Falling block puzzles are the colorful, sugary, family-friendly games that often model what it’s like to be buried alive. Tetris panic, screen full and music rising: Is not the fear you feel in this moment a little too primitive to be the result of a simple game you are about to lose? Isn’t there some kind of deeper sinking feeling when you mess up a game of Lumines together and there simply is no room for anything else that can fit online?
Okay, maybe it’s just me. But still: If you think falling block puzzle is a bit claustrophobic, Shovel Knight Pocket Dungeon, a game I absolutely can not remember the name of when I discuss it with others, will do a serious number on you.
Why? Because it’s a falling block puzzle where you’re inside the grid! You move around as the blocks flow in from above. And they are not all blocks! Most of them are monsters. And if you do not work fast but carefully, they will pile up on you! They will block you in! You will stand writhing, stuck between bricks and a hard spot while the screen fills and fills and you feel the weight push down. Puzzle horror!
Deep breath. I should probably say right now that Puzzle Knight – Shovel Knight Pocket Dungeon – is a lot of fun. It took me a while to get in gear with it, but then everything suddenly made sense and I was in love. Swim. You could say that “everything fell into place.”
I love that this is the sequel – of the sort – to Shovel Knight, a reputable 2D platformer game in the spirit of the original Capcom Duck Tales games. I love the fact that Puzzle Dungeon – Pocket Dungeon! – is not a platform game at all. It’s a falling-block puzzle. But the more I play, the more this genre shift makes sense.
Because stuck in the middle of this falling block puzzle is someone who is not necessarily aware that they are in a falling block puzzle. It’s Shovel Knight. It is you. So you play by moving around like a hero in a platform game and attacking the falling pieces around you. Time moves like a Roguelike, with enemies falling into the grid in time with the clockwork, though you can move a little faster if you want. You beat the bad guys and watch the dance of your health meter and theirs, your attack stats and theirs. Slap an enemy that is placed next to similar enemy types, and eventually they all go at once – a matching chain straight out of a dozen other puzzles, for sure. But there is a blood-pumping element in it. It feels like violence, and a countdown system encourages you to lean into this violence with energy and speed. Puzzle here is battle.
It’s all super smart. Super smart! Enemies change as you move through the game. Simple ones that do not do much harm. Simple ones that do a lot of damage. Snakes that take up a lot of space as they descend. Weird that distorts when they get hurt. Some guys put up shields or explode. Some are invulnerable to attack unless you hit something else first. Finish them all to get more space on the grid, because there is always a torrent coming from above. Move tactically so you can reach a health drink to tussle so you do not make yourself midway through the next meeting. Die, and it takes a painful time for your spirit to leave the screen – all the while the screen fills up. Will you be able to take part in the action again before it is filled up and the game is over? Will you be able to participate in the action again and recapture all the prey you lost before you died?
The conditions of victory are simple. The more evil you do in, the greater the chance that chests will fall from above. Open three chests – you will need three keys – as you move around the grid, and then you can get the exit portal. Get through it and you’re in the next area. New enemies. Maybe a boss who 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 enemies! Do more damage with each stroke! Slow time! – which generally mixes things up and then disappears after you have used them a certain number of times. It’s a puzzle with the single-run mentality like a roguelike, as coincidences throw objects at you and help you construct your current build.
So yes, within the perks and weapons, there is a lot of variation. But really Shovel Puzzle – no matter what! – has just begun. At the heart of this game are the various 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 at the first hit, which might encourage you to be a little ruthless? My favorite, though, is Specter Knight, who definitely turns the game upside down. Specter Knight achieves health by defeating evil – which means you have to lose health to cope! This is pretty cute. But get this: potions hurt Specter Knight. So you need to train yourself to avoid something you had previously run towards on every occasion.
I love this. I love the energy and invention of Pocket Dungeon, a game that dared to change genres but then could not stop interfering, and which offers you dozens of ways to change the rules and mix things up. I could go on with the things I love: the enemy design, the thick, colorful graphics that seem spotted with mimeo ink from some ridiculous zine. The resistance! The name – the hub! – full of secrets and upgrades. Who knows how deep the tunnel goes? Or the fact that there is a daily challenge, the thing that all the particular absolute best games have. A daily challenge! Play it once, away forever.
All this and the tone itself. Shovel Knight: Pocket Dungeon is really, really tough. Even now I’m tough on it and keep fighting, as if I’m eating my way through a big block of cheese. And I love it. I love it all. It is brutal and inventive and head-twisting smart. Yes please!