From the murky depths of its cavernous underbelly to the arid haze of its sun-glazed township, SteamWorld Dig is a game less about where you are, and more about where you’re going. And where you’re going, is down. Down until you find your first metal ore, down again until you come across your first technological advancement and down even further than that until you’ve explored every single inch of Tumbleton’s darkened recesses.
In this respect, SteamWorld Dig is a rather simple game.
There’s little room to move amidst the linear narrative, and when you’re down in the caves, it’s an even more restrictive affair. But despite the overwhelming feelings of claustrophobia that accompany forays into the deep (just me?), the core of Steamworld Dig, that being its mining mechanic, is rather good.
Your goal is to delve deep into the Tumbleton pit and stuff your pockets full of as much ore as you can carry. From here, you’re then urged back to the surface where you can then sell your haul for character upgrades whilst also collecting an experience boost that progresses you through a rather tame numerical leveling system.
As you saunter through the levels and consistently upgrade your character, you’ll have access to additional items that range from more effective picks to deeper pockets and ladders to aid in your escape. If this sounds pretty straightforward, then that’s because it is, simply due to the incredible breadth of accessibility that SteamWorld Dig tends to offer.
But beneath the layers and layers of rock that lie in between you and the unfathomable depths, lay a wealth of hazards that you would do well to avoid. Enemies like dormant larvae awoken by your aggressive mining exploits or zombies lunging at you with literal fists full of dynamite ramp up the difficulty of gathering ore, whilst natural threats like rock-fall and acid pools make it that much more important to watch your step. And the level design is in-keeping with the steady rise in difficulty too, as a tame beginning is met with a frantic end full of equal parts death and plunder.
The gameplay of SteamWorld Dig is broken up by the consistent need to traverse back and forth the surface. Sometimes, you’re called back prematurely after completing the constraints of a quest, other times your pockets become overflowing with so much ore that you need to rid yourself of it before continuing any further. This leaves the flow of the game feeling rather haphazard as your urge to dig deeper and deeper is interrupted by a hail that requires you drop what you’re doing and revert back to the surface. Without this breakage though, the game may have been even shorter than it already is. SteamWorld Dig makes no bones about being a remarkable simplistic affair, but its fairly short length sought only to disrupt my enjoyment of the game just when it was reaching its peak.
But if regularly hopping in and out of the treacherous mine shafts of Tumbleton is an annoyance, then the receptiveness of the controls makes each journey in and out far less frustrating than it otherwise could’ve been. It’s when controlling the protagonist, the inimitable, ramshackle robot miner Rusty, that the games platforming prowess truly shines. Rusty controls intuitively and responsively as you jump, fall and run along the multi-layered corridors of the chasm. On the ground, Rusty glides smoothly along the dirt trail at your feet. In the air, he flies with a discernible weight behind him that allows you to adjust your trajectory mid-flight. And when he’s ascending a vertical wall via free-running, Rusty’s fluid movement and gathering momentum make ascension and descension from the cave a deceptively enjoyable experience.
And maybe that’s SteamWorld Dig in a nutshell; a game that ekes joy out of situations I wouldn’t have thought possible. Next to the aforementioned fluid controls that make darting in and out of the cave a pleasure, the simplicity of the leveling system coupled with a remarkably well thought-out unlock tree means that you will always have something to strive for right until you reach the games conclusion. A new pick, a set of ladders, a mysterious invention, whatever it is, SteamWorld’s emphasis on small goals that gradually unravel a larger one leads to a thoroughly addictive experience that has made the transition in abundance to the PlayStation 4.
And yet, with a plot so thinly veiled and a strength in depth that extends only to its cave systems, you may find one play-through enough to sample everything that SteamWorld Dig has to offer. But if a lack of replayability is enough to discourage you from visiting the sunburnt vistas of Tumbleton, then you would likely be missing out on one of the most unabashedly fun platformers of the last few years. A dash of Terraria mixed with a pinch of Dig Dug, SteamWorld Dig is a colourful delight that is equal parts wit and charm.