SteamWorld Dig begins earnestly enough. The player is introduced to the world by controlling a steam-powered robot named Rusty. He inhabits the SteamWorld, which is hinted to be a post-apocalyptic Earth many centuries after humanity has wiped itself out (or has it?). While unintelligent animal life still exists, the dominant life forms of the planet are now steampunk inspired robots. Rusty receives a deed for a mine from his long-forgotten uncle Joe. Armed with a pick axe and an explorer’s spirit, the previously down-on-his-luck robot travels to the small mining town of Tumbleton to investigate the mine and uncover secrets that lurk deep below.
As far as the overarching plot goes, that is about it. There are a few twists and turns here and there, but overall it is very simple and straightforward. There isn’t much to the story but what is presented is serviceable enough. The world building is not really a part of the narrative, but those who seek such lore will find it. As you tunnel deeper you uncover human skeletons, destroyed tanks, dilapidated houses, unexploded nuclear bombs, and more. Anyone who wants to put the puzzle together is welcome to do so but it is never a major plot element.
The overall objective of the game is to dig through Tumbleton's mine. Rusty can wall slide and wall jump, but his jumping ability is weak and traversal methods are limited. The mine itself starts out as a fairly straightforward chute downward. As you play, it becomes a complicated labyrinth of your own design. Since the game is played in 2D your only directions are up, down, left, and right but as you dig for treasure and create different paths in the mine, you create a customized maze that's different each time you play. This is especially true because each time you start a new game the main mine is randomized, so caves, enemies, treasure, and obstacle placement will be different each time. That means that the player builds – or rather demolishes – the game world and creates new platforms and mazes that way.
But here’s the rub. You cannot carve a new path while jumping or sliding down a wall which means you have to plan your descent with some amount of care because you cannot tunnel your way upwards. If you make a path straight down, you will have to climb back to the top in order to make a new path that might go left and right if you want to explore the mine fully. It is also possible to make paths where you simply box yourself in with no way to proceed. Fortunately, there is a self-destruct option that returns you to the town. All your tunnel progress will be saved, allowing you to plan another route down.
So at the beginning of the game, your starter paths look like this:
And end up looking like this:
In this way, you are building (or demolishing) your own gameplay space. It is very cool until it gets tiresome. More on that aspect later.
As you dig down you will come across caves. These lead to separately-instanced areas containing small challenge rooms or larger dungeon-esque areas that result in upgrades. These rooms often contain a centralized puzzle or platforming challenge that are a lot of fun because of their gameplay variety.
Some of the challenge rooms have you doing very tricky platforming while others, like the one shown above, have you solving puzzles to progress through blocked areas. especially enjoyed the puzzle-focused rooms since combat in this game is not very fun.
Speaking of combat, when I say it isn’t fun, it really is not enjoyable. When progressing deeper down in the cave, Rusty encounters various enemies with different attack patterns and weak spots. But ultimately it just comes down to holding the attack button and smacking them until they die while taking the brunt of their attacks. There is almost no room for dodging attacks either, so combat strategy is almost non-existent outside of some of rarer and the more combat focused challenge rooms. Some world building would have been welcome in regards to the enemies. While many are organic in nature, many are also robotic as well.
Besides health, the player does have a few resources to manage. Coal (fire) is used to light the way, otherwise Rusty is blinded by a serious fog of war. Another resource is water which powers your super jumps and keeps your drill (an eventual upgrade) running smoothly. Pockets of coal and water can be collected in the mine and resource refills can be earned by completing the challenge rooms. The final resource is treasure. Treasures comes in all forms, gems, minerals, ancient technology, and various doodads that can be brought back to town and exchanged for cash.
Cash is used to buy upgrades to your equipment, purchase new slots in your inventory, upgrade your resource caps, and unlock new buildings and NPC’s in the town. Empty lots begin to fill out as you spend money and stimulate the local economy.
And this is where my primary concerns with the game come into play. You return to the town constantly, back and forth. You can’t really do much without selling the treasure for cash. And you are limited to three treasure slots (you can upgrade the amount of slots you have, but it takes a long time), which means in order to progress you have to constantly go back to the surface. This is long and arduous. As you progress you can unlock shortcuts back to the surface, but they are sparse. You can place your own teleporters to and from the surface as well, but that doesn’t really help the problem of tedium. You spend so much time just going between the mine and the town, that it saps a lot of the enjoyment. I would compare it to an older JRPG where you have to return to earlier areas of the game and have to fight through lower powered enemies as you walk around. You just keep mashing the attack button until the battle ends and you can proceed. The tedium of returning to the surface to sell your treasure and purchase more upgrades grows tiresome very, very quickly.
The graphics are cute and work well. The fog of war effect really highlights some of the spookier areas and the controls are rock solid. Controlling Rusty feels nice and intuitive, and that’s all you need for great controls.
Overall SteamWorld Dig has a lot of potential for some fun. Unfortunately, due to the tedium of going to and from the town to make money just isn’t for me. It’s a very well built game though, so if you like grinding, or if it doesn’t bother you, you like can’t go wrong with SteamWorld Dig. However, if you’re like me and tedious tasks tend to gnaw at your attention very quickly maybe give this one a pass and try Spelunky instead.