Since 2014, Yacht Club Games has just been cranking out banger after banger when it comes to the Shovel Knight series, and Shovel Knight Dig is yet another turn of the crank. Developed in tandem between both Yacht Club and Nitrome, Shovel Knight Dig takes the main ideas of Shovel Knight’s 2D platformer gameplay – the shoveling, the bouncing, the secrets hidden in off-pattern sections of the wall, the Mega Man-esque boss battles, so on and so forth – and fits all of them into the structure of a spelunking roguelite. It turns out it’s a great fit, even if the adventure is over rather quickly and offers few compelling reasons to dig deeper.
Shovel Knight Dig is a roguelite, which comes with all the usual hallmarks of the genre: Permadeath, procedurally generated levels, and small elements of permanent progression that give every successive run the potential to be slightly easier than the last. It also plays nearly identically to the first game in the mainline Shovel Knight series, Shovel of Hope. The blue-clad armored knight controls the same, he’s got largely the same set of moves, and fights many of the same enemies with the same behaviors. It’s nice to have that familiarity, but the developers smartly don’t just rely on nostalgia. There are still plenty of new enemies, new relics, and new hazards, most of which are designed specifically to make the most out of the biggest difference in Shovel Knight Dig: Instead of being a traditional side-scroller that has you moving from left to right, Shovel Knight Dig exclusively has you moving from the top to the bottom of each level.
This leads to some tricky level design where you have to really be careful about how you descend, because while Shovel Knight can dig sideways and downwards, he cannot dig upwards – so if you miss a block or enemy to bounce off you’ll often find yourself unable to get back up. But you can’t take things too slow, because there’s the constant threat of a one-hit kill excavator that follows you through the level and will make an unwelcome appearance if you take too long on any one section. It all amounts to a great feeling of tension and well-designed risk-vs-reward in each section of every level. The entire four level campaign is also filled with tantalizing secret passages, treasure chests, valuable gems, and equippable relics that are often tucked away in hard-to-reach or dangerous areas and further drive home that tough decision making that is paramount to any good roguelite.
In further typical roguelite fashion, in between each run you can buy new relics and accessories that will be added to the pool of potential treasures that you can find on subsequent runs. None of them are truly game changing, and to be completely honest, you could probably beat the game just as well without buying any of them. Fortunately, it’s not just relics and accessories that you can spend your hard earned loot on. You can purchase shortcut tickets that allow you to begin a run at a deeper stage, you can buy armor sets that have a wide variety of different effects – but only after you find their blueprints hidden in the well – you can buy equipment upgrades that let you carry more items when you’re spelunking, and you can buy special keys that unlock more powerful relics, if you can manage to hold on to it long enough to reach a door with a special lock.
The one issue with this whole system – and it’s a very similar issue to one I had with Pocket Dungeon – is that very few of these purchasable items add to any sort of feeling of progression. The armor sets are great and feel like worthwhile rewards to save your money for, especially the red armor that reduces the damage you take at the expense of the gems that you earn, but many of the unlocks that come from Chester – the blue dude that lives in a chest and sells you accessories for subsequent runs – are so situational or have effects that are so miniscule that it felt like a waste of money and actively detrimental to add them to the potential loot pile. I’d much rather have an item that’s useful for a whole run than a elemental resist accessory that’s useful for one level, and then a waste after that.
This hurts the overall feeling of progression and also makes me less interested in attempting to buy all of the items after beating my first run, because they’re just kind of undesirable.
Still, it’s a fairly minor issue because Shovel Knight Dig is excellent in just about every other area, and that first full successful playthrough was a delight. One of my favorite design choices is that every level has three cogwheels to collect that are always in plain sight, but rarely an easy get. If you manage to collect all three of them, then at the end of the level you’ll be able to choose between an item or getting all of your health back. It’s a great feeling to go through a level with low life and know that as long as you’re able to collect those three cogwheels, you’ll still have a fighting chance and keep your run alive. And on the flipside of that, if you’re sailing through a stage and don’t need health, it’s also a great feeling to know that you’ll be rewarded with some sort of more tangible prize at the end if you’re able to snag all those cogwheels.
Another really smart thing that Nitrome and Yacht Club included, and one that feels very much inspired by other excellent roguelites such as Hades and Slay the Spire, is that once you reach the end of a level you’re given a choice as to where you want to go next, with little signs that let you know what you can expect from the level’s procedural generation and the rewards within. The most desirable paths are typically locked and require you to bring a key to the end of the level, while others will warn you of an abundance of a certain enemy type, or that there will be deadly drills that continuously move left and right throughout the stage. They can also let you know of good things that will be in a level, like shops or increased health drops. It’s great to have a bit of control over what kind of level you want to tackle next, especially because sometimes it’s not an easy choice.
It’s also worth mentioning that this is the best Shovel Knight has ever looked. Prior games have intentionally limited their art to mimic the look of an NES game, but Shovel Knight Dig has no such limitation, making it seem like a generational jump from the original games and putting it more in line with the 16-Bit SNES and Genesis era . The high-quality sprites, animations, and backgrounds all look excellent, and the chiptune soundtrack — once again courtesy of Jake Kaufman — is among the catchiest of the year.
It didn’t take me too long to reach the end of Shovel Knight Dig’s short, four-level excavation, with my play clock coming in at just under four hours. While there’s certainly a lot of game left in the form of achievement like-feats to accomplish, hidden armor blueprints, relics to unlock, and accessories to purchase from the shop, there doesn’t seem to be much of a reason to keep going outside of satisfying that completionist’s itch.