It’s hard to believe, but it’s been over eight years since everyone’s favourite knight in shining armour took his first steps in the world, before promptly using his shovel to bounce on an enemy’s head. Shovel Knight hit the scene back in 2014, and it seems the brand continues to go from strength to strength.
Fans have seen the knight appear as a guest in several other indie games, Shovel Knight Treasure Trove now contains four distinct campaigns with new playable characters and movesets, and after the release of Shovel Knight: Pocket Dungeon last year, Yacht Club and Nitrome teamed up to deliver an exhilarating rogue-like take on the knight’s trademark old school platforming with Shovel Knight Dig.
If you’ve played the original Shovel Knight, you might remember the hero’s bouncing shovel attack, where he propels himself downwards, his ability to dig with his shovel, and a few of the special attacks found along the way. Dig takes so much of what made the original game work, and turns it into a vertical adventure through different procedurally generated areas. The only way to rise up the ranks is to head straight down.
Should you be familiar with rogue-likes and the original Shovel Knight, then you should have a strong idea of what to expect. The downward adventure sees Shovel Knight chasing after Drill Knight, a new enemy who attacks Shovel Knight’s campsite, steals his treasure and then takes off towards the centre of the earth. Shovel Knight dives into the hole after him, and must pick up treasure now scattered through each level while trying to find the several bosses standing between him and the Drill Knight himself.
While it can feel like we’ve perhaps had a little too much Shovel Knight recently, Shovel Knight Dig manages to show that this well hasn’t run dry quite yet, and an important part of this is thanks to the consistently excellent platforming. The original Shovel Knight already feels practically perfect to control, offering a precise moveset and a hefty challenge that demands serious skill.
While Shovel Knight Dig might not have quite the challenge of its predecessor, it shows that the gameplay is always the star of the show, as simply digging down through the many levels, bouncing on enemies, and whacking gold with your shovel is immensely satisfying in its own right. Thanks to the procedural nature of the game, you never know what’s coming, but that doesn’t stop every second from being a joy. Instead, Dig demands more of a focus on your reactions than platforming precision, as your descent is quick, and it’s easy to miss some very important things.
The aim of the game is to grab the treasure and reach the bottom, but along the way are several vendors who appear in side rooms (much like Downwell), ready to offer you food, relics, or other various items for a price. Meanwhile, each of the three levels that make up an area contains three golden gears. Collecting all three unlocks a reward when you complete the level, allowing you to choose between food to restore your health or an extra item, likely a relic to expand your current move pool.
However, while Shovel Knight can dig through the dirt of each level downwards and sideways, here Shovel Knight cannot dig up, meaning if you miss something, then it is gone forever. Then there’s also the Omega Saw, a giant screen-filling drill that appears if you take too long in any particular area. Dawdle for a few moments, and this gigantic machine creeps in, just a single touch kills Shovel Knight and ends your run. It adds a fun sense of urgency, but sometimes the precise nature of the platforming and the sheer amount of things to collect is at odds with the speed, making it easy for frustration to set in when you miss something important with no way to return.
This is where the rogue-like elements really come out to play, as your run and its difficulty mostly depends on the relics you find, the food items you stumble across, and of course, the type of procedurally generated levels you encounter. Now, after each successful level, you do get to choose between two possible areas next, with a small sign giving a hint about what to expect. The signs not only let you choose between the different biomes to explore, but also provide a small visual hint that normally reveals either a possible vendor (for food, relics, accessories, etc) or the types of obstacles you’ll face. Occasionally the favourable option is even locked behind a padlock, meaning you need to find a key within the level, and successfully bring it to the end without losing it to even access the better of the two options for the next area.
Sadly, many of the relics you find feel fairly inconsequential, and you see them so rarely that even when you do grab one, it feels more natural to stick to the moves Shovel Knight always has. You don’t start each run with a relic. Instead, you just have to hope you find one on your journey, and even then, it’s fairly random which relics or vendors you come across, so you simply never get enough time with these additional weapons to really get a feel for them.
The ranged attacks of the flame wand and the throwing trowel come in handy during the boss fights, but in the main levels, you’re moving too quickly through the level to really need a weapon beyond your trusty shovel. Close-range items like the morph lance feel especially redundant, but the odd item like the war horn comes in handy on occasion with a wide blast area that clears space easily and buys you precious time to think about your next move.
Ultimately though, a lot of the platforming is so demanding that I didn’t want to even attempt to do anything outside of the regular move set. While some of the relics are weapons (like a giant lance that pierces between walls), others give additional platforming capabilities like the propeller or a bubble you can use as a shield. But it just feels at odds with the difficulty and urgency that the level design demands of the player, and even in boss fights when they make more sense, they very rarely feel of more use than the traditional shovel.
This brings us to another issue. Like many rogue-likes, when you die in Shovel Knight Dig, your progress gets reset. It’s not a particularly long game, with four areas to explore before the eventual boss, so replay value is tied into the things you can earn outside of the main game. You get to keep a decent chunk of your treasure after each run, and can use this fortune to unlock new sets of armour, relics, or special keys needed to unlock even more relics in the levels.
But while items like new suits of armour feel like a worthwhile upgrade, the actual relics are much less so and aren’t a good incentive to continue heading down the mines to grab more treasure. In Dead Cells I’m always thrilled to find or unlock a new weapon, as each one controls differently but feels satisfying and unique. However, once again, the main gameplay is really all you need.
While a couple of permutations (like a bit of extra damage to your downwards strike, or the ability to stall in the air when you swipe sideways) are all welcome, it doesn’t change or improve enough about the gameplay to stop the title becoming stale after a few hours. If you do want to get some more out of the regular gameplay, there are daily and weekly challenges you can enter from the campsite that allows you to earn your place on the global leaderboards. It’s a nice addition, though it’s more of the same at the end of the day.
Now, as mentioned, this is a short campaign, with only four levels and a few bosses separating you and the antagonist, Drill Knight. You might not always end up in the same areas, as you can choose between different worlds like the Secret Fountain or the Smeltworks when given a choice between two levels after a boss. But it only ever takes the four levels to reach Drill Knight’s castle. Not only this, but you can unlock and purchase shortcuts to each area, so with a bit of cash, you can simply jump into the Smeltworks and save yourself the trouble of getting there.
To be honest, I really like the accessibility of being able to dive into specific areas, as it certainly stops you from having to return to the Mushroom Mines (the first level) so often you lose your mind. In fact, Shovel Knight Dig has some fantastic accessibility options, allowing you to change things like the amount of help you have, the damage you take from enemies and the frequency of both food items and treasure. The regular difficulty works for me, but anybody struggling will find there are myriad ways to finetune the experience until you find a rhythm that works for you.
My main issue is that I just simply wish there was more to experience. The game feels fantastic to control, and while I’d like the relics and accessories to be more consequential, I still love diving down and shovelling my way through several enemies, filling my pockets with treasure along the way. Nitrome and Yacht Club transferred the feel of Shovel Knight perfectly, and the game looks and plays great, I just don’t think they’ve managed to make a particularly stellar rogue-like to wrap it all in.
Now, back to the good stuff. Developer Nitrome is known as a pixel art master, and honestly, Shovel Knight looks better than ever. The pixel art here is some of the very best on Switch, looking expressive, colourful, and full of character in every single detail and movement. On the Switch OLED, I’ve been blown away by the beautiful graphics of both the explorable village and the many levels you find on your deep descent, with flowing lava filling up the screen and many enemies featuring adorable and impressive designs.
Also, to the surprise of absolutely nobody, Jake Kaufman has pumped out another astonishing soundtrack that adds a bouncy and vibrant sprinkle of joy to every second of gameplay. The tracks here follow a lot of the same motifs and sounds of the original title, but with an extra dose of manic energy that fits well alongside the more frantic gameplay on offer. The area known as the Secret Fountain seems to take a bit of influence from Sonic 3’s Marble Garden Zone, and Kaufman uses a similar wailing lead synth noise behind the pumping electronic chords that brought a huge smile to my face.
Similarly, while I have issues around the way that rogue-like elements such as the relics and accessories are handled, I’m still very impressed with how satisfying the core gameplay is, especially the many thrilling boss battles. Favourites like Mole Knight return with a twist, while newcomers like Drill Knight make a big impact with a tough fight and a strong design. The writing is also as sharp as ever, and the charming characters are part of the reason I still enjoyed my adventure so much.
Altogether, I had a great time with Shovel Knight Dig, and it looks, sounds, and plays like a dream. Sadly, this dig is just a slightly shallow adventure that doesn’t balance its rogue-like elements enough to reward experimentation or incentivise the players to return and collect more cash. Shovel Knight Dig is a blast to play, and the blue knight himself could be at his very best here. But while there’s still a huge amount of fun to be had, expect to finish quickly, and with little reason to return and experiment with different runs.
Shovel Knight Dig review
A charming spin on the original’s gameplay, Shovel Knight Dig feels great to play, and the presentation around it is absolutely stellar. Sadly, the rogue-like elements aren’t well-balanced or interesting enough to reward many subsequent runs with little additional content to dig into, so while it’s a blast to play and complete, I doubt fans will be sticking around for long after the credits.