Shovel Knight Pocket Dungeon review: When puzzles fight back

Shovel Knight Pocket Dungeon is far greater than the sum of its puzzle parts.


The first time Yacht Club Games introduced Shovel Knight into the world, it charmed gaming audiences with its retro aesthetic, its lovable cast of characters, and its crisp platforming. It's been six years since that game first released and now it's finally time for the garden tool-wielding hero to branch out into new genres. Upon first glance, it's easy to dismiss Shovel Knight Pocket Dungeon as a simplistic puzzle game. However, much in the way that the original game gives some new twists to platformers, Pocket Dungeon now does the same thing to the puzzle genre.

Finding a way out

Shovel Knight Pocket Dungeon's story is fairly simple. The hero finds himself before a series of labyrinths with only the mysterious Puzzle Knight to guide him. Shovel Knight must make his way through these puzzles and battle both familiar foes and new faces along the way. As it turns out, "battle" is the key word, because there's something to Pocket Dungeon that I wasn't quite expecting and that's a combat element.

This is no casual puzzle game, so dispel that myth immediately. Pocket Dungeon requires Shovel Knight to clear out chains of blocks, enemies, and potions within a puzzle chamber that increasingly fills up. On the surface, it looks like something akin to Bust A Groove or Panel de Pon/Tetris Attack. However, the enemies all fight back, each with different patterns, and many of them will hurt Shovel Knight with attacks that cannot be countered. Because of that, players must make sure to balance attacking with healing, all while keeping a relatively fast pace to ensure that the stage doesn't fill up. There's even more challenge on top of that when it comes to finishing a stage, because players must make sure to collect a key and move towards the level's exit without getting taken down by enemies along the way. It's so much more intense than it looks on paper.

Instead of thinking of Pocket Dungeon as a puzzle game, it's more accurate to identify it as a roguelike. Using the standard options, if Shovel Knight runs out of health and dies, the game ends and players must start from scratch. It's possible to play with infinite lives, but that doesn't make the game much easier, because in the time that it takes Shovel Knight to respawn, the screen rapidly fills up to a point of no return. At that point, the game ends and the player must start from scratch.

Like the original Shovel Knight game before it, the difficulty level in Pocket Dungeon ramps up fast. However, it doesn't feel impossible, thanks to a few helpful mechanics.

It's dangerous to go alone

Over the course of Pocket Dungeon, players can use the gems they pick up to purchase helpful items. Relics can often be life savers during a run, whether they grant a boost in health or offer immunity to certain attacks or hazards. They go a long way towards extending runs and giving players just what they need to survive.

They also help with the game's various boss battles. Bosses are fun one-on-one encounters where players not only need to account for a specific foe's movement and patterns, but also navigate the screen filling up with enemies. Prevailing in these encounters leads to one of the more interesting ideas in Pocket Dungeon and that's unlockable characters. Players can switch to other characters, each of whom has a special ability. It adds even more incentive to keep playing on top of an already engaging formula.

Failed runs will inevitably pile up over time, but the gems that players pick up go a long way towards making significant progress. Before embarking on a run, it's possible to purchase helpful relics, unlock new characters, or unlock later stages to start runs from. It all looks expensive at the start of the game, but it's fairly easy to earn gems quickly, especially since early Pocket Dungeon runs often won't take any longer than 10-15 minutes.

'Pocket' monster

Shovel Knight Pocket Dungeon is an easy game to misjudge. It would be simple to dismiss it as a casual puzzle game. It is far from that. This game is as deceptively difficult as it is engaging. The difficulty level may even turn off those just looking for a relaxing romp. However, for those looking for more teeth to their puzzle games, Pocket Dungeon is going to offer that in spades... or shovels.

The last thing I expected was for Yacht Club Games and developer Vine to somehow emerge with a new take on the puzzle genre, but knowing what the original game did for platformers, I probably should have seen it coming.

This review is based on a Steam digital code provided by the publisher. Shovel Knight Pocket Dungeon is available now on Steam, the PlayStation Store, and the Nintendo eShop for $19.99. The game is rated E.

Senior Editor

Ozzie has been playing video games since picking up his first NES controller at age 5. He has been into games ever since, only briefly stepping away during his college years. But he was pulled back in after spending years in QA circles for both THQ and Activision, mostly spending time helping to push forward the Guitar Hero series at its peak. Ozzie has become a big fan of platformers, puzzle games, shooters, and RPGs, just to name a few genres, but he’s also a huge sucker for anything with a good, compelling narrative behind it. Because what are video games if you can't enjoy a good story with a fresh Cherry Coke?

  • A novel twist on standard matching puzzles
  • Roguelike structure hooks you quickly
  • Deceptively hard, but not impossible
  • Runs are refreshingly short
  • Multiple unlockable characters
  • Frantic pace makes it tough to remember what enemies do
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