Review: Shovel Knight Dig – A Finely Formed Roguelite That Strikes 16-Bit Gold

Shovel Knight Dig Review - Screenshot 1 of 7
Captured on Nintendo Switch (handheld/undocked)

Since the last 8-bit style game came out, Shovel Knight has branched out further into other genres as developer and publisher Yacht Club charts a course for where its noble namesake will go next. Back in December, we got the wonderful Shovel Knight Pocket Dungeon, which cleverly combined falling block puzzle mechanics with roguelite game design. Now, we have another roguelite in Shovel Knight Dig, only this time the gameplay is much more in line with the platform action of the original game. As you’d probably expect from this franchise by now, it’s an absolute burst play; Developer Nitrome (Bomb Chicken) delivers a new, tough, rewarding and enjoyable experience that fans of the series will want to experience right away.

Shovel Knight Dig takes place sometime before the original Shovel Knight, so Shield Knight hasn’t disappeared yet and Enchantress has yet to rise to power and form the Order of No Quarter. The main villain here is a new character named Drill Knight, who has formed a group of knights called Hexcavators to help him raid a treasure room buried somewhere deep in the earth. His efforts to do so, and the gaping hole they’ve created, are creating problems for the people on the surface, so Shovel Knight and Shield Knight dive down to try to get to the bottom of what’s going on.

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Captured on Nintendo Switch (docked)

Obviously, the story isn’t a big focus here, as this is a highly replayable roguelite platformer first and foremost. Still, what’s here does create some intrigue, as you can’t help but wonder what awaits you at the bottom of the hole, and fans of the series will appreciate the many nods to other titles that take place later in the series’ timeline. Shovel Knight. . For example, it’s great to see Shovel Knight and Shield Knight’s relationship in more of the brief flashbacks we get elsewhere in the series, and to interact with previous incarnations of Mole Knight and Tinker Knight before their time in the Order of No Quarter. provides some great character insights. The ‘lore’ isn’t heavy here, so newcomers to the franchise won’t feel like they’re missing out on much, but those who have played previous versions will appreciate seeing how this fits together.

The gameplay could best be described as what the original Shovel Knight game would look like if done with Downwell’s design philosophy. You play as the titular blue knight and start each run by jumping into the pit, with the goal of getting to the bottom as fast as possible while collecting as much as you can on the way down. Each race is divided into biomes made up of three levels, with a final fourth level consisting of a boss fight with the resident knight of that area. Every time you fall in battle, you come back to the surface and have to try again. You keep some of the gems collected from each run, but otherwise you lose all upgrades and inventory items that weren’t already permanent.

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Shovel Knight Dig Review - Screenshot 3 of 7
Captured on Nintendo Switch (handheld/undocked)

Suffice it to say that the difficulty is brutal, but not necessarily unfair. You don’t really have that much health to start each run, and while this can be expanded later through shops and upgrades, healing items are usually pretty scarce. Most failures, then, aren’t because you hit a brick wall that you just couldn’t get past, but are kills by a thousand cuts, as every misjudged jump and rough encounter with the enemy adds up to eventually cash out. a final price. You’d think the solution would be to just take it easy and play it safe, but there’s constantly a huge, invincible circular saw drill pouncing on you from above. Most of the time, you don’t even know it’s there, but if you take too long trying to get hold of all the gems and collectibles, it’ll quickly catch up and kill you instantly.

Given this, there is a delicious kind of tension in every minute of your run. Shovel Knight Dig certainly adheres to the ‘rich-get-rich’ philosophy where effective play is rewarded with perks that make the game even easier, while playing poorly will make things even harder for you as soon as you play. the longer you continue. It’s in your best interest to collect as many gems as possible on your way down, as this will directly give you more ability to buy relics, upgrades, and healing items if you come across a shop. However, if you don’t learn how to effectively prioritize which clusters of gems to grab and which ones to pass, you’ll find that the saw will eventually catch you. Finding that risk-reward line is a big part of the fun of Shovel Knight Dig, and you’ll find yourself slowly building a knowledge base as time goes on and learning to better handle the myriad situations and obstacles that may arise.

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Captured on Nintendo Switch (docked)

Although each level is randomly generated, we appreciate how the various stage gimmicks and enemy types here came together to give these new biomes a handcrafted feel. Whether he’s bouncing through mushrooms, dodging bubbles and swimming fish, or disarming bombs before they explode, there’s hardly a dull moment in Dig as he frantically swipes and jumps to safety. Importantly, moment-to-moment gameplay feels extremely similar to the original Shovel Knight; you have the exact same move set and even the physics feel pretty similar. Given this, it seems that you are always able to overcome the barriers in front of you, but not to the point where any of them become trivial. Even common mook enemies can land a tricky hit on you from time to time, and the damage you take there can mean the difference between life and death when you land on some spikes later.

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Along the way, you’ll find ways to add to Shovel Knight’s repertoire and this is where your chances of survival increase greatly. In treasure chests or shops, for example, you can collect relics that give you access to new limited-use items to help balance the odds. Whether it’s a form of short-range teleportation, a useful projectile attack, or a means of briefly levitating, each Relic has very clear use cases to help you get out of a jam.

Additionally, you can get upgrades from shops that give you flat boosts to your health or magic stats, or useful passive abilities like a gem magnet or a wider range for your shovel strike. If you’re diligent about collecting gems along the way, you can usually afford to buy one or two things at each store, but you never have enough to get everything you want.

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Captured on Nintendo Switch (docked)

Also, there are three golden gears in each level, placed in obvious but a bit hard to reach areas. They usually require you to put yourself in more danger to collect them, but if you collect them all, you’ll be given the choice at the end of a stage between a full health restore or a new random passive upgrade. These golden gears form a enormous difference to your runs, the benefit of that full health restoration can’t be overstated, but they do introduce another variable to consider when you’re in the thick of things and weighing your options. We appreciate the role of gears in the overall game cycle; They challenge you to get out of your comfort zone and push yourself, but the costs of doing so can be high.

Those of you who enjoy meta-progression in a roguelite will be pleased to note that there are some permanent updates that persist between runs. Gems left over from a run will be thrown into your bank, and can then be spent on things like different armor sets to tweak your playstyle, or new types of relics that can then appear on subsequent runs. These updates are not of the variety that to guarantee you’re successful if you just stay in the groove long enough, but they do offer helpful tools and benefits that improve your chances of success beyond the basic kit. Perhaps most importantly, it seems that the economy here is also well managed; you can’t just buy everything in a few runs like you could in Pocket Dungeon.

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Shovel Knight Dig Review - Screenshot 6 of 7
Captured on Nintendo Switch (docked)

In terms of presentation, Shovel Knight Dig jumps the franchise from 8-bit to 16-bit and brings with it all the new fidelity you’d expect. The art style feels like the natural progression of what came before, and seeing beloved characters and enemies rendered in a much more expressive and detailed style is exciting for Shovel Knight veterans. Each environment has its own distinctive color palette and has lots of fun details in its backgrounds, be it hives of slimy bugs or dank ruins adorned by troupples.

Meanwhile, the soundtrack combines remixes of classic tunes and all new music to create a catchy backdrop for all the cuts and runs. Listening to more complicated and layered music compared to the original games’ 8-bit chipstunes is interesting, but none of it feels out of place or out of step with what came before. It seems like the soundtrack is generally a bit less memorable here, though admittedly this could just be a side effect of the game’s more intense pacing. You don’t have as much time to focus on the music when you’re fighting for your life!

If there’s one complaint we have about Shovel Knight Dig, it’s that it can feel too short, even by roguelite standards. Our first full clear came a little under three hours into our overall playthrough and while there are more things to unlock and try out in later runs, we were still over 50% complete for our file at this point. The content here is certainly high-quality and worthwhile, but in many ways it feels more like a side dish than a main course. Those of you looking for a Dead Cells or Enter the Gungeon style experience that could take dozens of hours to completely conquer you may feel a bit disappointed.

Shovel Knight Dig Review - Screenshot 7 of 7
Captured on Nintendo Switch (docked)

That said, there’s also quite a bit of replayability here beyond the raw unlocks for those of you who are more competitive. Although there is no multiplayer, you can post scores from your races on the global leaderboard to see how you stack up, and daily and weekly races are also offered to keep you coming back. You can also sort these leaderboards to only show people on your friends list, allowing you to focus on keeping your competition more local if you prefer. This leaderboard integration helps keep subsequent races from feeling too boring by providing a secondary incentive as there is always someone out there a little better than you whom you can work to overthrow.

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