Shovel Knight Pocket Dungeon review — I’m the man in the box

Shovel Knight Pocket Dungeon review -- I'm the man in the box

I wrote off Shovel Knight Pocket Dungeon a while ago. I love Tetris, but I don’t tend to play any other “match the blocks with other blocks” games. But I misunderstood the kind of game this was. While, yes, it is very much based around block matching, it does this in a completely unique way. It’s much of an action game as it is a puzzle game, while also giving players something they’ve never quite seen before. It might not keep everyone busy for a long time, but this is a hectic, inviting time.

The basic gist of Shovel Knight Pocket Dungeon is that Shovel Knight has been pulled into the titular locale and the Puzzle Knight has asked him to assist with getting everybody out of it. There isn’t really much plot beyond the intro and outros, but the game does have a true ending route that adds an extra level and tough additional boss fights. You can also just beat the default final boss and get the basic ending. Getting the true ending is quite the challenge on top of the existing game structure, though, and will likely take some figuring out for most players.


The way the game works is that you have to progress through all of the game’s set levels to get to the end. Levels can either be played in a specific or random order. Personally, I prefer the random order, which helps spice up playthroughs. Shovel Knight Pocket Dungeon is a rogue-lite, though. You can either go by stock or puzzle failure when it comes to losing. By default, if you die, you lose. But you can also give yourself a certain number of lives, or just infinite ones. The choice is yours.

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Pick your difficulty

There are no defined difficulty levels. Instead, this game makes use of custom difficulty options. Not only can you pick how many lives you have, but you can select the game speed, give yourself more health, or even increase your damage. Doing the latter two will turn off achievements, though, so that’s good to keep in mind. If you’re not using the default ‘die once and lose method,’ you’ll also be kicked back to the start if the level you’re on completely fills with blocks. And I do mean that, as every last square needs to be filled.

Shovel Knight Pocket Dungeon drops enemies, blocks, and potions from the top. You’ll need to remove things to keep the board from filling up. Instead of using a cursor or maneuvering pieces, you directly control your chosen character. Shovel Knight is the only one who’s initially unlocked, but you’ll get a new character to play as every time you beat one of the game’s bosses. Your character takes up one block of space and can move freely about the field. You attack enemies by bumping into them, a la the early Ys games. I found this to be a very pleasant throwback.

Most characters start with five default health points. Bumping into an enemy does one damage to them by default, but your character will be damaged back immediately after if the blow wasn’t fatal. All enemies and blocks that are touching each other will share damage. For instance, if there are three enemies stacked atop one another, bumping into any one of them will damage all three. You’ll use this to clear the board out as quickly as you can. Your goal is always to leave the level. After you defeat a certain number of enemies, a door will show up, which will allow you to exit.

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Planning is key

Keys drop onto the board and you’ll be grabbing them as you go. Not only do they open doors, but also chests, which come in two kinds. Regular chests have items with a set number of uses that give you temporary bonuses or abilities. They can reduce your damage for a certain number of hits, increase your damage, freeze foes, let you attack in a line, and various others. The other kind of chest takes you into a merchant’s room, where you can buy relics, which grant you upgrades that last for the entire run. There are no permanent upgrades.

You can unlock new relics for runs by purchasing them in your home base at the start of Shovel Knight Pocket Dungeon. Another thing worth mentioning is that, as hitting enemies damages you, you’ll constantly find your health emptying. This is where potions come in. Picking one up heals two HP, so you really have to plan out your moves. There are a bunch of different enemy types and many have unique behaviors. You’ll need to consider these, as well as how much health they have and how much damage they dish out.

The game is tough as nails at first, but it doesn’t take long before you start to adapt. Time never stops completely, but it moves very slowly when you hold still. Moving a square makes more things drop in, though. There’s a great balance here that really flows well. As you pull off chains, a meter increases that grants you more currency, which you’ll need to purchase relics. Shovel Knight Pocket Dungeon has a very satisfying game loop that I really enjoy. It manages to scratch both a puzzle itch and an action itch, which is quite a feat.

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Feels totally different

If you’re wondering how the game keeps things fresh, the characters you unlock can massively change up your playstyle. My favorite character is Mole Knight, who can burrow to move past any enemy or hide from explosions. He’s the safest character. Other characters completely change up the way the game is played. Specter Knight gets health back for dealing fatal blows to enemies, but potions damage him. The thing you constantly grab as every other character becomes a liability, which changes the very nature of play. Propeller Knight is also super interesting, as they get one point added to their damage for every non-chained enemy they kill. But hitting chains causes them to take one extra damage.

There are so many characters to choose. If Shovel Knight Pocket Dungeon does it for you, it’s easy to lose track of time figuring out how to best utilize the game’s cast. Some characters are much, much harder to use than others, but they have the potential for skilled players to do some serious damage with them. While the game is typically quite challenging, the boss battles themselves (save for the endgame ones) are mostly quite easy. I almost never died to bosses.

The only real negatives that come to mind while playing this game are that the limited amount of levels means that it can get redundant, plus you’ll purchase all the relics and potentially hit the end after just several hours of play. Things can also get a bit frustrating, especially as some levels are much harder than others. However, this is an excellent game that truly digs into that “just one more run” feeling. If you enjoy puzzle games or just want a unique action rogue-lite, you can’t go wrong with Shovel Knight Pocket Dungeon. Just be careful when playing as Specter Knight.

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