The latest Shovel Knight spin-off is an adventure we can really dig. Here’s our review of a charming platformer…
You’re on a constant knife-edge in Shovel Knight Dig. Between success and failure; between elation and fury; between ending a run in gem-studded glory and dying alone at the bottom of a pit. In collaboration with British studio Nitrome, Yacht Club Games has taken the bouncing shovel attack mechanic from the original Shovel Knight, fused it with the vertically descending stages of Mr. Driller, and wrapped it all up in the semi-random generation framework of a rogue-lite. The result is an action-adventure that constantly urges you to dig deeper into the hazard-filled caverns below – a swinging circular blade loitering above you providing added motivation – while simultaneously teasing you with shiny diversions on either side.
Often, the temptation of risk and reward in Shovel Knight Dig can be agonising, because you’re having to make decisions in a fraction of a second: do you test your jumping skills to get to an out-of-the-way treasure chest or other trinket, or do you ignore it and continue your descent? The agony’s made all the more delicious because the assorted trinkets are so vital to your progress – sooner or later, you’re going to die, but you can at least spend the gems you’ve amassed in the hub world back on the surface.
As you progress, the little community on the surface grows with colourful new characters, and several of them – a flamboyant shopkeeper here, an armourer there – will offer permanent upgrades you can buy with your hard-earned gems. Other items, meanwhile, can’t be purchased directly – instead, crossing a merchant’s palm with gems will only give you the chance of stumbling on your chosen item on the next dig. It’s a design choice that highlights just how harsh Shovel Knight Dig can be: on one hand, its stages shower you with the tiny dopamine rushes of overflowing treasure chests and hidden rooms stuffed with loot, but on the other, it’s constantly snatching away your earnings with a randomly placed spike or some other trap that you’ve barely had time to avoid.
One run was cut brutally short when a floating enemy miniaturised me at just the wrong moment, leaving my tiny knight unable to leap up to the one platform that would lead me to safety. A few fruitless jumps at the agonisingly out-of-reach ledge later, and I’d been slaughtered by that ever-descending blade.
Such moments are infuriating but thankfully rare. All the same, you’ll have to get used to a considerable amount of repetition in Shovel Knight Dig, at least until you start to unlock things like fast-travel and better equipment that will help you make it through some of the more difficult, later stages and their increasingly ornery bosses. With that repetition, though, comes an increasing appreciation for what Dig gets so wonderfully right. The controls feel intuitive and spot on; the joy of heading into the mouth of danger and retrieving the three cogs that unlock extra upgrades at the bottom of the current stage is difficult to understate.
In more cynical hands, Shovel Knight Dig could’ve wound up as one of those mobile games that constantly nags at you to spend real-world cash on upgrades. Instead, it’s another Shovel Knight spin-off that beguiles you with its charming presentation, and sometimes dazzles you with the breadth of its ideas and secrets, even as it infuriates you with yet another streak-ending death.