Sometimes just before his boss battle, Specter Knight will warn you, “All who play Pocket Dungeon’s deadly game will be consumed by it.” He’s certainly right. Yacht Club’s newest spin-off of its critically lauded Shovel Knight franchise is, in a word, addictive.

It’s easy to look at Shovel Knight Pocket Dungeon and think it’s just an interesting, but very skippable sidestep in the series while we wait for the next mainline game. Yet, to pass on this would be to miss out on a tightly designed, highly refined, and refreshingly original take on the falling block puzzler genre. There is more to Shovel Knight Pocket Dungeon than you may first think, and we’d say it comfortably meets the wonderfully high-quality standards of Yacht Club’s previous work.

Pocket Dungeon follows a relatively simple narrative wherein the titular knight discovers a magical puzzle cube while out and about. Nearly as soon as he interacts with it, suddenly finds himself being sucked into a pocket dimension within the cube that houses all the knights and characters from the previous games, plus a few interesting newcomers that hint at where the series may go next. Shovel Knight’s task is thus to figure out a way to solve the mysteries of the pocket dungeon and figure out some way to escape with the aid of both his friends and his foes.

To do so you’re expected to overcome a series of progressively more difficult levels, each themed after the iconic stages from the original release and some new locales that feel like they fit perfectly within the aesthetic. Levels present you with an 8x8 grid that slowly fills with enemies and hazards; clear out enough of them will unlock a gateway to the next level and the cycle repeats. On a purely foundational basis, then, this feels very much like the Tetrises and Lumineses that you’ve played before, but the real meat of the game comes in the details.

One key element to consider is that this is primarily a combat-focused game. Keeping the blocks from piling up too high is only a secondary concern, while your main problem is just keeping your playable character alive. Bumping into any enemy or hazard will result in your character dishing out at least one point of damage, and usually taking at least one in return. If any like foes or obstacles are connected to the one you strike, all of them will take equal damage and you’ll be given a chain bonus for eliminating multiple in the same hit. The flipside to dealing damage, however, is that you need to be constantly thinking about how you’re going to top up your health, as it only takes a few hits on any enemy to put you in the danger zone. Potions drop at a reasonably frequent rate, almost always making sure there’s one within reach, but sometimes you may have to go through a few foes to make it to your next bit of healing.

Things are made even more interesting by the fact that there are two speeds at which blocks will fall. Rather like a Mystery Dungeon game, every falling block will move down one cell every time you take a step or hit an enemy. However, even if you don’t move at all, blocks will still fall at a slower, albeit unceasing, pace. This means that there’s a little bit of breathing room for you to pause and survey the board while plotting out your next moves, but there’s still a lot of pressure on you because the state of the board is changing even as you’re studying it. Open spaces are closing up, potential chains of foes are separating, and you’re continually being prodded to act now or miss your chance.

Part of this incentive to speed up is further tied to your gem meter, which fills a little with each defeated foe and starts steadily decreasing right away. Keep filling it up, and you can get up to 4x the gems to drop from each enemy you fell, which can hugely affect the value and quantity of things you can buy in the shops. The thing is, each tier of the gem meter depletes faster than the last, so you need to be moving quick if you want to keep it full and be maximizing your gem income. Go too fast, however, and you’re prone to make some easy mistakes, which can kill you off almost instantly.

This kind of combat and pacing thus turns Pocket Dungeon into a delicate, yet high intensity dance between offense and defense. New foes and hazards come in at a rather fast pace, so you have to clear them out quickly to make more room, yet you can’t go more than a few seconds on the offense before your character is only one or two health away from collapsing. As you’re rushing around the board, you thus have to be planning a few steps ahead at all times. Sometimes the best move is to wait a few beats for things to better fall into place and line up some chains. Sometimes the best move is to rush in and destroy a big chain of enemies before you get buried. Whatever the case may be, you are almost certain to fail if you aren’t sufficiently thinking through the consequences of where you’re going next.

In short, this is the kind of game that richly rewards skilled play while also ruthlessly punishing any mistakes. No matter how well built up your character is for this run, it can all come crashing down in an instant if you let yourself get too complacent. Initially, this can make Pocket Dungeon feel a little too difficult; it’s only a half hour or so to see it through to completion, yet most of our runs had us getting bodied in the third or fourth levels only a few minutes in. The redeeming factor, however, is that none of the deaths feel cheap or unearned. Every run is viable, the only limiting factor is your own strategic skill and reaction times.

Perhaps more importantly, you almost always learn something from each defeat—whether that’s a hidden mechanic or the workings of a specific enemy—that you carry forward with you to make your future runs that much more successful. Over time, then, you slowly build up the muscle memory and knowledge needed to pull off some impressive performances, and those victories are extraordinarily satisfying to experience.

Luckily, there are some power ups to help you with taking the edge off that crushing difficulty. At least three treasure chests will spawn in each stage, and if you can manage to retrieve the keys that spawn soon after, you’ll get a randomized limited use relic. Some of these are as simple as adding a point or two to your base damage, some are more interesting like a time stop or a laser beam. All of them are useful in their own right, and seeing that treasure chest spawn is often a massive relief.

In later levels, one of the treasure chests will open a portal to Chester’s shop, and this is where your gems come into play. Chester will offer you a collection of three permanent relics for upgrading your character, and you usually only just have enough money to pay for one. These can do things like giving you a one-time revive or giving every few hits an electrifying finish, and some of them can even synergize quite well if you get lucky on what’s available.

Together, both the permanent and temporary relics help to make you feel like you have much more of a fighting chance, especially in the later levels. Your base kit is often quite formidable on its own, but the pitiful starting health pools and damage numbers are often not nearly enough to properly deal with the foes you come across in the latter levels. At the same time, however, none of these relics act as a sufficient replacement for skilled play; these relics will certainly help you on the quest, but none of them can be used as a crutch. In this way, they feel well balanced, and the randomized nature of them teaches you to work with what you’ve got and be more flexible.

One minor complaint we have regarding the relics is that it feels like it’s a little too easy to unlock all of them. Every death results in your score being tallied up and converted into gems, which you can then spend at Chester’s shop back in the base to add more relics to the potential pool that can spawn on a run. The problem is that we unlocked everything in his shop in about half an hour, and afterwards the only things you can spend gems on are cheap shortcuts and costume unlocks. Perhaps this is something that’ll further be addressed in one of the planned DLC releases, but we do wish the base game had more of a meaningful economy to it. You’re sure to amass a huge collection of gems over the dozens or hundreds of escape attempts you’ll make, and it can be disappointing when you realize there’s nothing to really spend them on outside of a run.

As mentioned above, Pocket Dungeon can be cleared in about a half hour if you just cruise right on through the levels, but it’ll realistically take much longer than that before you get just the right mixture of luck and skill needed to make it out. Luckily, there are plenty of ways the game modulates the experience to make every hour much more interesting. For one thing, every enemy behaves in a slightly different manner, necessitating a different approach for each type. Electrodents, for example, will energize after you first strike them and move on their own to the left or right. What works well in one stage may go quite poorly in another, then, as the enemy variety is constantly changing up and pushing you to try new tactics. This keeps each level feeling distinct from the next, and helps to remove any sense of monotony that repeated attempts could bring.

Beyond the enemy variety, there are quite a few knights to try out as your playable character, and each come with their own playstyles. Plague Knight, for example, has the powerful ability to poison foes after his initial hit and is immune to any poison attacks. King Knight, on the other hand, can do huge damage with his shoulder bash, but takes more damage from the hit. It’s rather striking how such seemingly insignificant changes can have a huge effect on how you play, and this greatly aids in replayability. There’s a character for just about any playstyle here, and the best part is that even though every character feels ‘broken’ in their own right, there are always drawbacks that will require you to change how you approach things.

Those of you who are put off by the high difficulty will be pleased to know that Yacht Club has seen fit to include several toggles for creating an easier play experience. You can change things like initial health, damage output, or how many lives you have, and while making changes will often bar you from unlocking any in-game achievements while they’re active, we appreciated how that the options are there for those who need them. Pocket Dungeon may be a difficult game by design, but it can really be as easy as you want it to be, and this helps to make it feel much more accessible to players of all skill levels.

If you happen to have a friend nearby, there’s also a VS. mode for getting some competitive action in. This sees you playing head to head in a splitscreen set up where big chains will dump more enemies and blocks onto your opponent’s side. It’s always fun and frantic to play games like this with friends when you have them nearby, although the lack of online multiplayer here is sorely felt. You can always play against bots with adjustable difficulty if you’re on your own, but it feels like there was a missed opportunity here for some random matchmaking or remote friend battles.

In terms of presentation, Pocket Dungeon does a great job of adapting the series’ signature look to a new art style. The 8-bit pixel art has been dropped here in favor of a friendlier, almost chibi-like aesthetic that feels perfect for the ‘portable’ aesthetic being pursued. Though animations for character and enemy sprites are rather simplistic, there’s a lot of cool details packed into these backgrounds and boards to liven them up, and each level uses a pleasingly broad color palette. Meanwhile, the music is mostly composed of some catchy, faster-paced remixes of tracks from Jake Kaufman’s legendary original score, while the new tracks fit in quite well alongside the old material.

Conclusion

Shovel Knight Pocket Dungeon is a smartly designed and truly delightful revitalization of the falling block puzzle genre. High intensity, combat-driven gameplay, oodles of replayability, a cute art style, and a surprising amount of depth make this one a ridiculously easy recommendation. If you’re at all a fan of Shovel Knight or falling block puzzlers, you owe it to yourself to give this a shot; even if you don’t fall neatly into either of those camps, we’d still very much suggest you give this one a look.