From the first time I saw Shovel Knight Pocket Dungeon (Free), I thought it would be a perfect fit for mobile. I certainly enjoyed my time with the game on the Switch, but even then it was something I wanted in my pocket for easy access rather than something I have to hunker down and play. So I was quite happy when Netflix announced the game would be coming to its subscription service, to say the least. For better or worse, this seems to be how we’re getting Shovel Knight games on mobile, and I’m just appreciative that we’re seeing them at all. How does this quirky puzzle roguelite fare in the transition to mobile devices?
Quite well. I don’t like leaving questions like that hanging too long. So yes, the answer is that it has jumped over without much hassle at all. You’re given a choice of a couple of control methods, and I found myself preferring the swipe controls for how natural and smooth they felt to use. But you can also use virtual controls if that is your druthers. The game looks great on the screen of my iPhone, so real estate isn’t an issue. You can play the game in portrait or landscape mode as you like, and it plays fine both ways. It runs well, but I’m sure no one was terribly worried about that. My only beef is that the game could use some kind of autosave in cases where you need to immediately step away mid-run. Phones are different from dedicated devices, after all. But I suppose that is less a problem in porting and more an issue in not considering some use cases. Something to keep in mind anyway.
Okay, so what exactly is this game? When you think of Shovel Knight, you might think of the outstanding side-scrolling action game that comfortably sits in the upper ranks of the genre. You might also think of the Apple Arcade game where it’s still kind of action-like but with a lot more roguelite sprinkled in. Shovel Knight Pocket Dungeon isn’t either of those things. The heroic Shovel Knight (and perhaps some other folks he knows) has been sucked into a puzzle dimension, which sounds awfully like something they just made up right now. He has to get out, and rescue his friends while he’s at it. How will he do that? Well, when all you have is a shovel, every problem looks like a scoop of dirt. He digs, friends. He digs.
This is a matching puzzle game at its core, but it’s a pretty unusual one. You aren’t controlling the blocks to spin them around or place them. Instead you’re controllingShovel Knight. He zips around the play field and if you nudge him up against anything laying in it, he’ll whack it with his shovel. If it’s dirt, he’ll remove it lickity-split. If it’s stone, it might take a few whacks. If it’s a key, he’ll pick it up. A door or chest, he’ll use any keys he’s holding to open them. A potion? Sounds like a tasty way to recover some health. And if it’s an enemy, he’ll smack it and get smacked in return. If multiples of the same type of thing are touching each other, Shovel Knight’s action will be applied to all of them. This of course is the key to surviving enemy encounters, as only one of them can bite you back.
There’s a bit of roguelite in here as well, though you get to decide how much of it you want. The game allows you to choose between two modes. The first is more like the usual falling block matching puzzler, having you fail only if the play field overflows with pieces. A death will cost you some time while you respawn, so it isn’t ideal, but it’s not the end of your run by any means. The second mode is stricter. If you die, it’s back to the camp immediately. However you go out, you’ll head back with some gems that you potentially use to buy some permanent upgrades in the form of relics.
Relics are probably the biggest lean into the roguelite end of things in this game. Once you’ve unlocked them, they have a chance of appearing during gameplay in the various chests. They’ll give you all kinds of little perks, and some were definitely more useful than others for me. I imagine it depends on your play style, though. Ultimately I can’t say I found any of them to be real game changers, so you’re not relying on luck or putting together a careful build here as you might in other roguelite/likes. You’ll still probably want them, mind you. Unlocking all of the relics is a fairly short matter because of how readily the gems flow, and other things like costumes and such are also not too hard to scrounge up the change for. You’ll probably run out of things to spend gems on way before the game ends, which upsets the risk/reward balance of the game a little.
See, one of the incentives to keep you moving is your gem combo meter. It fills up as you clear things, and drains when you aren’t. As it levels up, your gem multiplier increases. Once the gems lose their usefulness, a lot of the reason for moving your booty vanishes. Sure, the pieces keep coming in, but if you’re not moving they don’t move very quickly either. You can’t sit around forever, but you don’t have to keep up the breakneck pace you may have become accustomed to while you’re still buying unlocks. Still, I suppose there are back-ups for most things here. The pieces do keep coming in. Clearing groups of pieces is its own reward even if you don’t care about the gems. I think I just spent a paragraph on a small gripe. Oh well.
I guess this is my way of saying that I think Shovel Knight Pocket Dungeon is better as a puzzle game than as a roguelite game. Rushing around the field trying to remove pieces while balancing enemy removal against restoring health is a lot of fun, especially as the enemies start to bring in their own gimmicks to mess with you. Getting to the exit in each stage is often only done by the skin of your teeth, and that makes for some pleasing tension. Once you start unlocking and using other characters, their own gimmicks help change things up too. And then there are the boss battles, which live up to the high standards of the series despite being in a completely different genre. It feels like you’re constantly having to deal with new situations thanks to how all of these variables can interact, yet there’s a fundamental set of skills you’ll develop that will serve you well all the way through.
You get a bunch of modes to enjoy here. The main adventure mode is probably where you’ll spend most of your time initially, working your way through the campaign and unlocking goodies. There’s also a versus mode where you can play against the CPU or another player on the same device, which works a lot better with an external controller or two but doesn’t actually require them. You can also challenge daily and weekly missions, which give you one chance to rack up as high a score as you can to see where you can land on the leaderboards. I would have loved an online option for the versus mode, but otherwise it’s hard to complain here. I should also mention that the game offers a bevy of options for you to tweak, covering just about every aspect of the game from the usual audio/video options to extremely granular difficulty controls.
Speaking of the audio and video, it’s as you would expect from a Shovel Knight game. The music is absolutely incredible, remixing some familiar tunes and throwing in some new ones that fit in just fine. The graphics are the same sort of detailed pixel art seen in other Shovel Knight games, and equally packed with charm. I think it’s great that the different Shovel Knight games each have their own style but somehow still maintain a consistent feel. You’ll definitely want to have the sound on for this game if you can swing it.
While I feel like some of the roguelite elements don’t mesh as well as they should and the game’s economy is a bit wonky, don’t let those relatively minor nitpicks stop you from playing Shovel Knight Pocket Dungeon. It’s a terrific puzzle game that is distinctive, challenging, and packed to the gills with interesting things to entice you and test you. The game has made the transition to mobile so well that you’d almost think it was meant for the platform to begin with. A true must-play for puzzle game fans, so long as you don’t mind having to have a Netflix subscription to access it.