SEATTLE - The original Shovel Knight came out back in 2014, and after three major expansions and countless bits of downloadable content, it’s about to wrap up for good. Not to worry, though, since Shovel Knight Dig will soon be available to fill the spade-shaped hole in your heart. Despite the game’s 16-bit graphics and new gameplay mechanics, though, Shovel Knight Dig isn’t exactly a direct sequel to the first game. The game relies on procedurally generated content, and a pretty steep difficulty curve, to keep players digging themselves just a little deeper.
I got to go hands-on with Shovel Knight Dig at PAX West 2019, and the game surprised me quite a bit. I had assumed that Shovel Knight Dig would simply pick up where the first game left off, just with a graphical upgrade, much like Mega Man or Castlevania on SNES. However, while the moment-to-moment gameplay in Shovel Knight Dig is very familiar, the level design is something totally new and unexpected.
Rather than traversing short levels with linear layouts, Shovel Knight Dig procedurally generates levels as you go. Each stage consists of three levels followed by a boss fight. While the boss is set in stone, the level design can change radically. The designers behind Shovel Knight Dig programmed dozens of level subsections, and the game puts them together randomly each time you start a run.
As such, you might find yourself digging frantically through soft patches of dirt, avoiding killer drills in one section, then doing battle with a horde of propeller rats over a deadly pit of spikes in the next, only to fall victim to a series of proximity mines after that. When you get sent back to the start of the level, you’ll face a totally new set of challenges: perhaps springy mushroom foes, or timed jumping puzzles.
Whatever you do, though, you’ll have to do it quickly. You can’t dally to collect gems or survey your surroundings for too long. If you do, a spiked wheel will descend right behind Shovel Knight and tear him to shreds. This is to keep players moving and reacting. The purpose of the game isn’t to plan the perfect route into the underworld; it’s to move as quickly as you can, racking up as much treasure as possible along the way.
Shovel Knight Dig definitely takes some inspiration from roguelikes, as you’ll be able to spend your treasure on power-ups, such as spin attacks and reduced spike damage. These power-ups won’t automatically persist between playthroughs, but once you buy an item, it will have the potential to show up for free as you venture through a stage. As such, with a little luck, your Shovel Knight could become quite powerful by the end of a run.
As for the gameplay itself, things are very vertical this time around. Shovel Knight can bounce on enemies’ heads, slash enemies with his shovel and dig in soft dirt. In fact, digging is more important than it ever was before, since each stage consists of making your way further and further down through a dungeon. You’ll have to dig quite quickly to evade enemy drills and other threats, but I do have to admit: for a game called “Shovel Knight,” it’s a sensible game mechanic.
At first, I wasn’t too thrilled that Shovel Knight Dig feels so different from the original game, but I found that it helps to think of this game as a spinoff rather than a direct sequel. Shovel Knight Dig is not Shovel Knight 2; it’s trying something new and different, and if it succeeds, so much the better. There’s no hard price or release date yet, but it will probably be out sometime in 2020.
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Marshall Honorof is a senior editor for Tom's Guide, overseeing the site's coverage of gaming hardware and software. He comes from a science writing background, having studied paleomammalogy, biological anthropology, and the history of science and technology. After hours, you can find him practicing taekwondo or doing deep dives on classic sci-fi.