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Shovel Knight Dig

Platform(s): Nintendo Switch, PC, PlayStation 4, Xbox One
Genre: Action/Adventure
Publisher: Yacht Club Games
Developer: Nitrome
Release Date: Sept. 23, 2022


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PC Review - 'Shovel Knight Dig'

by Cody Medellin on Oct. 20, 2022 @ 12:00 a.m. PDT

When Drill Knight and his dastardly digging crew blast apart Shovel Knight's peaceful campsite and steal his loot, he grabs his trusty Shovel Blade and starts tunneling after them!

For players who deal exclusively in the console and PC space, Nitrome sounds like a relatively new studio with only two games (Bomb Chicken and Gunbrick: Reloaded). If you are into mobile and web-based games, though, Nitrome is a more familiar studio that has developed over 100 titles that are either self-published or published through contracts with big names like MTV Games and Miniclip. Their stock and trade happened to be in pixel-based games, most of which were praised by critics and players alike. In that context, it makes sense that Yacht Club Games would team up with them to create Shovel Knight Dig, the latest spin-off for one of the more popular indie-game characters.

Shovel Knight Dig takes place years before the events of the main game, and it features Shovel Knight enjoying a good night's rest by a campfire next to his bag of riches. Without warning, Drill Knight arrives and snatches the bag from him before boring a large hole for an escape. Shovel Knight gives chase, discovering a large cave system in the process and learning that Drill Knight's group, the Hexcavators, are trying to break into a fabled treasure trove at the bottom of the chasm.

For the most part, the story is light enough that those unfamiliar with the series won't miss out on anything. Those who love lore and cameos will find the game to be packed with references to past games, but it's done in a way that feels special rather than obligatory. The cut scene ratio feels right, and nothing lasts so long that you're tempted to skip the scenes. As an aside, seeing that repeat encounters with bosses yields different scenes is a nice bonus. Overall, this is a game where you'll spend more time playing rather than watching.

On the surface, the game seems like a mix of Shovel Knight with elements of Downwell and a dash of Mr. Driller thrown in for good measure. You still swing your shovel and perform the pogo bounce, but that's automatically done the moment you jump instead of you having to initiate it yourself. There are sections where you'll move horizontally, but most of the action forces you to move down, killing some enemies and avoiding spike traps in the process. While some of the action takes place on solid platforms, most of it takes place on blocks and mounds of dirt, providing you with the chance to use your shovel logically to dig deeper into the cave system. Digging is more fun than in Mr. Driller, since you can essentially fly while digging horizontally. If you keep smashing the button, you can dig through a row of dirt with no floor below you; it feels like an essential skill to learn if you want to gather gems or get a more strategic drop on enemies.

The combination works quite well for those looking for solid platforming thanks to tight, responsive controls. Each level has plenty of secrets, like hallways leading to shops or places where you can get a pet companion to eat enemies. Some of the passageways require you to get creative and discover how you're supposed to get inside. That cleverness is also on display when you see golden gears, which are essential to choosing between full health and a special item at the end of a level. Rarely will a section feel unfair, and there's a bit of joy in entering a bad situation and being able to come away unscathed thanks to your own skills and no game glitches to hamper you. Boss fights also don't feel out of place, since it still goes with the tried-and-true method of reading patterns, and the spaces aren't any smaller than before. They remain inventive, challenging to get through, and joy-inducing when you emerge triumphant.

These elements work fine, but the developers also decided to wrap it up with various roguelike elements, such as the fact that you only have one life. Every run sees the level structure and enemies change. Most of the power-ups are temporary. While the game still has you lose some gems after every death, you're still able to carry enough back to camp to grind out runs to get some of the more permanent upgrades so future runs can be a little easier. The addition of roguelike elements may make you groan if you're tired of their presence in indie games, but they work well here, considering how often you'll die and how the level order never changes.

Shovel Knight Dig also seems to focus on speed and constant movement, for better or worse. The sections of each level are short, so it doesn't take long to progress. The game's difficulty makes runs feel short, but at least restarts are quick with no loading. On the flipside, staying around an area for too long means you'll conjure a boring machine that can easily wipe you out in one or two hits, and the only way to escape is to hurry up and dig deeper until it stops giving chase. It is a little disappointing to not get time to explore your surroundings, but it means that you'll need to plan things carefully because you only have limited time to double back to get what you missed.

There's a lot to discover if you don't keep rushing into the pit after every death and stay in the overworld. Go to the right, and you'll discover a shop where you can obtain temporary keys and some permanent upgrades, like being able to have more than one item following you at a time. Find the blacksmith, and you can also get permanent shovel and armor upgrades. Head left, and you'll find a campsite with bunches of wanderers to help fill in the world lore. You'll also meet a shopkeeper who can unlock random perks through your journey and a tombstone that lists the various feats you'll need to complete to buy more techniques. There's also a leaderboard that has both weekly and daily challenges posted for specific dungeon configurations, breathing some life into the game beyond the main quest and the various secrets in the overworld.

The game provides a great amount of challenge, but the developers have been benevolent enough to give the player a few options in the name of accessibility. Players can get more food from the end of a level or have more gems appear throughout the game. Players can choose to make the game run slower, get more health, and have their attacks hit harder. If you're fine with having those accessibility options invalidate your run on the leaderboards, their presence ensures that you'll get further, but they don't give you a free pass to see the ending. There are lots of complaints from gamers that they can never finish a title, so increased accessibility options are a growing trend.

If there's one complaint that can be levied against Shovel Knight Dig, it would be the camera. The game handles downward movement fine, as your character is always in full view. The same can be said if you're moving horizontally. However, moving up is problematic, as the camera doesn't scroll up until you get much closer to the top of the screen. If you fulfill a feat to learn a new move, the message has a good chance of covering you up, and since that's where the giant boring machine comes from, you also stand a good chance of getting hit before you can react while Shovel Knight is slightly out of focus.

Much like every other Shovel Knight title to date, the presentation is top-notch. The art style centers around sprites, but the homage gets an upgrade from 8-bit to 16-bit, with a more varied color palette and animations that are a little smoother. The change leaves the game looking gorgeous, whether you're visiting the same underground caverns or exploring the overworld as it starts to get more crowded with visitors. Meanwhile, the music is still handled by Jake Kaufman, with tunes that match what was heard in the original game. It doesn't quite take advantage of the more powerful sound of the era, but the tracks grab you enough that you won't mind the lack of a sonic upgrade.

Like a good number of indie games, Shovel Knight Dig lends itself very well to the Steam Deck. Except for a few slight pauses when transitioning between levels, the game runs smoothly with no hitches or slowdown in combat. There aren't too many graphical options to tweak, but the pixel art does a fine job in adapting to the device's lower resolution, while the battery life can go over five hours. Combine that with the short average playtime per run, and you have a title that fits Valve's device perfectly.

Just like Shovel Knight Pocket Dungeon, Shovel Knight Dig proves to be a very solid spin-off for a very beloved character. The familiar platforming of the original mixes well with the predominantly vertical focus, while still maintaining a responsiveness that fans expect. The roguelike nature of the title means that there's a good amount of randomization and temporary upgrades. The quick average runs mean that levels aren't a slog. Overall, it works well as a starter roguelike, and it's a perfect choice for both Shovel Knight and platforming fans alike who are looking for something different.

Score: 8.5/10

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