Shovel Knight Pocket Dungeon is one of those games where all of the obvious ways to describe its constituent parts don’t do them, or it, justice. It’s a falling-block match game in which you score more gems by chaining together more and more of the same enemy . It’s a roguelite in which you unlock different weapons and abilities each time you play. It’s a dungeon crawler in which you’ll find potions that heal you, bosses that kill you, and the occasional mysterious passage to a secret shop or treasure room. Perhaps best of all, it’s also more approachable, fluid, and fun than any of those things makes it sound.
Out December 13 on PC, PlayStation, and Nintendo Switch, Pocket Dungeon is the sixth game in the Shovel Knight universe and a collaboration between series creator Yacht Club Games and the self-proclaimed “world’s worst developer,” Vine. While the first Shovel Knight was an excellent 2014 retro platformer, more recent games like 2019’s Shovel Knight: King of Cards and platform fighter Shovel Knight Showdown experimented with new genres. Pocket Dungeon is the most ambitious reformulation so far and, after roughly 4-5 hours of playtime, feels the most gripping and original.
As Shovel Knight, or one of nearly a dozen other characters you can unlock, you move up, down, left, and right on a grid. If something is in the way, like say a skeleton, you’ll do damage to each other. Whichever runs out of health first dies. If the skeleton happens to be connected to a bunch of other skeletons, they’ll all get damaged with each hit, and erupt into piles of gems proportional to the size of the group once killed.
It’s so simple and yet it completely turns the traditional Tetris-like matching game on its head, adding a whole new level of interaction and slew of possibilities for how to try to clear boards. Every movement and attack counts as a turn, but time will slowly advance even while you’re just standing still as well. Trying to destroy lone enemies to maneuver them into bigger groups requires making generous use of the potions that are also continually dropping, but going out of your way to get them means the board is never the same by the time you come back.
Items and upgrades—like leaving a trail of fire in your wake, or doing additional damage to single, isolated enemies—further augment the various factors you have to take into account to maximize your score and prolong your survival. By a few levels into each run you’re already contending with ghosts that temporarily go invisible upon being hit, amphibians that release electricity on certain turns, and enemies that explode when killed. Once you’re in the zone, rapidly trying to compare tradeoffs and navigate narrow paths, Pocket Dungeon feels like so much more than just a puzzle game, which is another way of saying that you don’t need to have even a passing interest in matching games like Bejeweled or Cookie Jam to find the magic in Yacht Club Games and Vine’s re-imagining of the genre.
A game like this would be nothing without a vibrant presentation, and Pocket Dungeon’s music, sound, and artwork are all top-notch and polished in the way Shovel Knight fans have come to expect. On the Switch OLED, where I’m playing it, everything looks especially eye-poppingly good. A match game lives or dies in part based on how rewarding it feels to blow up carefully arranged chains of blocks, and in Pocket Dungeon it’s sublime.
But like I said, it’s also so much more than just a matching game. Familiar bosses pulled from the Shovel Knight world each have unique mechanics recreated for the puzzle board that are sometimes best solved through logic and other times through arcadey twitch instincts alone. Pocket Dungeon is an incredibly thoughtful and sometimes very cerebral affair, but it also never dispenses with the pure joy and satisfying rush of narrowly escaping doom thanks solely to quick thinking and even quicker reflexes.
Revealed back in early 2020, I’d all but forgotten about Shovel Knight Pocket Dungeon by the time it finally got a release date last month. Now it’s all I can think about playing.