Falling block puzzlers are the colourful, sugary, family-friendly games that often model what it’s like to be buried alive. Tetris panic, the screen filled up and the music racing: isn’t that fear you feel at this moment a little too primal to be the result of a simple game you’re about to lose? Isn’t there some kind of deeper sinking feeling as you mess up a round of Lumines and there’s simply no space for anything else to fit on the grid?
Okay, maybe this is just me. But anyway: if you find falling block puzzlers a little claustrophobic, Shovel Knight Pocket Dungeon, a game I absolutely cannot remember the name of when discussing it with others, is going to do a serious number on you.
Why? Because it’s a falling block puzzler in which you’re inside the grid! You’re moving around as the blocks stream in from above. And they’re not all blocks! Most of them are monsters. And if you don’t work quickly yet thoughtfully they will pile up above you! They will block you in! You will be left writhing, stuck between blocks and a hard place, as the screen fills and fills and you feel the weight pressing down. Puzzle horror!
Deep breath. I should probably say right now that Puzzle Knight – Shovel Knight Pocket Dungeon – is an awful lot of fun. It took me a little while to get in gear with it, but then suddenly everything made sense and I was in love. Swoon. You could say, I guess, that “everything fell into place.”
I love that this is the sequel – of sorts – to Shovel Knight, a fondly regarded 2D platformer in the spirit of the original Capcom Duck Tales games. I love the fact that Puzzle Dungeon – Pocket Dungeon! – is not a platformer at all. It’s a falling-block puzzle game innit. But the more I play, the more this switching up of genres makes sense.
Because stuck in the middle of this falling block puzzle game is someone who does not necessarily realise they’re in a falling-block puzzle game. It’s Shovel Knight. It’s you. So you play by moving about like a hero in a platforming game and attacking the falling pieces around you. Time moves like a Roguelike, with enemies falling into the grid in clockwork beats, although you can move a little faster if you like. You smack the baddies and watch the dance of your health meter and theirs, your attack stats and theirs. Smack an enemy who is located next to similar enemy types and eventually they all go at once – a matching chain right out of a dozen other puzzle games, sure. But there is a blood-pumping element to it. It feels like violence, and a countdown combo system encourages you to lean into this violence with energy and speed. Puzzle here is combat.
It is all super clever. Super clever! Enemies change as you move through the game. Simple ones who don’t do much damage. Simple ones who do quite a bit of damage. Snakes that take up a load of space as they descend. Weirdos that warp away when injured. Some guys put up shields or explode. Some are invulnerable to attack unless you hit something else first. Finish them all off to make more room on the grid, because there’s always a torrent coming from above. Move tactically, so you can reach a health potion to chug so you don’t do yourself in halfway through the next encounter. Die, and it takes an agonising time for your spirit to leave the screen – all the while the screen is filling up. Will you be able to rejoin the action before it’s filled up and ended the game? Will you be able to rejoin the action and recapture all the loot you lost before you died?
Victory conditions are simple. The more baddies you do in, the more chances that chests will fall from above. Open three chests – you’ll need three keys – as you move around the grid, and then you can get the exit portal. Get through that and you’re onto the next area. New enemies. Maybe a boss, which can feel like Auto Chess, or even just chess, you know. New relics that provide perks – more gems, bigger explosions – and new weapons – freeze your foes! Do more damage with each hit! Slow time! – that generally mix things up and then disappear once you’ve used them a certain number of times. It’s a puzzle game with the single-run mentality of a roguelike as chance flings items at you and helps you construct your current build.
So yes, within the perks and the weapons there is a load of variation. But really Shovel Puzzle – whatever! – is just getting started. The core of this game is the different characters you unlock, starting with Shovel Knight himself but expanding in unusual ways.
Gosh, some of these playable characters are incredible. Plague Knight poisons enemies on the first hit, which encourages you to be a bit reckless maybe? My favourite, though, is Specter Knight, who absolutely turns the game on its head. Specter Knight gains health by defeating baddies – which means you have to lose health to make it! This is pretty sweet. But get this: potions hurt Specter Knight. So you have to train yourself to avoid something you had previously been running towards at every opportunity.
I love this. I love the energy and invention of Pocket Dungeon, a game that dared to shift genres, but then couldn’t stop meddling, offering you dozens of ways to change the rules and mix things up. I could go on about the things I love: the enemy designs, the chunky, colourful graphics that seem stained with mimeo ink from some ludic zine. The versus mode! The hub – the hub! – that is filled with secrets and upgrade opportunities. Who knows how deep the tunnel goes? Or the fact that there’s a Daily Challenge, that thing that all the special absolute best games have. A daily challenge! Play it once, gone forever.
All this and the tone itself. Shovel Knight: Pocket Dungeon is really, really tough. Even now I chug away at it, battling onwards as if eating my way through a vast block of cheese. And I love it. I love it all. It’s brutal and inventive and head-spinningly clever. Yes please!