Sometimes you find yourself playing a game that makes people unable to understand why or how you’d find it fun in any way. Such is the case of SteamWorld Dig.
“What do you do in that game?”
“I’m a robot. I go into these mines and I mine for ore and then I go back up and sell it and do it again.”
“…boy, first you had that game where you were a mayor, now this.”
For as simple and repetitive as that sounds, this gameplay loop is actually what makes SteamWorld Dig such a compelling game. The developers did a great job of taking their concept and figuring out what would make it worthwhile for you. They figured out what would push your buttons in a way that compels you to return to the game, then continue making tracks further down: upgrades.
The upgrade tree in this game is super well crafted to where almost every time you return to the surface, and every four or five times in the mines, you'll find something new, and no matter how small it is, you are able to go further and further and mine much longer. The smallest thing makes a difference. Pick up an inventory pack and suddenly you can collect more treasure! More oil means you can see in the dark longer! Better picks mean you can dig better!
And that’s just what you can purchase. Much like the Metroid games, scattered throughout the mines are sub-rooms that offer upgrades for your character that yield new abilities. This is where things really expand, evolving your character from a simple pick axe to equipment that allows you to drill or jump higher.
The game works pretty uniquely when making your way through the mines. The paths that you make through the earth are permanent and it is possible to trap yourself at the bottom if you don’t plan well. Fortunately, stores also sell teleporters and ladders that will help get you out of particularly bad binds. If you don’t have any of those, you can self-destruct and lose your loot bag and have to run to get it again and risk losing it completely if you die along the way. Smart use of teleporters ensure it’s never really a huge hassle to get around. Good planning is often required, at least in the early parts of the game, to make sure your paths are usable instead of just a wild collection of insane wanderings.
The story in the game is super basic, involving your arrival in a town in order to investigate what your uncle was doing before he died. You don’t get much more from the townspeople than “TECHNOLOGY IS COOL OH MAN HOW MYSTERIOUS ARE THESE MYSTERIES HOW FAR DOES THE MINE GO” before buying and selling various resources. There’s a boss waiting for you at the end of the mines but it is mostly inconsequential. You’re primarily mining just to see what can be discovered, to get more ore. To sell more and buy more, restoring the town in the process in order to buy more items.
I guess it’s like capitalism as a game then. Five stars!
Except that combat can be a little dull. It takes too many hits to kill a lot of enemies when you just have the pickaxe and when they immediately move reverse direction, so you have to chase them down and hit them repeatedly. Especially bad are the turtles, who hunker down and launch spikes at you. They can take a lot of damage, and you have to basically sit there and keep attacking them while they hit you until they die. It’s not very exciting really and it kind of sucks that the last boss is pretty combat intensive.
It’s also annoying that you can’t use any of your tools while in mid-air. It makes sense in some cases (you’re really going to swing a pickaxe while you’re jumping around?) but it feels a little too restricting in some ways, especially when you do get stuck. As much as I think the self-destruct button is a good solution for this, a better solution would be to not allow you to get stuck in the first place, perhaps by letting you use some tools while jumping.
While the Steam port of this game is excellent and I had no problems on my lower-tech laptop, I think it’s worth pointing out that I feel games like this play better on a handheld device. There is a great 3DS version of SteamWorld Dig available. I’d probably recommend that version more, but if you don’t have the system then this is a fantastic version.
Despite not really achieving anything with its barely-there story, SteamWorld Dig is an excellent surprise from an independent studio putting out a game that is more than the sum of its parts. Maybe in the future developers Image and Form might delve more into the story that makes this robot-western world tick, but for now, I'll accept the excellent gameplay and a superbly-paced upgrade tree instead.