I love almost everything about the Shovel Knight games. The retro-inspiration, bespoke pixel art animations, and pitch-perfect platforming — they are perfectly calibrated to make me go, “Yes, YES, more please!” Not so with Shovel Knight Dig, unfortunately. It’s the first release in Yacht Club’s lineup to leave me feeling cool. It’s not bad, but it’s not nearly as good as the rest.
Shovel Knight Dig, a collaboration with Gunbrick maker Nitrome, puts the hero in a race against time to burrow through a randomised labyrinth of monsters, hazards, and gems in search of his stolen bag of treasure. You discover an assortment of helpful items and powers along the way, and most of the gems you collect each run are banked for spending on unlocking items for future playthroughs.
It’s a roguelite structure familiar to anyone who’s played games like Enter the Gungeon, Rogue Legacy, and Hades, and in theory at least, it should be a perfect match. A similar format was used for last year’s Shovel Knight Pocket Dungeon, a tile-matching dungeon crawler I absolutely adored.
This time around, however, something’s just off. The game feels overly punishing at points, while exploration and rewards aren’t varied enough to make me want to keep coming back for more. For one, Shovel Knight Dig feels very cramped, possibly to facilitate a mobile version (I played on Switch). That makes sense for a game about digging through an underground maze, but it leads to a lot of frustrating situations where enemies hit you after coming from just offscreen. It’s also not very forgiving when it comes to trying to quickly change paths. Shovel Knight can only dig left, right, or down, and if you spill out into an open space before you mean to, there’s little you can do to course-correct.
Shovel Knight’s shovel bouncing returns, and is a key mechanic for side-stepping spikes, killing enemies, or jumping off them to reach an item or side-shop. There’s no way not to use it though, and every piece of dirt you fall on will immediately disappear, once again limiting your options for how to kill an enemy or get to your desired location. Most hazards, meanwhile, leave very little room for error: you’ve got to be very quick and very precise in your efforts to hop over that drill or pool of lava. Take too long to think about it and an instant-kill excavator that stalks you from just offscreen eventually catches up and ends the run.
These rough edges, compounded by the randomised layout, would be easier to ignore if I felt the urge to try my luck on a new run with a different set of powerups, but Shovel Knight Dig’s upgrades feel sparse and undercooked. A magic anvil will automatically damage a powerful foe as soon as you encounter it, while a wand summons fireballs that bounce off walls. Nothing I encountered felt like a game changer, though, or exciting enough to care about unlocking more.
Shovel Knight Dig is unusually minimalist in this way. Instead of a steady stream of stat upgrades and better powers, I often went through an entire dungeon (three levels and a boss fight) without feeling any strong sense of progression. Each zone has three golden gears that unlock a vault just before you descend into the next one. A pair will net you a health item and a bunch of gems, while grabbing all three will give you random upgrades like being able to jump higher or use a magical item more frequently. The gears can be destroyed by bombs and other traps, however, and the unforgiving platforming makes it easy to miss one on the way down.
It’s a shame the levels aren’t more fun to navigate and the powers aren’t very exciting because it remains a snappy arcade experience overall and every other aspect of the presentation makes me want to love Shovel Knight Dig. After getting close to beating it once, however, I just can’t muster the courage to go back and fumble through it again. Maybe when the DLC comes out I’ll give it another shot. Until then, I’m going back to Pocket Dungeon.
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