Digging Into the Delightful Shovel Knight Dig

Shovel Knight is one of the biggest indie darlings on the scene, and if it didn’t start the retro revival that took the mid 2010’s by storm, it absolutely contributed to catapulting it to incredible new heights. I’ve been on record for many years saying that the original Shovel Knight, as well as all of its DLCs that came out afterwards, is one of the finest 2D platformer experiences out there. Shovel Knight Dig, created by Nitrome and published by Yacht Club Games, is a 2D roguelite that attempts to capitalize on the charm of its 2D platformer kin. Does Shovel Knight Dig succeed, or has it dug its own grave? Let’s find out.

Shovel Knight Dig tasks the protagonist with venturing downward through a variety of caverns to retrieve his stolen goods from a group called the Hexcavators. The story is relatively minor and may have the occasional easter egg for those who remember much of what happened in Shovel Knight: Treasure Trove, but you don’t actually need any foreknowledge to have fun since the plot is by no means prioritized in this title. Shovel Knight Dig is nowhere near as bad as hitting you with rampant text boxes as Hades is, for example, so if you just don’t care who Drill Knight or the Enchantress are, you can just skip the dialogue and have fun adventuring.

Shovel Knight Dig is a game that plays by relatively simple rules: You can jump and swing your shovel, or freely attack things underneath you just like you would in Shovel Knight: Treasure Trove. Each environment you adventure through is broken up into smaller sections, but you basically always venture downward and only visit side rooms to find loot, shopkeepers, or relics that may help you continue to venture further and further into the caverns.

Like the original Shovel Knight, Dig has a number of relics you can use to attack enemies from afar or even make yourself invisible. Some relics are pretty easily understood- the fire rod shoots a fireball in a straight line ahead of you, and the throwing axe controls are just like the axe sub weapon from Castlevania. In order to use your equipped relic, you need to have magic as ammunition, and once you run out, you’re going to be back to swinging your shovel like some kind of magic-less loser.

In Shovel Knight Dig, you’ll descend through multiple areas, from mushroom-laden caves to a magical landfill, and after clearing each segment you often have a choice of which path to delve into further. There are signs that hint at what’s to come- a red sign with an enemy on it, for example, can indicate that you’ll see a lot more of that foe on that path, but it might also give you way more opportunities to collect gems and pad your bank account. Some split paths will require keys that you find along your journey. Any item Shovel Knight carries behind him, like a key, will be dropped if he gets hit (and glass keys shatter when dropped). Some paths require you play well to make it to specific gates with keys, and sometimes have some pretty good rewards in them like brand new relics or health and magic upgrades.

If you die on a run, you’ll find yourself back in the main camp where you can spend your gems to unlock new armors with varying abilities, or accessories that you can find in your next run of the game. There’s also a guy who can smuggle you into later areas you’ve already unlocked, letting you skip the mushroom caverns and jump right into the smeltworks, for example, if you just want to get right into the action and make another solid attempt to reach Drill Knight’s lair, again.

Each level segment will have a variety of enemies, gems, and maybe even shopkeepers where you can spend your gems to acquire additional heart containers or more loot. Each randomly generated chunk also has 3 cog wheels that are found scattered throughout your descent, and upon reaching the end, the cogs will let you choose either a full heal or an upgrade at random. Collecting cogs is basically the most deterministic way to keep your health high as you continue your descent, and most of the accessories confer very little benefit, if any at all, so unless you’re at full health it’s generally better to take the health chicken that only cogs can provide.

The upgrades that you can find as you progress in Shovel Knight Dig offer very little in power, much of the time, and are typically just random utility that might help you every so often. There are accessories that can draw gems into Shovel Knight, that make collecting money much easier, or find something that spawns more gems, for example. There are, however, a variety of accessories that are so niche in use, such as ones that give you a stronger slash attack if you jump on an enemy’s head three times, that are nice to have but don’t really feel like upgrades. It’s nice to be more resistant to ice damage, but there’s also no guarantee you’re even going to encounter an enemy that uses ice as an attack.

Most roguelites live and die by the upgrades they afford the player: if the aforementioned upgrades don’t confer an entirely new avenue to play the game that’s slightly more efficient, then usually it’s expected that they make it at least a little bit easier. Unfortunately, most of Shovel Knight Dig’s upgrades do neither of these things, and players are substantially better off finding a relic they like and focusing on keeping their health high rather than spending their money buying new attacks or accessories.

While the content of Shovel Knight Dig is fun when things go well, it can also be super frustrating when things don’t work as they should. A skilled player can make it all the way to the last areas of this game, but then get softlocked in locations that don’t quite make sense due to blocks generating in ways that make spaces impassable. For example, in the later area, Drill Knight’s Castle, there’s a series of small puzzles where you need to dodge traps that fire drill projectiles at you, and some blocks will hinder your progress until you redirect a drill into the block to destroy it. In my first couple runs of Shovel Knight Dig, I made it all the way to this point, but the drill launcher spawned too close diagonally to the block it needed to destroy, so I couldn’t progress and died to the giant “time over” saw.

After getting softlocked two separate times, I did manage to clear the title pretty easily on the fourth or fifth attempt by simply prioritizing health upgrades and not worrying about picking up accessories or anything that just wasn’t health, and quickly wound up at Drill Knight’s Castle with almost four times as much health as the attempt where I was softlocked previously. Some items that were unlocked, like Book of Bomb, can actively impede runs of the game, and it seems like most good items were already unlocked from the start, so there was no real need to focus on unlocking everything, which unfortunately also hurts the longevity of the title as a roguelite.

That being said, the visuals of Shovel Knight Dig are extremely pleasing, and the combination of bright, vibrant visuals with cheery, exciting music make it a delight for both the eyes and ears. The soundtrack is a bit more simple than you’d experience in Shovel Knight: Treasure Trove, but Nitrome did a great job with basically all of the backing tracks, and the OST of Dig would be right at home alongside Treasure Trove’s.

So, when it comes down to it- is Shovel Knight Dig fun? Absolutely, it’s a blast, and for having randomly generated level segments, the development team has done a fantastic job at minimizing softlocks or enforcing failure states. Unfortunately, those problems still exist, but my experience getting softlocked is apparently not super common; it still happens, however. Shovel Knight Dig is a competent 2D action roguelike with decent bosses and stage segment design, but that’s about as much as can be said about it.

The biggest challenge is that while Shovel Knight Dig is entertaining, you will predominantly do the same thing from one run through the caverns to the next, and the overall stage variety is quite a bit less compared to the original Shovel Knight from 2014. That’s a rough comparison to be made, unfortunately, when Shovel Knight Dig is the exact same price as competing roguelites with way more to do in them, such as Hades, Risk of Rain 2, or Rogue Legacy 2. If you really love Shovel Knight and want to experience a roguelite version of the character, then Shovel Knight Dig is the place to be. However, in spite of my being a massive fan of Shovel Knight as both a character and in the game Treasure Trove, I’d actually recommend players who want a 2D action roguelite to check out Rogue Legacy 2 first as that title gives a lot more value and differing ways to play for the buy-in cost of $25.

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