The most important game on any device is the one you can keep coming back to when you’re out of things to play. For me, that’s a good puzzle game. Dr. Mario: Miracle Cure, of all things, was one of my most-played Nintendo 3DS games. Whenever I had some downtime between games, I always knew I could pop it open and bust some pills for hours on end.
Despite a wealth of options, I’ve struggled to find kind of that game on Nintendo Switch … until now. Shovel Knight: Pocket Dungeon, a new spinoff game for the Shovel Knight series, is exactly what I’ve been craving. It’s a fast, addictive puzzle game that has me saying “just one more round” for hours on end.
Shovel Knight Pocket Dungeon puts a new spin on a familiar concept. In its story mode, players control Shovel Knight, who gets sucked into a puzzle dungeon. The indie icon is thrown into a series of grids that fill up with enemies, breakable blocks, and health-restoring potions. You can guess where this is going: Clear the board by chaining matching icons together.
But there’s a lot more going on than in your average “Match 3” game. It’s essentially a dungeon crawler in the middle of a traditional puzzle game. Rather than tapping icons, players actually control Shovel Knight, who appears on the grid. He needs to physically navigate around and bash things with his shovel to break them. All that happens while more stuff continually falls from the top of the screen (if the screen fills up, it’s game over). That creates a fast-paced flow where players need to constantly carve a path through the board by jabbing obstacles. Spatial awareness is key.
On top of that, Shovel Knight has health points. Every time he hits an enemy, they hit him back for a few points. Grabbing a potion restores some health, so players need to figure out when to attack and when to heal. Items, like bombs or temporary weapons, populate the board from time to time as well, which can change the tide of battle if used at the right time. It isn’t about mindlessly tapping icons, but figuring out the right order of operations in a constantly evolving puzzle board.
It’s a high-speed juggling act that earned my full attention. I quickly found myself in a sort of rhythmic trance thanks to the excellent soundtrack featuring remixes of classic Shovel Knight tracks. Without realizing it, I was moving on beat as if I was playing Crypt of the NecroDancer or Tetris Beat. Every time I hit an enemy, I get a satisfying “thwack” that sounds like a snare drum or handclap. It feels like I’m working in concert with the music, which pushes my brain to keep up with the tempo.
There are additional gameplay twists that freshen up the core puzzle hook. The game has a roguelite structure where players need to clear a series of boards and fight classic Shovel Knight bosses. Lose and you’ll start from the top. During a run, players can buy relics that have different effects, like increasing the number of bombs that spawn or adding +1 damage on every initial enemy hit. While there aren’t tons to choose from, there are enough that I was able to put together some pretty wild builds that made me feel invincible.
What really keeps me coming back, though, is the game’s cast of playable characters. Anytime a boss is defeated, players can use them in the adventure. Each one has its own special mechanic that completely changes the game. Plague Knight has reduced HP, but poisons enemies on contact. Specter Knight, on the other hand, regains health from killing enemies, but takes damage from potions. Each character has me rethinking how I tackle each board and carefully choosing relics that best match their playing style.
Shovel Knight Pocket Dungeon does everything a good puzzle game is supposed to do and more. It’s easy to pick up and play, but I feel myself itching to master all 13 of its characters. I get the sense that there are some secrets to its story that I haven’t discovered, which has me pushing on long after completing a run. A daily challenge, versus mode, and leaderboards round out the package, giving me all the ingredients I need for a puzzle game that’s going to ride its way to the top of my Nintendo Switch activity log.
Shovel Knight: Pocket Dungeon launches on December 13 for Nintendo Switch, PlayStation 4, and PC.
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