Shovel Knight Dig Review – Ace of Spades

Shovel Knight Dig is a far cry from the retro action game that catapulted the character into indie royalty. But in a weird way, it feels like a natural extension of that game’s mechanics and concepts. If the original Shovel Knight evoked the feel of a lost NES-era platformer, Shovel Knight Dig feels like a disruptive follow-up that boldly charts new paths for the series, rather than sticking to the source material. This isn’t actually Shovel Knight 2, but it could have been.

The distinction is interesting because this game is another developer building on the Shovel Knight concept, but under the watchful eye of the original studio, Yacht Club Games. Nitrome has liberally borrowed some key elements from Shovel Knight, but this isn’t a spin-off in the same way that last year’s Shovel Knight: Pocket Dungeon was. It doesn’t feel like the character is being transplanted into an entirely new genre; instead, he is reinventing what can be done within a similar framework and with the same level of mechanical precision.

Playing now: Shovel Knight Dig – Release Date Trailer – Nintendo Switch

In a nutshell, Shovel Knight Dig is a top-down roguelike, where you have to dig deep underground to face off against the infamous Drill Knight, who has stolen something valuable from our hero. The story is light and simple, and while Drill Knight’s gang of “Hexcavators” are no match for the sheer pun bliss of The Order of No Quarter in terms of naming conventions, it works well enough.

The new structure recontextualizes the game, but it’s still a platformer at heart, and it still controls remarkably like the original Shovel Knight. Many enemies and even bosses also respawn in this game. They behave as expected, but with subtle differences to reflect the new burrowing underground mechanic. It’s like a magic trick: over and over again you will see things that are the same, but also different.

As a roguelike, most of your time is spent engaging in solo runs, which you start by diving into a gaping hole in the ground. Depending on your luck and skill, those runs can last anywhere from a few minutes to half an hour. A huge machine swoops down on the stage as you advance and threatens to destroy you, so there’s not much time to waste planning your perfect route or taking out all the enemies. When you’re on the main path, you have to constantly progress down, all the while dealing with enemies and collecting gems and gear.

Gems are the persistent part of the roguelike, allowing you to buy new relics that appear randomly in stages, as well as permanent upgrades like armor and extra transport slots. Golden gears, three per sub-stage, are scattered throughout the procedurally generated stages in places that are a bit more difficult to reach and require creative problem solving. You get bigger rewards for collecting more gear, and if you get all three, you can choose between a full heal or a random relic. Stages also have multiple side rooms where you can engage in a quick challenge to get extra gems or find a vendor, and each stage has multiple breakable walls that activate when you hit a weak spot – absolutely vital for uncovering secrets and finding collectibles.

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All of these disparate elements are a lot to take in, and it was hard to find my balance as I learned the game’s new rhythms and core ideas. It doesn’t do much to explain itself, allowing you to learn by doing, but in my case that meant making a lot of the first stage over and over again. Despite this, he is always tempted to run one more time, and it’s easy to get lost in the depths. In no time I went from struggling to catch up with the first boss to easily dispatching him and moving on.

That sense of discovery lasts throughout the game, as each of the stages introduces new types of enemies and even dirt to dig up. A fire stage, for example, has patches of flammable charcoal-like ground that will burn in a cascading fashion if one of the fire-based enemies sets it on fire. These types of dirt get wildly creative in later stages: one magic-based stage had dirt that acted as portals, and others that shot straight at you and ricocheted off walls. These are combined into platforming challenges that are so finely tuned that they feel handcrafted, despite being procedurally generated.

Learning a new set of rules and tricks for each stage can be off-putting, but it’s made easier with the ability to buy shortcuts in stages. Being a roguelike, you’ll probably want a new run from the top to rack up enough upgrades to finish the game. But for the purposes of learning the ins and outs of a new environment, it is a useful tool. If you just need to test an area, you can also turn on the myriad of accessibility options, offering everything from increased damage and health to slowing down the game. There’s no penalty for activating them, and the game seems contained to let you have fun any way you want.

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The procedurally generated hooks even extend to the boss encounters themselves, subtly changing the battlefield every time you face a boss. My favorite of these was Tinker Knight, who retreats to a huge drilling machine for the second phase, peeking out of it through the many hatches on it to throw keys and presenting an opportunity to jump off of it to damage it. But the drilling machine itself was a mix and match of parts, with vastly different configurations each time he encountered it. It’s an awesome gimmick that makes every run feel that much more engaging.

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All of this makes it exciting when you’re in a particularly good race. After some key upgrades in the earlier stages, I found myself working my way through the later stages, having to learn new items as I went along, and being surprised when I finished it. That breathless feeling of bare-knuckle platforming followed by the relief and joy of accomplishment, like I just got away with something I shouldn’t have done, was one of my favorite gaming experiences this year. Still, I don’t feel done. Branching paths mean there are environments and bosses I haven’t encountered yet, and I still want to track down more upgrades and armor types. I hope to be playing this for a while.

In that way, it’s very much a continuation of Shovel Knight. The original retro platformer was tough as nails in parts, but all the more rewarding for it. Shovel Knight Dig takes everything that was great about that game and pulls it apart, transforming it into something new that’s just as compelling and hard to put down.

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