Wednesday 22 December 2021

Shovel Knight Pocket Dungeon (Steam/Switch)


Written by Thomas G.J Sharpe

The titular shovel-wielding warrior returns in a block-puzzle-rogue-lite hybrid that I found I fell in love with a bit In a tightly designed, densely artistic, and joyful puzzler, Shovel Knight: Pocket Dungeon manages to straddle casual and challenging game types which will cater for a broad range of tastes.

There is something ineffable, something contradictory about the fresh-vintage-ness of the Shovel Knight games. Pulling from a timeless past of games, I’d like to believe the Knight abandoned their post in Link to The Past (as a Hyrule soldier) and made their own weird way in the world. In this latest iteration, there’s the plinky tones of the track “Atropos” playing from Columns, harbinger of the opioid crisis Dr. Mario (not a real doctor), and harpoon propaganda Bust-A-Move. Shovel is stuck in a puzzle-centric kingdom beset by absurd amounts of cracking assets. There is such a bevy of characters, very few lazy blob types, that populate the world that it is genuinely impressive to witness. World-building in such contained venues is a true skill.

These little venues are block puzzles which hurl enemies, pickups, and obstacles onto a grid that Knight has to survive long enough in to reveal an exit. Moving onto an enemy will cause damage to be taken and delivered, forcing tactical movements between enemies and health potions. Chains of similar types will prompt bigger rewards, adding an organisational level to the puzzle. Shops and side routes reveal themselves, chests and additional skills can be accessed for currency and powers. Bosses with unique skill sets appear after a bunch of stages, and the defeated characters are added to a playable roster back at base camp. Each of these knights have a different feel, expanding game approaches and styles. I was reminded of Nuclear Throne, where the characters shape the feel of a repetitive game to something fresh almost every time. Much like Throne, these knights are full of character, from only a few sprite frames and lines of dialogue.

To further bust open this title for all to enjoy there are a bunch of mutators for the difficulty of the game. Set your puzzle handicap and jump in, and it has you hooked. Ordinarily, puzzlers of this ilk with their strategies and mastery summon strict ceilings for me. I resent mastery of systems as a requirement as (what I feel I am) a pragmatic and low-attention player. These game settings help me dial in, more specifically, a way in to enjoy a game that I would otherwise perhaps have bounced off of.

There is something to be said in the actual, and also the impression, of just-making-it. When in the shovelly block-boxes, feeling close to the edge of failure is a big part of the experience for me. And I don’t much care whether it is suited to my ability. Pocket Dungeon is invitational and accessible to me where other puzzle games are clumsier with their delivery, whatever their core loop.

Shovel Knight: Pocket Dungeon is a game that has managed to capture something special for me in the puzzle genre (much like my gushing adoration for the Kingdom Rush series in the tower defence world). There is scope for a casual experience, but also a more devilish time, in an energetic, exciting world that is seeped in a clever and engaging sensibility. And all in a block-puzzle game. A ‘lil piece of fantastic.

Overall 9/10

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