A copy of Shovel Knight Pocket Dungeon was provided for review by Yacht Club Games.
When Shovel Knight Pocket Dungeon was revealed last year, I saw a puzzle game featuring Shovel Knight and his pals (and frenemies). I thought that it was a neat spin-off idea for the franchise. The game reminded me of the matching, explosive games my wife plays on her phone everyday. Although I’ve personally never ventured into that realm of puzzle games, I was excited to give it a shot with a band of characters I am quite fond of. After the reveal, I just waited for release, knowing that I’d be down with whatever game had Shovel Knight slapped on the box.
Nearly two years later, I was graciously given a review code and was excited to dig into this new block-destroying puzzle game. I had an impending trip and I do not own a laptop, so I only could dabble a bit before leaving.
Shovel Knight Pocket Dungeon is not the game I thought it was.
It’s a rougelike/lite, puzzle, combat game that has been kicking my butt from the very beginning. The buttkicking has diminished slightly as I have developed my skill-gluts and tweaked the gameplay to a more puzzle-focused style. There’s been a personal learning curve, not just in the Puzzle Dungeon, but also in the realm of PC gaming, which has been a convoluted mess of its own that I’ve tried to solve.
Pocket Dungeon puts your character into a square grid that fills up with blocks, enemies, bombs, and treasure. You move around bashing into enemies and items to clear a quota to find the exit. Enemies hit back though! Everything has a health meter and you have got to keep an eye on your own while deftly moving around the grid.
The real trick is chaining together your targets. Any connected tiles that are the same enemy/item/block will all take damage together. You can easily wipe out 10 Beetos with two quick bumps. As you move, more tiles fall from above, forcing you to manage and line up chains as best you can.
Based off how many lives I’ve lost, I’m not very good at the whole battle aspect of this game. Up front, you can chose a single stock “roguelite” where you lose the run if you die or the board fills up or an infinite stock “puzzle” mode where you can die however much you want, but lose if the board fills up, and it fills up fast while you respawn.
I tried the single stock approach first. That lasted all of maybe two runs. I did up the stock count, but that also did not last. I just opted for the infinite stock approach, which I definitely prefer and recommend.
Having infinite lives helped me not feel so bad when I’d blow a run. Sure, I still had to start over, but it felt more like “I could have solved that puzzle,” instead of “why did that kill me?!” This was definitely a “me” mentality.
Every few levels there is a boss fight, which is quite fun. They’ve captured the spirit and movement of familiar foes, as well as create all new knights that feel fresh. If you beat a boss, you unlock them back at the base camp to play as. Each knight has unique perks and drawbacks that keep the roster balanced, as well as adaptable to your play style. Scrap Knight let’s you bag an item for later, so you best believe I snag potions for when I stop paying attention to my health bar. I wonder if you can bag an enemy…
Another element that helps me not feel so bad is how short the levels actually are. At my level of play, I seem to be averaging 1:30 per level. It never feels that long though. The pace is zippy; making digging in for another run an enticing proposition.
The biggest deterrent for starting another run is the lack of a midrun save option. If I was playing on Switch or PlayStation, I could put the console in its rest mode and go on with my day. On my Mac, there’s no option for that. I guess I could minimize the application, but that leaves the play-clock running (I learned that lesson with my 20 hours in Emily is Away <3). I often found myself with 5 minutes here and there, but not willing to commit to a run I’d have to quit due to a time constraint.
Let’s continue down this rabbit hole of PC gaming: PC gaming is complicated. I kept having to remap the various controllers I synced up, because a keyboard is far too foreign a control scheme for me (why use three fingers to move when I can use one?).
Then, somehow, I ended up with two entirely different saves that will load depending on the method of launching the game.
I decided to move the game application itself from this Steam directory to my own applications folder. Yes, I know, bad idea. I did this so I wouldn’t have to launch the bloated and slow application known as Steam. That works just fine. When I realized that Steam handles the updating, not the app itself, I downloaded a new copy and just created a shortcut to launch from Launch Pad. I accepted starting over from scratch: I knew I screwed up.
If I launch the game before Steam, my original save loads in. I deleted that copy of the app. I have no earthly idea how it is still here. If I launch Steam and then the app with the shortcut I made, I get the new second (and now much further along) save. It’s a mess that just would not exist on a console. It’s a mess I couldn’t even make on a console. End rant.
At least playing on my iMac enticed me to try multiple controllers. I ended up testing the game with a SNES controller, a Genesis 6-button, and an arcade stick. I was surprised to prefer the 6-button over the SNES. The softer D-Pad and the button layout felt better for this kind of game. Although, the best was the arcade stick. The click of the stick with the big buttons was ultra satisfying for this type of gameplay. I could easily see this being in a cabinet somewhere drawing players in with all the gems, treasure, and enemies. With the short level playtime and difficulty curve, this would totally suck quarters out of people’s pockets.
In the end, the whole roguelike and lite genre is one I struggle with regularly. I dipped out of Hades the first time due to it being the same mindless and easy thing over and over with a narrative hook that failed to sink into me. When I came back on PS5, I played for the trophies and ultimately quit that too because Achilles just would not confess his love.
I quit Returnal because I am just really bad and losing is such a defeating feeling (duh).
Even though Hollow Knight isn’t rogue at all, I stopped because I kept losing my spirit and money at the same spot over and over.
But why do I love games like Tetris, Resogun, or Nex Machina? How is an arcade game or a puzzle game any different? Is Tetris a roguelike game?
I think a part of it is the puzzle nature of them. Tetris, obviously, is a straight up puzzle game, if not the puzzle game. Resogun is memorizing patterns and triggers for saving all the little humans. The puzzle angle feels conquerable. I can solve this.
That’s what makes Shovel Knight Pocket Dungeon stand out. It balances those two genres expertly, giving plenty of players reasons to play just one more time. It’s this fusion of game types that celebrates both. The combination actually makes both elements better than if it was just a puzzle game or just a rogue game. That’s no small feat and the team at Yacht Club Games and Vine solved their own puzzle dungeon to deliver a special game.