Puzzle game

Shovel Knight Pocket Dungeon is the best puzzle game of 2021

The most important game on any device is the one you can come back to when you have nothing left to play. For me, it’s a good puzzle game. Dr Mario: miracle cure, of all things, was one of my most played Nintendo 3DS games. Whenever I had a downtime between games, I always knew I could open it and take pills for hours.

Despite a plethora of options, I’ve struggled to find this kind of game on Nintendo Switch… until now. Shovel Knight: Pocket Dungeon, a new spinoff from the Shovel Knight series, is exactly what I wanted. It’s a fast paced, addicting puzzle game that has me saying “just one more turn” for hours.

Dig it

Shovel Knight Pocket Dungeon gives a new twist to a familiar concept. In his story mode, players control Shovel Knight, who is sucked into a puzzle dungeon. The independent icon is thrown into a series of grids that fill with enemies, breakable blocks, and health restoration potions. You can guess where it’s going: empty the board by chaining the corresponding icons.

But there’s a lot more going on than in your average “Match 3” game. It’s basically a dungeon robot in the middle of a traditional puzzle game. Rather than tapping on icons, players actually control Shovel Knight, who appears on the grid. He needs to physically move and hit things with his shovel to break them. All of this happens as more things continually fall from the top of the screen (if the screen fills up, the game is over). This creates a fast-paced flow where players have to constantly navigate their way across the board hitting obstacles. Spatial awareness is the key.

On top of that, Shovel Knight has life points. Every time he hits an enemy, they hit him back for a few points. Grabbing a potion restores some health, so players need to know when to attack and when to heal. Items, like bombs or temporary weapons, also fill the board from time to time, which can change the tide of battle if used at the right time. It’s not about mindlessly tapping on icons, but figuring out the right order of operations in an ever-changing puzzle board.

A battle against in Shovel Knight Pocket Dungeon.

It was a high speed juggling act that caught my attention. I quickly found myself in a sort of rhythmic trance thanks to the excellent soundtrack made up of remixes of classic tracks by Shovel Knight. Without realizing it, I walked to the beat as if I was playing NecroDancer’s Crypt Where Tetris Beat. Every time I hit an enemy I get a satisfying “hit” that feels like a snare or a hand. I feel like I’m working in concert with the music, which prompts my brain to keep up with the tempo.

Stay hooked

There are additional gameplay twists that refresh the basic puzzle hook. The game has a roguelite structure where players must clear a series of boards and fight the classic bosses of Shovel Knight. Lose and you will start at the top. During a race, players can purchase Relics that have different effects, such as increasing the number of bombs that spawn or adding +1 damage to each enemy initially hit. While there wasn’t much to choose from, there was enough that I was able to put together some pretty wild builds that made me feel invincible.

Shovel Knight hangs out at a campsite in Shovel Knight: Pocket Dungeon.

What really keeps me coming back, however, is the cast of playable characters in the game. Whenever a boss is defeated, players can use it in the adventure. Each has their own special mechanics that completely change the game. Plague Knight has reduced his HP, but poisons enemies on contact. Specter Knight, on the other hand, recovers health by killing enemies, but takes damage from potions. Each character makes me rethink the way I approach each board and carefully choose the relics that best suit their playstyle.

Shovel Knight Pocket Dungeon makes all one good puzzle game is supposed to do and more. It’s easy to pick up and play, but I can’t wait to master all 13 characters. I feel like there are secrets in his story that I haven’t discovered, which keeps me going long after finishing a race. A daily challenge, versus mode, and leaderboards complete the package, giving me all the ingredients I need for a puzzle game that will find its way to the top of my Nintendo Switch activity log.

Shovel Knight: Pocket Dungeon launches on December 13 for Nintendo Switch, PlayStation 4 and PC.

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