goodness that, for fans of the Shovel Knight franchise, will bring a smile to their faces. Now, if you haven’t played, don’t fret, as the tracks are still fantastically scored, catchy, and so much fun. The soundtrack is composed of remixes from the mainline entry. My volume was fully blasting whenever I played, but I admit, after several hours I did start listening to podcasts. That’s not a slight at the quality of the OST, though, because as I’ve said, it’s superb. It’s more that after playing for many hours and repeating levels, those tracks began fading into the background, losing some of their splendour. That is until I took a small break, and upon returning, the magic came barreling back in. Everything is tightly curated, making it nigh impossible to criticize on an objective musical level.
Shovel Knight Pocket Dungeon isn’t some haphazardly thrown-together spin-off. It’s the real deal, blending both puzzle and roguelite genres perfectly. That’s correct; if you notice, I’ve referred to runs throughout my entire review. That’s because once you perish, you teleport back to the hub world – a camp, in this case. Buy costumes, switch characters, and partake in a mini-game whenever the hustle of the puzzle gets overly draining. Both Yacht Club Games and Vine effortlessly infused their unbridled passion into this, manifesting a fantastic game.
With 2022 still in its infancy, this is a title that, despite being ineligible for Indie Game of the Year, could’ve easily ran with that award. Having played both the PS4 and Nintendo Switch versions, the handheld feel is superior. They’re the ideal twosome, and I’d suggest buying there. Regardless of those rare technical mishaps, nothing beats laying in bed while uncovering secrets.
The enemies are detailed, albeit a bit simple in terms of design. Animation is basic but the colours and pixel art are both crisp.
Great brain work-out and one of those “easy to understand, tough to master” situations. I love it, but found the RNG to be a bit annoying at times.
Shovel Knight has always had great music. Even if I was throwing on podcasts, that’s just a testament to the addiction. The OST is fantastic but that’s to be expected.
I got addicted. Just one more run was a common sentence I spoke. The only saving grace is being single, so I could dedicate all my time to the Knight.
Final Verdict: 9.0
Shovel Knight Pocket Dungeon is available now on PlayStation 4, Nintendo Switch, and PC.
Reviewed on PlayStation 4.
A copy of Shovel Knight Pocket Dungeon was provided by the publisher.