Shovel Knight Pocket Dungeon is 2021’s Best Puzzle Game

The most important game on any device is the one you can keep coming back to when you’re out of things to play. For me, that’s a good puzzle game. Dr. Mario: Miracle Cure, of all things, was one of my most-played Nintendo 3DS games. Whenever I had some downtime between games, I always knew I could pop it open and bust some pills for hours on end.

Despite a wealth of options, I’ve struggled to find kind of that game on Nintendo Switch … until now. Shovel Knight: Pocket Dungeon, a new spinoff game for the Shovel Knight series, is exactly what I’ve been craving. It’s a fast, addictive puzzle game that has me saying “just one more round” for hours on end.

Dig it

Shovel Knight Pocket Dungeon puts a new spin on a familiar concept. In its story mode, players control Shovel Knight, who gets sucked into a puzzle dungeon. The indie icon is thrown into a series of grids that fill up with enemies, breakable blocks, and health-restoring potions. You can guess where this is going: Clear the board by chaining matching icons together.

But there’s a lot more going on than in your average “Match 3” game. It’s essentially a dungeon crawler in the middle of a traditional puzzle game. Rather than tapping icons, players actually control Shovel Knight, who appears on the grid. He needs to physically navigate around and bash things with his shovel to break them. All that happens while more stuff continually falls from the top of the screen (if the screen fills up, it’s game over). That creates a fast-paced flow where players need to constantly carve a path through the board by jabbing obstacles. Spatial awareness is key.

On top of that, Shovel Knight has health points. Every time he hits an enemy, they hit him back for a few points. Grabbing a potion restores some health, so players need to figure out when to attack and when to heal. Items, like bombs or temporary weapons, populate the board from time to time as well, which can change the tide of battle if used at the right time. It isn’t about mindlessly tapping icons, but figuring out the right order of operations in a constantly evolving puzzle board.

A versus battle in Shovel Knight Pocket Dungeon.

It’s a high-speed juggling act that earned my full attention. I quickly found myself in a sort of rhythmic trance thanks to the excellent soundtrack featuring remixes of classic Shovel Knight tracks. Without realizing it, I was moving on beat as if I was playing Crypt of the NecroDancer or Tetris Beat. Every time I hit an enemy, I get a satisfying “thwack” that sounds like a snare drum or handclap. It feels like I’m working in concert with the music, which pushes my brain to keep up with the tempo.

Staying hooked

There are additional gameplay twists that freshen up the core puzzle hook. The game has a roguelite structure where players need to clear a series of boards and fight classic Shovel Knight bosses. Lose and you’ll start from the top. During a run, players can buy relics that have different effects, like increasing the number of bombs that spawn or adding +1 damage on every initial enemy hit. While there aren’t tons to choose from, there are enough that I was able to put together some pretty wild builds that made me feel invincible.

Shovel Knight hangs out in a campsite in Shovel Knight: Pocket Dungeon.

What really keeps me coming back, though, is the game’s cast of playable characters. Anytime a boss is defeated, players can use them in the adventure. Each one has its own special mechanic that completely changes the game. Plague Knight has reduced HP, but poisons enemies on contact. Specter Knight, on the other hand, regains health from killing enemies, but takes damage from potions. Each character has me rethinking how I tackle each board and carefully choosing relics that best match their playing style.

Shovel Knight Pocket Dungeon does everything a good puzzle game is supposed to do and more. It’s easy to pick up and play, but I feel myself itching to master all 13 of its characters. I get the sense that there are some secrets to its story that I haven’t discovered, which has me pushing on long after completing a run. A daily challenge, versus mode, and leaderboards round out the package, giving me all the ingredients I need for a puzzle game that’s going to ride its way to the top of my Nintendo Switch activity log.

Shovel Knight: Pocket Dungeon launches on December 13 for Nintendo Switch, PlayStation 4, and PC.

Editors’ Choice

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The Best Puzzle Games of All Time

At their core, all games are puzzles. From Tetris to the Uncharted series, the medium has constantly challenged players to find solutions to problems, whether that problem is fitting the right blocks into a hole or navigating ancient booby traps. In this guide, we’re going to break down the best puzzle games of all time.

Still, even if a game has puzzles, we won’t necessarily call it a puzzle game. No matter how many Riddler puzzles you solve as the world’s greatest detective, Batman: Arkham City is still an action game first and foremost. So for this guide, we’re focusing on pure puzzle games, meaning that solving puzzles is the core mechanic of the game. There’s no combat or other systems, unless they relate specifically to solving puzzles.

Further reading

Portal 2

The two Portal games are some of the best games ever made, but when comparing the two directly, it’s clear that the sequel has the edge. Longer than its predecessor, Portal 2 fleshes out the world of Aperture Science, adding more puzzles, a refined narrative, and loads of interesting set pieces. Even with the new additions, though, the core of Portal 2 remains the same.

After playing Portal 2, the original game feels more like a tech demo. The concept of using portals to get around a test chamber is still present in this second entry, but the addition of gels, platforms, and other unique puzzle mechanics makes the game feel larger and more challenging.

Read our Portal 2 review

Puyo Puyo Tetris

Puyo Puyo Tetris is actually two games in one: Sega’s cutesy puzzler Puyo Puyo and classic Tetris. If you’ve never played Puyo Puyo, it functions similarly to Dr. Mario. Small, colored blobs known as Puyos will fall from the top of the screen, and it’s your job to match them with the same color. Four or more Puyos of the same color will clear.

What’s interesting about Puyo Puyo Tetris is that the two game modes aren’t mutually exclusive. You can choose to face-off against opponents using a different play style and even combine the two for a totally unique experience.

Read our Puyo Puyo Tetris review

The Witness

The Witness

The Witness is a puzzle game where you wake up alone on an island with nothing but a few head-scratchers — around 500 — to guide your path. For the most part, the puzzles you’ll encounter will feature lines, and you must move from the start to the end of a grid, touching all of the relevant points on that grid.

Those line puzzles work in tandem with environmental puzzles, allowing you to progress farther through the island. Along the way, you pick up clues as to who you are and how you got stranded on the island. The game is simple on its face, with expertly designed puzzles and beautiful environments. That said, the secrets of the mysterious island you’re on are the most intriguing parts of the game.

Read our The Witness review

Baba Is You

Baba Is You is a tough game to describe, as it’s unlike anything else currently available. The basic premise is simple: Each puzzle has a series of rules, e.g., “baba is you,” “wall is stop,” and “flag is win.” With those rules in place, it’s your job to solve the puzzle. In the case described, that would mean reaching the flag as the little rabbit known as Baba.

Nothing is set in stone, however. You’re free to move blocks around and change the rules of the puzzle you’re solving. Although the setup seems simple, it quickly becomes mind-bending. Nothing in Baba Is You holds any value, so a reasonable solution to a puzzle could be as simple as allowing you to move past a wall or as complex as becoming the wall itself.

The Talos Principle

In The Talos Principle, you play as a robot whose sole purpose is to solve increasingly difficult puzzles through a series of ancient ruins. At the beginning of the game, your creator, Elohim, tells you to explore the world it has created, but to not climb a certain tower at the center. As the game progresses, however, it’s clear that the beautiful environment you’re exploring isn’t all it seems to be.

The Talos Principle asks philosophical questions about artificial intelligence and the human conscience, with some seriously difficult puzzles along the way. It’s not as lighthearted as some of the other entries on this list, but for those looking to explore the questions of the world through the lens of a wonderfully designed video game, it doesn’t get much better than The Talos Principle.

Bridge Constructor Portal

Bridge Constructor Portal is a spinoff of the Bridge Constructor series set in the Portal universe. The gist of Bridge Constructor games is that you need to construct a bridge. Using braces, pillars, and platforms, your goal is to move vehicles from one side of the screen to the other. Although simple in the early levels, Bridge Constructor games quickly become difficult as you’re given less and less space to build your bridge.

The Portal spinoff is even better, though. Although the premise is the same, this entry adds portals, light bridges, and more, bringing a new level of depth to the series. Furthermore, Portal features a level editor, offering hundreds of hours of playtime through community-made stages.

Read our Bridge Constructor Portal review

Lara Croft Go and Hitman Go

Lara Croft Go and Hitman Go are spinoff games from their respective series, and although they’re different in their subject matter, the core gameplay is the same. There’s also Deus Ex Go, though it’s a little more convoluted than Lara Croft and Hitman. The main appeal of these games is that they’re simple, so we’re omitting Deus Ex from this entry.

The Go games operate like a board game. You take control of a pawn, either Lara Croft or Agent 47, and you take turns moving to specified spaces within the level. Although simple in concept, where you move is important, as enemies and obstacles will try to obstruct your path. The Go games are all about finding patterns in how your opponents move and using those patterns to sneak your way to the end of a level.

Opus Magnum

Opus Magnum is often referred to as a programming game. In it, you’re an alchemist who must use raw metals and materials to produce a specific result. For the most part, solutions to puzzles are pretty straightforward, tasking you with combining A and B to create C. Opus Magnum isn’t about the end result, however. It’s about the process.

In order to produce your result, you’ll need to build a semi-autonomous machine that’s fit with levers, cranes, and switches. After a few hours of playing, Opus Magnum becomes less about if you solved a particular puzzle and more about how you solved it. Even after you’ve beaten the game, you can always go back and improve your machines, removing parts or adding new ones to make them run as optimally as possible.

Human Fall Flat

Human Fall Flat is a co-op, physics-based puzzle game where you play as Bob. As Bob, you’re tasked with exploring various landscapes and solving puzzles along the way, with the only goal being to reach the exit. Thanks to the advanced physics engine, there are countless ways to solve puzzles.

You can take on the experience alone, but Human Fall Flat is best played with friends. The game features two-player couch co-op, as well as online multiplayer for up to eight players. Outside of solving puzzles, you can experiment with Human Fall Flat’s physics engine, too. Everything in the game world is up for grabs, allowing you to play and experiment to your heart’s content.

Keep Talking and Nobody Explodes

Keep Talking and Nobody Explodes tasks you and a group of friends with disarming a bomb. The catch, however, is that not everyone has access to the same information. At the start of a round, you’re given a bomb that’s fit with a timer and various units featuring puzzles. Your friends are given a disarming document that explains how to solve the puzzles but doesn’t provide much in the way of a visual reference.

The game quickly becomes less about the bomb and more about communication. You and your friends will be shouting at each other trying to figure out not only how to solve certain puzzles, but also what section of the bomb you’re even talking about. Keep Talking and Nobody Explodes is frantic and wildly entertaining, and it’s even available in VR.

Return of the Obra Dinn

Return of the Obra Dinn is a mystery puzzle game where you play as an East India Company insurance adjuster in 1807. Five years after going missing, Obra Dinn returns to port, and all of the crew is either dead or missing. As the insurance adjuster, it’s your job to determine what happened when the ship was at sea.

The only tool to aid you in this is your Memento Mortem pocket watch, which can provide a glimpse into how certain crew members met their fate. As you experience frozen-in-time flashbacks of the events at sea, you must determine who the crew members of the ship are, how they connect to each other, how they died, and, of course, who killed who.


In Unheard, you play as a detective trying to solve crimes. Unlike games like Return of the Obra Dinn, however, there aren’t any visuals to guide your path. Instead, you take the role of an “acoustic detective,” using sound alone to understand what happened.

The experience is unlike any other, forcing you to constantly listen closely. You’re not reconstructing a crime scene from evidence, but rather experiencing it in real time, and cases overflow with irrelevant information and red herrings. Careful, though — events in the audio log can become important in the blink of an eye (or ear).


From Atlus, the creators of the Persona series, Catherine is a unique puzzle-dating sim hybrid. You play as Vincent Brooks, a 32-year-old systems engineer who’s been dodging marrying his longtime girlfriend, Katherine with a “K.” One late night, Vincent encounters Catherine, who’s the antithesis of his controlling girlfriend. After a one night stand, Vincent starts having terrifying dreams where he must outrun demons.

Of course, these dreams mirror the double-life Vincent is leading in reality, as he’s joined by other men who’ve fallen to infidelity. The dream sequences are where Catherine comes into its own, offering ruthlessly fast and mind-bending puzzles built on the simple premise of moving blocks.


Puzzle games have only improved with time and better graphics, but we have to acknowledge some of the all-time greats that were amazingly fun and challenging for their day, even if they aren’t much to look at now. Released in 1991, Lemmings is a puzzle-platformer that challenges you to rescue as many lemmings as possible. Playing off the myth that the lemming mammal willingly follows its pack off of cliffs, the game challenges you to guide and protect humanoid lemmings that will keep walking forward even to their deaths unless you protect them. Usually, that means sacrificing some lemmings to build a path for others.

One of the bestselling games of the early ’90s, Lemmings had multiple sequels and was recently remastered for iOS and Android. Plus, many puzzle games like Bridge Constructor Portal rely on a similar gameplay mechanic: Directly controlling the environment but having no control of the characters’ actions within that world.


Screenshot of the challenging puzzle game SpaceChem in action

Many puzzle game challenges tend to be somewhat unfair, with leaps in logic that are designed to be nearly unsolvable. SpaceChem offers truly challenging puzzles that require you to perfect your skills in programming and circuitry, but solutions never feel hidden or unfair — they just require trial and error, like any scientific enterprise.

SpaceChem provides a stimulating mental challenge that doesn’t require a degree or prior learning. It’s also much more fun than that stressful screenshot above indicates. The gist is, players are tasked with building circuits that can generate certain molecular structures indefinitely. You must then combine multiple circuits into a complicated web of factories and try to complete your objective before everything breaks. Once you achieve success, you’ll see your creation ranked against a leaderboard of other gamers, challenging you to come up with an even better solution next time.


Braid starts off as a seemingly standard platformer. But it becomes increasingly more difficult to progress through as each new world adds in new time flow-related mechanics until each section is a puzzle to navigate. In one world, time moves forward or backward depending on whether you move right or left, and another world lets you rewind and have a shadow of yourself re-perform your previous actions while you do something else.

Braid is widely thought to be one of the greatest puzzle games on the market, and it’s not surprising that the game’s creator, Jonathan Blow, is also the creator of one of our other favorites, The Witness. Play Braid through to the end and you’ll be rewarded with a truly puzzling, dark ending with multiple interpretations.

Editors’ Choice

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