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Impressions: Shovel Knight Dig is my new roguelite gaming addiction

Shovel Knight Dig, and you’ll find trippy treasure just like this.”>
Enlarge / Dig deeply enough in Shovel Knight Dig, and you’ll find trippy treasure just like this.
Yacht Club Games

Shovel Knight Dig has been on our radar since its announcement in 2019—back when games could be revealed and immediately demonstrated at physical gaming expos. That many years ago, Dig was one of a few planned series spinoffs, and its demo at that year’s PAX West show floor filled me with dungeon-digging excitement.

This week, the series’ third formal spinoff finally goes on sale on PC, iOS, and Nintendo Switch, and in great news, Dig is easily the best Shovel Knight offshoot yet. What’s more, it stands out compared to other arcadey, action-focused roguelites, and the result feels like a depth-filled mod for the mobile classic Downwell.

A new pit stop on the randomly generated road

Enlarge / Lots of silly chatter surrounds a new massive chasm in this otherwise peaceful village.
Yacht Club Games

Shovel Knight has reasons to dig with his namesake weapon in search of treasure, secrets, and revenge. If you’re interested in this character-filled story, Dig‘s interactions with beautifully drawn and animated animals are as charming as the plot found in the mainline series’ four campaigns. Or you can mash buttons to skip the dialogue and get to the satisfying digging.

Control in this new 2D side-scrolling game resembles the mainline series, as well: Use an action button to swipe your shovel left or right (or downward if you hold down on the D-pad) while your hero lands from jumps and falls with his shovel facing downward, which not only harms vulnerable foes but also makes the Knight bounce upward off most stuff it contacts, except certain ground types. Instead of running left or right to a goal, Shovel Knight now digs downward through randomly generated levels (with a few left and right exceptions, usually found in the game’s wealth of hidden challenges).

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Thanks to so many action-driven roguelikes and roguelites from the past 10 years, we’ve been down this randomly generated road before. Yet the development team at Nitrome (Super Leap Day) quickly establishes its savvy on how to pump variety and fun into randomly generated depths. One of its best differentiators is its application of gravity. While the popular game Downwell constantly drops players at high speeds and forces rapid reactions, Dig frequently gives your Knight a chance to land, survey his immediate depths, and notice what his pesky jumping ability will and won’t reach.

Each descent is broken up into smaller stages, and each stage includes a crucial treasure chest at its conclusion. Should you find each stage’s three golden gears, you can unlock this chest’s bonus item, which includes run-saving goodies like additional health and special abilities. (Like in other roguelites, health can be scarce, and too much damage can spoil a run in an instant.) Speedrun past these golden gears, and future, enemy-filled stages become trickier to survive. As you shovel through destructible terrain and drop to lower platforms, each levels’ golden gears, along with other useful pickups, will appear in tricky, hard-to-reach corners. They’ll require that you selectively leave some terrain and enemies unspoiled to nail a high-enough bounce.

A sneaky twist on the “endless runner” approach

Enlarge / So many tricky foes are piling up. Good thing we grabbed a screen-clearing special ability earlier this run.
Yacht Club Games

These battles with gravity may sound pedestrian as described, but their execution in Dig stands out from the roguelite fray because they create an “endless runner” sensation without simply forcing players to auto-run. This effect is compounded by an insta-kill drill that is always creeping from the top toward your Knight’s position (which is thankfully paused when players enter hidden chambers), so players can’t be precious about picking up every hard-to-reach item, gem, and golden gear. Some smaller drills will emerge while diving downward, as well, and while they don’t insta-kill, they destroy any treasure, items, and gears they touch—so if you see one of these emerge from one side of the screen, you know you have to race before they breach and threaten your precious loot.

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Dig doesn’t otherwise reinvent the roguelite wheel. These bullet points will likely sound familiar: most items earned in a given run disappear upon death; currency lingers between runs and can be spent on a mix of temporary and permanent upgrades; and your deaths make sense in the game’s mechanical flow, as they teach players how to more carefully surmount their returns to Dig‘s depths.

Instead of introducing a bunch of new concepts, Dig feels balanced to battle the inherent boredom that can emerge after players see the same randomly shuffled level building blocks repeatedly. Gravity helps on this front, as does the constant random number generator (RNG) assigned to enemy placement and movement. Dig‘s wimpiest monsters are manageable and come with predictable, steady movement patterns, but they ramp up their numbers and annoyance level if you dawdle for too long in a given jumping challenge. They’re clearly tuned to remind players that they should be activating limited-use weapon pickups, instead of preciously saving them.

Splitting hairs between the Genesis and Saturn eras

Shovel Knight Dig launch trailer

Conversely, unlike many roguelites, Dig has a few very welcome accessibility sliders tucked into an options menu. These include buffs like increased health and attack damage, increased likelihood of picking up specific items, and even the option to slow down the game’s speed. There’s no penalty for turning these on, beyond disabling the game’s leaderboard system, so if you prefer to lighten the game’s default brutality, go ahead.

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Above all of this, Dig expands the series’ aesthetics to resemble a jump from the 8-bit NES to the 16-bit Genesis. This quality is made most evident by a soundtrack that’s clearly been composed in part on a classic Yamaha FM synthesizer, while hero and enemy sprites and world backgrounds come pumped full of unique frames of animation and clear, nicely contrasted color choices. (If we’re splitting hairs, Dig‘s visuals are probably closer to the sprite-pumping power of the Saturn than the Genesis. Which is fine by me.)

One thing that’s harder to track in these kinds of reviews is when a game lacks negatives. During my hours of testing, I didn’t cry out in frustration due to unfair design. I found the sheer acts of digging, dodging, and bouncing quite fun through my sessions—all while enjoying the score-chasing tension of deciding whether to cash accumulated wealth in for bonuses or hold onto my gems to get a higher score. And while they’re made up of randomly assembled building blocks, Dig‘s stages generally feel expertly crafted—like something out of the Mega Man X series.

Verdict: A fun, refreshing entry in the action-roguelite gaming universe. Buy.