Dig dig dig from early morn till night
Shovel Knight may never die — and I’d be completely okay with that! The franchise, born in 2014 with the original entry, created a cottage industry for Yacht Club Games, who incorporated the series into multiple projects and has spawned an empire of sorts. While we wait for Mina the Hollower to arrive, there’s more Shovel Knight coming your way this month.
Shovel Knight Dig, a roguelite platformer, is the latest attempt to mix things up. Thankfully, it’s very close to the spirit of the original game.
Shovel Knight Dig (iOS [Apple Arcade], PC [reviewed], Nintendo Switch)
Developer: Nitrome, Yacht Club Games
Publisher: Yacht Club Games
Released: September 23, 2022
Ingeniously, Shovel Knight Dig slots nicely into the lore as a theoretical side story. Since the events of Dig are kicked off when Drill Knight steals your stuff at a campsite (between any given level in the main entry), it simultaneously explains why Shovel Knight has to start over with no powers, and answers when it can possibly take place. None of this truly matters as Dig is a standalone project, but it’s nice to see a bit of continuity here, including returning bits and pieces (like character models and designs) that worked in the past. “Nostalgia for Shovel Knight” is a weird concept indeed, but it has been eight years after all.
While Shovel Knight Pocket Dungeon was a bigger departure for the series, Dig mostly maintains the platforming angle of the first entry with a new spin. Your job is to get to the bottom of the titular “dig,” and put a stop to Drill Knight’s shenanigans. To do that, you’ll burrow through “stages” (with fixed themes, and three distinct parts per stage), accompanied by randomly generated layouts. “Roguelite” really rings true here, as you do get some carryover items, and there’s a way to unlock/buy shortcuts so you aren’t starting over from square one every time.
After just one run, the ethos of Shovel Knight Dig became crystal clear. It’s addictive, and it does have that Spelunky-esque well-intentioned design foundation where if a run goes wrong, it’s usually your fault. From there you’ll regroup, re-assess, and pick up on strategies to keep going a little further — a little better — until you reach the apex (or in this case, the bottom). Every run will be wildly different, but there is a consistent framework.
There’s three gears to collect in each section, which provide bonuses at the very end of that same section before making your way to a new level. Most of your cumulative gems (the main currency of the game) are stashed after a failed run, which let you purchase a small selection of permanent upgrades from the hub zone (like extra slots to carry items, or armor that can change your playstyle). You’ll continue on this loop until you reach the end. Cutely, the hub will slowly build up over time and add more NPCs and shops (including some fun in-universe cameos). You can choose to go for daily (a limit of once per day) or weekly (unlimited attempts) runs, and check out the global leaderboards.
You do have a degree of control over your run, too. Shops periodically offer temporary upgrades/relics that can provide menial bonuses like extra max health, or higher jumps. At the very end of each section, there’s typically a forked path of two options to dig into, with vague signposts that serve as warnings or guides as to what the next part entails (such as the abundance of a certain type of enemy). If you collected all three gears in that section, you can also heal to full or gain a random upgrade. One gear provides bonus gems, and two gears will reward you with gems/a small healing item. Getting the trio of gears in each section consistently is really satisfying, like you earned your little treat. It’s a clever way to add more control to the generally chaotic genre.
All of this also creates an interesting meta of push/pull and pressing your luck. If you spend your entire run taking damage, you could heal to full (provided that you earned the right to do so), but you’d miss out on more upgrades that could, in turn, save you from getting hit as much. Some gear placements are dastardly, and force you to make snap decisions that may only offer up one small window of opportunity to snatch them. The more you play, the more you’ll pick up on these little tricks and subvert them. You can’t spend forever and a day trying to hit that perfect jump to get any given gem, gear, or item either: lingering for too long will cue a one-hit-kill drill that slowly attempts to take you out.
Those shortcuts I mentioned help alleviate a lot of frustration of the unevenness of the genre, but it’s still present. In some runs, I noticed repeating layouts (albeit with different item/enemy placements), and there are select maps that are outright easier than others (the same goes for random shopkeep wares). I also have a bone to pick with some enemies that are off-screen and zoom into your hitbox. It can lead to a cheapness of sorts where some runs are more fruitful than others through no fault of your own. But again, this is where the tightness of the platforming comes into play, as you can directly counter a lot of what Shovel Knight Dig throws at you through raw skill and game knowledge.
The theming of each zone also really sold me on continuing with the game in a marathon fashion. Now, some will probably be championed over others, but the distinct musical choices and enemy variety for all of the themes are top-notch. I can recall all of the nuances of every area in my head even after just a few runs, which contributes to how fresh Shovel Knight Dig is attempt after attempt.
In that same vein, bosses feel straight up like Shovel Knight bosses. Enemies, even when squeezed into smaller, vertical-oriented levels, come across as deliberately placed. Even with some vexation and anger that comes with the territory, I found myself mashing that “another run” button constantly. It’s so easy to get into a groove where you’re just going for run after run, and since gems are banked, you don’t feel like you’re losing anything massive after death. Optional accessibility toggles (extra health, more food, more gems, additional attack power, and lowering the game speed) assist in ironing out some personal wrinkles.
Shovel Knight Dig manages to marry a lot of the best parts of the roguelite genre with the quirks of the Shovel Knight series, and I really enjoyed my time with it. Because of the charm involved and the intuitive nature of many of its puzzles and layouts, I can see myself returning periodically to start a brand new run, likely discovering new things along the way.
[This review is based on a retail build of the game provided by the publisher.]