Shovel Knight Dig - Bewitching Broth

While I enjoyed my time with Steamworld Dig and Steamworld Dig 2, neither of those games scratched the particular itch I had at the time. Before actually playing those games, I had imagined something closer to Spelunky 2, something more rogulike in its approach.

As it turns out, Shovel Knight Dig is the exact game I was hoping Steamworld Dig would have been. This has the “dig” mechanic of Steamworld Dig (and Super Mario Bros. 2), with the gameplay loop of Spelunky 2 and the world and visual style of Shovel Knight. In fact, Shovel Knight Dig might be the perfection of the “dig” game genre.

Shovel Knight Dig is a prequel to Shovel Knight — canonically, it is currently the first game in the Shovel Knight universe. The basic premise is that Shovel Knight and Shield Knight are adventuring together, when Drill Knight shows up and jacks their stuff before retreating underground. So Shovel Knight grabs his shovel and digs downward, uncovering a rich (and ridiculously lucrative) world below.

The gameplay falls into the roguelite category. While death is permanent in that it ends your current run and wipes out any temporary upgrades you’ve acquired, you also get to keep a majority of the riches you’ve gathered. This means that even failed runs will add gems to your stockpile, allowing you to purchase upgrades at shops on the surface between runs.

Shovel Knight Dig

Not only does this create that one-more-run hyper-addictive gameplay loop, but it feeds your brain a burst of dopamine, making you feel like you’ve actually made progress on that run. It’s an incredibly satisfying formula for a video game, one that I gladly sank dozens of hours into over the past week.

While actually inside the mines, where most of the gameplay takes place, you’ll encounter all sorts of dangers, such as swarms of underground bees, pools of lava, and bosses with names that end in the word Knight. If you tarry too long, you’ll even encounter the Omega Saw, a blade that relentlessly chases you like the Hound of the Baskervilles. (Okay, so I think a more modern reference would be the robot dogs from the Black Mirror “Metalhead” episode. But, to be fair, the dogs from “Metalhead” were likely partially inspired by the robot dog from Fahrenheit 451, which was inspired by the Hound of the Baskervilles. So I really chased that reference back to the source…)

But while dodging the dangers of the mines, you’ll also be uncovering a world of secrets. And this is one thing that I think too many roguelikes and roguelites get wrong. The best games in these genres are packed with secrets that reward the most hardcore players. Think of something like The Binding of Isaac‘s ever-expanding world, or finding the Black Market in Spelunky 2. Shovel Knight Dig has its own treasure trove (wink, wink) of secrets to discover, including a ridiculously complex series of actions you’ll need to complete to unlock the game’s “true” ending.

Shovel Knight Dig

The “true” ending path begins with you interacting with an owl, in case you’re looking to get started on that. But even if you don’t have the patience to unlock the game’s greatest challenge, there’s still plenty to find in the mines. There are NPCs hiding in secret rooms who will take gems in return for various temporary bonuses, like additional health and mana or perk-granting accessories. And then there’s a whole series of quests to embark on to unlock the game’s various armor sets.

My only real complaint about the game is that it’s pretty short. There are six “worlds,” and each one contains three segments that eventually lead to a boss fight before you’ll progress to the next world. But these worlds aren’t in a straight line — there are stages that you will completely skip over in a normal playthrough.

So, here’s how the world is layered:

  • Mushroom Mines
  • The Secret Fountain/Smeltworks
  • The Grub Pit/The Magic Landfill
  • Knight’s Castle

So, in a normal run, you will either play through Secret Fountain or Smeltworks, but not both (there’s actually a way to visit all six biomes in a single run, but that’s one of the game’s many secrets). This means a normal run will have you getting through four of the game’s six biomes.

Shovel Knight Dig

My hope for the future is that we’ll see some game updates that bring us additional biomes, unlocks, and secrets. But even as is, Shovel Knight Dig is still a phenomenally addictive roguelite that is an absolute joy to play. In a year that’s seen some incredible pixel-art throwback titles, this stands out as one of the best.

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