Review: ‘Shovel Knight Dig’ will go down in roguelike history


Yacht Club Games has created yet another hit in its franchise that never misses. Created in partnership with Nitrome, the roguelike spinoff “Shovel Knight Dig” breaks new ground for a legendary indie series.

“Shovel Knight: Treasure Trove” is one – or rather, four – of my favorite games ever made. Beginning with the retroactively titled campaign, “Shovel of Hope,” “Treasure Trove” grew to contain three lengthy stand-alone campaigns: the side adventure “Plague of Shadows,” along with prequels “Specter of Torment” and “King of Cards.” If you haven’t yet, “Treasure Trove” is a must-play, but “Shovel Knight Dig” is also a great starting point.

“Shovel Knight Dig” takes place before “Specter of Torment” and “King of Cards,” showing Shovel Knight’s adventures with his partner, Shield Knight, before their separation at the Tower of Fate. The duo explores underground when their treasure sack is stolen by Drill Knight, who leads the Hexcavators. However, after discovering that Drill Knight is mining for dangerous artifacts, Shovel Knight must get to the bottom of a new mystery.

Yacht Club Games never ceases to charm with its signature storytelling and humor, and this prequel is no different. While it’s not as heartfelt, profound or outrageously funny as the campaigns in “Treasure Trove,” the dialogue is entertaining nonetheless. Along with great new bosses, characters who didn’t get enough screen time in previous games – specifically, Mole Knight and Tinker Knight – get a second chance to shine with creative boss fights.

Roguelikes use procedurally generated level layouts, meaning that no two runs of “Shovel Knight Dig” are identical. To avoid the RNG (random number generation) creating unbeatable levels, every room was designed separately to be connected into sections, but every stitched-together level has recurring pieces. Collectible gears earn players bonus rewards if they collect all three in one section, and shops, items or helpful characters can appear in hidden rooms.

Contributed Photo by Yacht Club Games. Shovel Knight tunnels through the Mushroom Mines while avoiding obstacles.

Like in “Shovel of Hope,” combat and movement revolve around the Shovel Blade, which can break dirt blocks and Shovel Drop on objects like a pogo stick. Where the controls in “Shovel Knight Dig” differ is the Speed Shovel mechanic that lets players quickly tunnel horizontally or downward through terrain. Falling automatically triggers the Shovel Drop instead of letting players choose to land on breakable platforms, making jumps riskier.

Changing the Shovel Blade is one of several design choices to encourage analytical yet aggressive gameplay. There’s no time to idle, as the near-invincible, instant-death Omega Saw will catch up if players stay still for too long. Even with a decent lead ahead of the Omega Saw, players who accidentally destroy pathways to gears or don’t tunnel quickly enough will dig their own graves.

“Shovel Knight Dig” isn’t the hardest roguelike out there – especially compared to some of the more unfair games that roguelike veterans are used to – but it can be very punishing, even without the RNG. Although challenge-seeking players will definitely have a blast, the minuscule starting health bar, collectibles that break when players get hit and lack of consistent upgrades increase the base difficulty more than first impressions would suggest.

Thankfully, an optional accessibility menu lets players customize various aspects of the game’s difficulty. Extra health and damage multipliers help with survivability, while increased drop rates make gems and food easier to find. If players feel overwhelmed by fast-paced movement, they can even slow down time. These accessibility features don’t remove difficulty altogether; they simply make the game playable for more audiences by offering a more fair challenge.

Those familiar with Nitrome’s previous work on games like “Bomb Chicken” will immediately recognize the developer’s visual style. If the pixel art in “Treasure Trove” was a love letter to 8-bit NES graphics, “Shovel Knight Dig” represents how gorgeous pixel art can be without limitations; everything from the lighting around campfires to the fluidly animated character sprites oozes personality.

Composer Jake Kaufman returns for another excellent chiptune soundtrack. It’s less memorable than his music from “Treasure Trove,” which remains his magnum opus and one of gaming’s finest soundtracks, but by no means is it bad. Trading the NES music emulator FamiTracker for the YM-2608 emulator BambooTracker, Kaufman evokes the underrated Sega Genesis sound through ethereal overworld music and exciting level themes like “One Person’s Trash” and “Who Needs Honor.”

Nothing could compare to one of my all-time favorite games, but “Shovel Knight Dig” never had to dethrone “Treasure Trove.” It just needed to be a great stand-alone game, and in that regard, it delivers. If this represents what directions the blue burrower can go in future installments – the same engaging gameplay, stunning presentation and charming world, but constantly exploring new genres and ideas – then I absolutely dig it.

“Shovel Knight Dig” is available for $24.99 on Nintendo Switch and PC or for free with an Apple Arcade subscription.

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