Shovel Knight Dig is a tactile spectacle roguelite with a tedious 'lose more' design.
As you would expect from a Yacht Club title, the visual polish outshines the gameplay polish. I mean that in 2 ways: firstly the hands on feeling of play, jumping, the haptic feedback from a dig, and way your character glides in the air all feel nice. This is accompanied with a great color design and visual spectacle that gives each environment you dig through its own personality and style.
Unfortunately, my issue with previous Yacht titles, most notably the original Shovel Knight, carryover here. For one the immediate screen you see coming down feels more like a timed puzzle than a test of skill and response. This is because they made the smart decision to not punish you with randomly being hurt when free falling through the air. However, that renders the challenge a lot more about if you've seen the layout before. This becomes especially irritating during the boss fights, because all 3 that I got to felt quite a lot like 'puzzle fights' themselves. Once you know the movesets you're almost guaranteed not to take more than 2 chunks of health if you are playing smart. The issue is that you usually have to die at least once to be able to capably read all those moves. This feels terrible especially when you're coming into a boss fight with no health, you know you're going to lose but you're probably not going to really see what the boss does either, its a miserable feeling and the main factor for why I stopped playing, I thought to myself what are the odds that I show up here with more health anytime soon and realized it was slim. In Crypt of the Necrodancer you could practice against any enemy and boss in the game, I really think that addition here would've added a lot.
The main way to heal in the game is through picking up cogs, which requires you to be methodical and focus on your surroundings with a bit more detail, the risk reward is almost always in favor of picking up cogs, although while free falling into enemies is rare, free falling past cogs isnt.
This sucks, because as I mentioned in the clickbait sentence, game has a 'lose more' strategy to its design, if you pick up all three cogs you get to chose between a free pickup which can roll your character stronger with time, or full health. But its only so sustainable to the points of the game and floors you already witness. If you miss 1 cog instead you just get a small heal. If you're low on health, going for cogs actively is almost entirely out of the question. In a way this 'win more by skill' design may seem inviting, but it reveals one reason why more Volatile RNG mechanisms like in BoI are so sweet. Rolling a great build in a game like that is good not just because it rewards players that dont deserve it with an easy mode but because it gives the player more leeway to actually learn attack patterns.
Meanwhile, the only upgrades outside the game come from the overworld shops, but those end up being the same agitating slow timegrind for good items/stat buffs that you would experience in Gungeon or Hades which just teases you further into saying 'you wont even have a chance until you clear all these shops'. It's a grind for grind's sake, and this is enhanced by Shovel Knight's inexplicable wanton desire to dig. There's no real fixed motivation for the player character besides him getting his bad back. While this insatiable greed plays into his character specifically I feel like picking a more interesting and motivated character like plague knight or hell just a merchant from the game proper as the protagonist would have added more motivation to playing.
If it sounds like I'm being unfair so far I wouldn't blame you. But here's the catch: Even as a puzzle action roguelite with the assumption of base endurance and environment analysis it struggles for a few reasons. For one, you have no control over the camera, where free falling isn't an issue, sometimes your camera will go low and not allow you to see whats above you which becomes a pain when the randomly generated floating enemies lurk and hit you over the head. On top of this, the sustainability of your run is almost entirely decided by the shops, which can vary, but the main one I found useful was the health shops. By comparison the rest have upgrades that can be anything from distracting to actively detrimental. But the worst issue is the way carrying items works, you can carry an item behind you but you drop it as you get hit. Usually all it takes is one or 2 hits and you're not going to get that item back, but usually I end up going 2 floors at least before I have a chance to even use them. The 'lose more' design philosophy shows its fangs here to, you might be able to get a relic key all the way to a relic floor, but its unlikely but if you do its game changing in terms of sustainability to get further. The reason I call this 'lose more' instead of win more is because at least in my play you can only sustain maybe a floor or so further, you cant get a 'broken' build or anything like that. Therefore if you play from behind even a little you're almost definitely out of luck, and while the length of a run is only as long as 30 minutes, the verticality ends up being a lot more cognitavely intensive than the fixed screen information models in Isaac or Monolith.
Shovel Knight Dig is that type of game that you know you'll be able to beat in a few hours if you have a base level of persistence and a dash of good luck, but it's designed in such a way where it will take at least a few hours, there's no lucky rolls here and therefore no way to know unless you go and watch others play. I would hazard to say the game is more for Shovel Knight superfans but the fixed megaman type level design and horizontal camera of that game might not carry over to the experience of this. You have to really love Shovel Knight's moveset and unfortunately I just dont.
I think my experience with the more simplistic and twitch based response of Downwell, a very similar game about going downwards plays a lot better for me personally, and I imagine that reality plays into my jadedness here a lot. There's no timed ghost mechanics or overworld market in that game, and so that simplicity is its strength. And while you cant control the camera, there's a lot more vertical clearance to see above and enemies float towards you slowly enough for you to respond. So if you're interested in this I would recommend giving a shot first.
Ancillary Thoughts on Streamer Entertainment
That's the bulk of what I have to say, but I want to take some time to reflect on the 'entertainment' industry that attaches to this stuff. I originally saw this game on a stream and it seemed fun and interesting but I'm slowly starting to realize that whats 'fun for streaming' and fun to personally play can vary quite a bit. I will almost certainly continue watching the guy who played this game and root for their victory but in that entertainment by vicarity mode of play, we as viewers are a lot better at suspending that critical mode or accepting that its just a part of the deal: This person is playing this so whether its fair or not doesnt matter. Which is enhanced by most streamers doing several runs in a row. I feel like while it would be simple to come to the conclusion this how naturally most people play, I think the audience feedback and pressure to continue the performative scene of play actually can create a distinction. Unless you're watching a really quiet streamer for the pure vicarity of their performative abilities like with Valorant or most FPS games, a large part of the entertainment is how one can speak over the gameplay. Downwell is not a streamer friendly game because of how twitch oriented and hyper specific the input response is, turning it slightly closer to the experience of a rhythm game where all of the focus is slotted in on the experience on screen. Whereas Shovel Knight Dig is a 'comfortable' streamer game because it fill time and gives you a waistband (although 'gimmick' games can be fine to but they have to usually be humorous like the recent Trombone Champ in order to cultivate a response that can ignore the 'disturbing' parts of a work). This is weird to think about because I've considered streaming for fun before and the idea that under different conditions I would judge the entirety of the game more positively as a performative product to utilize is a weird idea. I think this is ultimately one of the reasons I like Isaac so much, its one of those rare times where performative and personal entertainment don't antagonize each others perceptions. As a larger point though we should probably be mindful of how this trend has flooded the market and may cause a potential deception in what we see vs. what we play.