Since the last 8-bit-style game came out, Shovel Knight has been branching out more into other genres as developer and publisher Yacht Club charts a course for where its eponymous nobleman will go next. In December, we got the wonderful Shovel Knight Pocket Dungeon, which smartly blended falling block puzzle mechanics with roguelite game design. Now, we’re getting another roguelite in Shovel Knight Dig, only this time the gameplay is much more in line with the action-platforming of the original game. As you’d probably expect of this franchise by now, it’s an absolute blast to play; developer Nitrome (Bomb Chicken) delivers a tough, rewarding, and enjoyable new experience that series aficionados will want to dig into immediately.
Shovel Knight Dig takes place sometime before the original Shovel Knight, so Shield Knight hasn’t disappeared yet and the Enchantress has yet to rise to power and form the Order of No Quarter. Here, the main villain is a new character named Drill Knight, who has formed a group of knights called the Hexcavators to help him in raiding a treasure room buried somewhere deep within the earth. Their efforts to do so—and the enormous hole they’ve created—are creating problems for the people on the surface, so Shovel Knight and Shield Knight dive in to try to get to the bottom of what’s going on.
Obviously, the story isn’t much of a focus here, as this is a highly replayable roguelite platformer first and foremost. Even so, what’s here creates a certain amount of intrigue as you can’t help but wonder what awaits you at the bottom of the hole, and series fans will appreciate the many nods to other titles that take place later on in the Shovel Knight timeline. For example, it’s cool to see Shovel Knight and Shield Knight’s relationship played out in more than the brief flashbacks we get elsewhere in the series, and interacting with earlier incarnations of Mole Knight and Tinker Knight from before their time in the Order of No Quarter provides some cool insights into the characters. The ‘lore’ isn’t very heavy here, so franchise first-timers won’t feel like they’re missing out on much, but those who have played previous releases will appreciate seeing how this fits in.
Gameplay could be best described as what the original Shovel Knight game would look like if it was made with the design philosophy of Downwell. You play as the titular blue knight and start each run by jumping into the hole, with the goal simply being to get to the bottom as fast as possible while collecting as much as you can on the way down. Each run is divided up into biomes composed of three levels, with a final fourth level consisting of a boss fight with that area’s resident knight. Each time you fall in battle, you’re brought back to the surface and have to try it all over again. You retain some of your collected gems from each run, but otherwise lose all upgrades and inventory items that weren’t already permanent.
Suffice it to say, the difficulty is brutal, but not necessarily unfair. You don’t really have that much health to begin each run, and though this can later be expanded via shops and upgrades, healing items are typically pretty sparse. Most failures, then, aren’t because you hit a brick wall that you simply couldn’t get past, but rather they’re deaths by a thousand cuts as every miscalculated jump and rough enemy encounter adds up to eventually take a final toll. You’d think the solution would be to simply take things slow and play it safe, but there is constantly a huge, invincible buzzsaw drill bearing down on you from above. Most of the time, you don’t even know it’s there, but if you’re taking too much time fooling around and trying to snap up every gem and collectable, it’ll catch up to you fast and kill you instantly.
Given this, there’s a delicious kind of tension to every minute of your run. Shovel Knight Dig certainly adheres to the ‘rich-get-richer’ philosophy where effective play is rewarded with boons that make the game even easier, while playing poorly will make things even harder for you the longer you go on. It’s in your best interests to collect as many gems as possible on your way down, as this will directly give you more ability to buy relics, upgrades, and healing items if you happen to come across a shop. Yet, if you don’t learn how to effectively prioritize which groups of gems to grab and which ones to pass on, you’ll find the saw eventually catching you. Finding that risk-reward line is a big part of the fun of Shovel Knight Dig, and you’ll find yourself slowly building a knowledge base as time goes on and you learn how to best handle the myriad situations and obstacles that may arise.
Though every level is randomly generated, we appreciated how the various stage gimmicks and enemy types here came together to give a handcrafted feel to these new biomes. Whether you’re bouncing between mushrooms, dodging between bubbles and swimming fish, or disarming bombs before they go off, there’s hardly ever a dull moment in Dig as you frantically swipe and jump your way to safety. Importantly, moment-to-moment gameplay feels extremely similar to the original Shovel Knight; you have the exact same moveset and even the physics feel quite similar. Given this, it feels like you’re always capable of overcoming the barriers before you, but not to the point that any of them are rendered trivial. Even the common mook enemies can land a tricky hit on you every now and then, and the damage you take there can mean the difference between life and death when you later fall into some spikes.
Along the way, you find ways to add to Shovel Knight’s repertoire and this is where your survival chances go up considerably. In treasure chests or at shops, for example, you can pick up Relics that give you access to new limited-use items to help even the odds. Whether it be a form of short-range teleportation, a helpful projectile attack, or a means of levitating briefly, each Relic has very clear use cases to help get you out of a bind.
Additionally, you can pick up upgrades in shops that give you either flat bumps to your health or magic stats, or helpful passive abilities like a gem magnet or a wider range to your shovel swing. If you’re diligent about collecting gems along the way, you can usually afford to buy one or two things in each shop, but you never have enough to get everything you want.
Additionally, there are three golden gears in every level, placed in obvious but slightly difficult-to-reach areas. They usually require putting yourself in more danger to pick them up, but if you collect them all, you’ll be given a choice at the end of a stage between a full health restore or a random new passive upgrade. These golden gears make a huge difference in your runs—the benefit of that full health restore cannot be overstated—but they introduce another variable to consider when you’re in the thick of things and weighing your options. We appreciated the gears’ role in the overall gameplay loop; they challenge you to step outside your comfort zone and push yourself, but the costs of doing so can be high.
Those of you who enjoy some meta progression in a roguelite will be pleased to note that there are some permanent upgrades that persist between runs. Leftover gems from a run will be tossed into your bank, and this can then be spent on things like different armor sets to tweak your playstyle or new kinds of relics that can then appear in subsequent attempts. These upgrades aren’t of the variety that will guarantee you succeed if you simply stay on the grind long enough, but they do offer up helpful tools and buffs that enhance your chance of success beyond the base kit. Perhaps most importantly, it feels like the economy here is well-handled, too; you can’t just buy out everything in a few runs like you could in Pocket Dungeon.
In terms of presentation, Shovel Knight Dig jumps the franchise from 8-bit to 16-bit and brings with it all the new fidelity you would expect. The art style feels like the natural progression of what came before, and seeing beloved characters and enemies rendered in a much more expressive and detailed style is exciting for Shovel Knight veterans. Environments are each given their own distinctive color palettes and have a lot of fun details going on in their backgrounds, whether that be slimy insect hives or wet, troupple-adorned ruins.
Meanwhile, the soundtrack blends together remixes of classic tunes and all new music to make for a catchy backdrop to all the slashing and dashing. Hearing more complicated and layered music compared to the 8-bit chiptunes of the original games is interesting, but none of it feels out of place or out of step with what’s come before. It does feel like the soundtrack is generally a little less memorable here, though this admittedly could just be a side effect of the more intense pace of the gameplay. You don’t have as much time to focus on the music when you’re fighting for your life!
If there’s one complaint that we have about Shovel Knight Dig, it’s that it can feel like it’s a little bit too short, even by roguelite standards. Our first full clear came a little less than three hours into our overall playthrough and though there are more things to unlock and try for in subsequent runs, we were still at over 50% completion for our file at this point. The content that’s here is certainly high quality and well worth your time, but it feels in many ways like this is more of a side dish than a main entrée. Those of you looking for a Dead Cells or Enter the Gungeon-style experience that could take dozens of hours to fully conquer may feel a little disappointed.
That said, there’s also quite a bit of replayability here beyond raw unlocks for those of you who are more competitive. Though there isn’t any multiplayer, you can post scores from your runs to the global leaderboard to see how you stack up, and there are also daily and weekly runs offered to keep you coming back. You can sort these leaderboards to just show people on your friends list, too, allowing you to focus on keeping your competition more local if you prefer. This leaderboard integration helps to keep subsequent runs from feeling too grindy by providing a secondary incentive, as there’s always someone out there a little better than you who you can work to overthrow.