[PAX East] The Busy Future of Shovel Knight

Written by Abram Buehner

New Shovel Knight Games: The Future is Busy, but is it Bright?

At PAX East, I had the opportunity to swing past the Yacht Club Games booth and take a look at two new Shovel Knight projects coming to Nintendo Switch. I was able to go hands on with both Shovel Knight Dig and Shovel Knight Pocket Dungeon, which I was incredibly excited about as I’m a big fan of the Shovel Knight IP. While I’ll always be partial to the base experience, just last year, I issued a glowing review to the King of Cards campaign. That expansion didn’t quite surpass the platinum standard that Yacht Club Games set back in 2014, but it came close, and more importantly, it energized me for the future of the brand. Unfortunately, while I dig (pun intended) the original game and its expansions, I’m not sure that either of the upcoming Shovel Knight projects resonate with me in the same way. At least, not yet.

Breaking Ground with Shovel Knight Dig

First, I saw Shovel Knight Dig. The game melds the 2D platforming and boss battles that Shovel Knight fans expect with a glossy, 16-bit aesthetic and vertical level design. Taking a page out of Downwell’s book, Shovel Knight Dig tasks the player with diving into precarious depths, starting at the top of the stage and working downward. This fundamentally changes the Shovel Knight experience, emphasizing the shovel mechanics, particularly the Ducktales-like shovel bounce. Once you reach the bottom after a run of stages, the game pits the player against a fairly traditional Shovel Knight boss.

This shift in gameplay just didn’t mesh with me. Largely, this is a function of the game’s vertical design and new tunneling mechanic. Large sections of these vertical stages are caked in dirt and plunging Shovel Knight into them traps him in place. Then, by pushing a direction on the stick and using the shovel, he’ll immediately dig in that direction and shift over by a tile to where he’s freshly excavated. This movement is segmented, so after each shovel swing, the player has the option to stop, change direction, or keep mashing ahead. The idea is to chain together shovel swings to zip through the dirt, picking up gems, avoiding hazards, and defeating enemies.

A Wrench in the Machine

It’s a functionally competent mechanic, but it doesn’t synthesize well with the sections where Shovel Knight is in free fall, bouncing off enemies with the shovel, tied to his momentum and unable to stop bouncing into the depths until solid ground. It’s a strange mix of deliberate and reflex-based platforming that feels clunky in the way it vacillates between ideologies. It never nailed the fluidity and precision that makes the original Shovel Knight the high-water mark for the 2D platformer.

The game does show promise, however. It looks gorgeous and its boss fights retained that classic Shovel Knight feel. Dig also posits enough of its own ideas that I certainly want to give it a chance. It’s a fundamentally different experience that the first Shovel Knight, and it is possible that my expectations colored my perception of the game, or that I simply needed more hands on time to understand its game flow. Clearly, the game has a strong creative vision, but in the three stages I played, that vision didn’t feel as elegantly presented as I would expect from a Shovel Knight title. It’s a glossy, interesting 16-bit platformer, but I’m not sure if it does much for me. I’ll certainly be playing far more of Shovel Knight Dig when it launches before I offer anything near a conclusive verdict, but currently, I’m not blown away.

Peculiar Puzzling in Shovel Knight Pocket Dungeon

The second game I checked out, Shovel Knight Pocket Dungeon, engaged me in a more meaningful way. This title eschews platforming entirely, instead taking the shape of a spin-off, Shovel Knight puzzle game. It’s a fresh take on the genre that seems poised to sink its hooks into me, even if I alluded its grasp during my demo session. Pocket Dungeon is a strange entity that takes elements of the falling-block puzzler and infuses action gameplay into them. You control Shovel Knight on a grid as enemies and items from the game fall into the grid around you. The goal is to survive until the key and exit appear and fight your way there. In order to stay alive, you have to bump Shovel Knight into the enemies and items to destroy them, subsequently destroying any others of the same ilk that are adjacent. The rub, though, is that each enemy has health, and so does Shovel Knight. Bumping into the enemy takes away a heart from both parties with each hit, which is the crux of the gameplay loop.

The game boils down to sort of cat and mouse game, where the player has to juggle the falling enemies and Shovel Knight’s health. It can be replenished by bumping into health potions, but doing so takes up time, causing more enemies to fall into the grid. It’s a game of give and take, resting upon the player’s ability to strategize and think several steps ahead, not only about what action they’ll take with the current move, but with the moves to follow. Conceptually, the game is dynamite. The elaborate tango that goes on to keep Shovel Knight alive while clearing the board is invigorating. Pocket Dungeon asks the player to flex their puzzle skills in atypical ways, and as a fan of puzzle games, this gameplay really spoke to me.

Back to the Drawing Board

Unfortunately, the build of Pocket Dungeon I played just felt rather unpolished. It seemed like an unconsidered number of enemies and items were falling, and this led to an uneven game flow. Sometimes, far too many health items would drop and sometimes far too few would, and this largely dictated how I’d approach my surroundings. I just never found myself falling into a good rhythm the way I can with a game like Tetris or Puyo Puyo. I was also constantly concerned about trapping Shovel Knight in positions where he was pinned by items that I couldn’t shovel away. At more than one point in my demo, I found myself quasi-softlocked by the game, boxed in by shop doors and opened treasure chests which held me in place.

I do think there is plenty of time for these issues to be ironed out and for Pocket Dungeon to be as successful in execution as it is in concept. As it stands, it is a very fresh and subversive puzzle experience that just needs more time in the oven. I did have a lot of fun with the game during my hands on demo, but I also found myself often frustrated and taken out of the experience. I’m not especially worried, though, as Pocket Dungeon has a way to go before launch still. Considering that the game was announced mere days before PAX East and that the demo stations crashed several times at the booth, this is clearly an early build.

What Lies on the Horizon

With the added development time that Pocket Dungeon is evidently going to receive, I think that it’ll stand as the more exciting Shovel Knight project coming down the pipeline. While Dig has interesting ideas and a great aesthetic, I didn’t leave the booth confident that it would have the same magic that the original Shovel Knight did. While both projects have their high and low points and I’ll certainly be giving both the time of day when they eventually release, my biggest takeaway from my time at Yacht Club’s booth was external to these two games.

Both are developed by outside studios to diferent extents, with some co-development by Yacht Club, but largely, Yacht Club is taking the role of publisher. As such, I just want to see what the in-house team is up to. Shovel Knight is such an electric IP that I’m excited to see its next, true chapter, not just the stopgap titles that’ll tide us over. The good news is that there is news, though. The brand is bustling with interest, multimedia products, and spin-off titles. I’m sure the next, core Shovel Knight game is coming along nicely, and I can’t wait to see what form that takes when it finally gets revealed.

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