Shovel Knight Dig is the second roguelike spinoff of Shovel Knight, following last year’s Shovel Knight: Pocket Dungeon. Where that game completely changed the pace, mechanics, and even camera angle of the first game, Dig has similar enough gameplay that fans will be able to pick it up easily. Mastering it, however, is a different story. Even with a range of accessibility options, it’s still a challenging game. While the deaths don’t always feel fair, there’s a real sense of triumph in getting to the bottom of this new Shovel Knight adventure.
Just dropping by
Like other Shovel Knight games, Dig has a simple premise: Drill Knight jacks your bag of treasures and starts burrowing down into the earth. He’s up to something, you want your stuff back, and that’s about all the setup you need to leap into action.
“Leap” is the operative word there, because although this game shares a lot of platforming elements with regular Shovel Knight, the physics are very different. Our hero doesn’t jump nearly as high as before, but that’s okay, because your goal is to keep digging further down. This is the first time our hero has truly lived up to their name. Those who used the Dust Knuckles in the original Shovel Knight will be familiar with how this digging works: each swing of the shovel propels you forward, so you can rapidly dig side to side or straight down — but distinctly not up unless you get a certain powerup — at a rapid pace. I quite enjoyed being able to outrun enemies and hazards as I dug down.
Despite the heftier movement, Shovel Knight Dig moves at a generally faster pace. Speed is definitely the name of the game here. In fact, lingering on a screen too long causes a diamond-lined buzz saw to start pursuing you, causing instant death if it connects. You have to hustle, and if you miss a power-up on the way down, you very rarely get the chance to climb back to it. That’s pretty par for the course for a roguelike: you’re meant to drop through these levels again and again, not to spend a ton of time thoroughly exploring each one.
Wholly different holes
Each stage of Shovel Knight Dig stands apart from the others; it’s clear a lot of work went into making each one look and feel unique. Mushroom Mines has springy mushroom caps that send you bouncing around the screen; Secret Fountain has bubbles that can be used as extra platforms before they pop. Even the dirt you dig through is different in each biome. The steamy Smeltworks has igneous rocks that enemies can use to burn you, and a personal favorite comes from the Magic Landfill: dark purple crystals send you flying through the earth at warp speed, careening around corners and right through enemies. Even when you get accustomed to these elements, the game’s procedurally generated levels mean that you never know what’s coming in the next chamber.
With different terrain comes a wide variety of foes, who are also unique to each stage. There are basic returning baddies like little beetles and charging horse knights, but there are many more new faces. Crabs in the Secret Fountain try to clobber you with long-reaching claws, and a particularly intimidating worm in Mushroom Mines fills the screen as it zig-zags its way toward you, creating a dirt trail reminiscent of retro Nokia phone game Snake. There’s even a fluffy floating thing that temporarily shrinks you if you make contact — you can access certain rooms via tiny tunnels while in this state.
In fact, there’s a whole host of side chambers to pop into as you make your descent. Some offer the chance to trade gems to NPCs for healing items or stat-boosting accessories. Others are challenge rooms that won’t let you leave until you defeat all the enemies inside. All make for entertaining diversions from the main pit, although at least two instances ruined really great runs for me. In both cases, the enemies failed to spawn correctly, and I was left without any way to actually clear the room and continue my run. That was particularly disheartening since maintaining momentum is the best way to get through this game.
There’s someone else down here
When you reach the base of each biome, you’ll face one of the Hexcavators, a new team of villains working together with Drill Knight. Half of the squad — Spore Knight, Hive Knight, and Drill Knight himself — are newcomers, while Mole Knight, Tinker Knight, and Scrap Knight all appeared in previous games. Like the biomes, every battle feels unique. Even the veterans have completely different elements in their fights for this round. Scrap Knight is a particular standout, as she actually sucks you into the pocket dimension inside her magic bag for the last leg of the fight.
Reaching each knight is hard enough, but winning the fight means so much more because you came all that way without checkpoints. Each biome has three different stages you must clear. If you manage to collect three golden gears on the way down, you can trade them in for a handy accessory or a full refill of your health — the most reliable way to top yourself off.
Healing whenever you can is crucial, because the procedural generation of the game means enemies, obstacles, and extra modifiers are bound to poke away at your HP. Death is expected in a roguelike, but it’s not uncommon to die here simply because of too much happening on the screen. I had more than a few deaths where I thought I was safe, and you can’t improve if you don’t know what killed you in the first place.
Shovel Knight Dig is another smart repackaging of the brand. Yacht Club games already proved it could repurpose its ideas into a tile-based roguelike with Pocket Dungeon, and now Dig demonstrates what happens when the platformer gameplay is remixed for a deadly descent into a dark pit. It’s not a perfect journey — some deaths are going to feel very cheap — but it feels good to overcome those odds, give Drill Knight what for, and take back what’s yours.
Dying and losing all those hard-earned gems stings, but it helps that your next run will always be completely different. Even if you recognize individual chambers, they’re still arranged in an unpredictable lineup every time you dive back into the well. Seeing such radically different environments and enemies in each biome is also good motivation for diving back in. No one said digging was easy.
7.5 / 10
|+||High-speed digging feels great|
|+||Cleverly designed biomes with unique mechanics|
|+||The Hexcavators make for some great boss fights|
|–||Screen clutter can lead to unfair deaths|
|–||Occasional technical hiccups will throw off your runs|