SteamWorld Dig is a ‘metroidvania’ platform-action adventure game from the Swedish development studio Image & Form games. A development studio whose portfolio consists largely of work on their SteamWorld franchise (SteamWorld Heist and SteamWorld Tower Defense). SteamWorld Dig is an addictive experience that which I found myself, surprisingly, playing for hours and hours. With a charming presentation and a fun gameplay loop this little flawed gem is one that shouldn’t be ignored.
You play as a robot called ‘Rusty’ whose been recently sent the deed to a mine by his uncle ‘Joe’ from the town of Tumbleton. He goes to the town only to find his uncle lying dead within the very mines in which he worked. Inheriting the pickaxe of his uncle Joe, Rusty begins to pick away the ores in the mine and uncover it’s secrets whilst trading with the local folk of Tumbleton. As great as this premise sounds the overall plot and its conclusive twist are underwhelming. This is due to the fact that as fun as it was reading hints from locals, who give extra dialogue should the player wish to read them, of Uncle Joe’s past activity which may give hints to why he’s dead. The plot doesn’t progress until the last few minutes with a disappointing reveal that is neither creative or even at all surprising. So if you’re looking for a great plot unfortunately none is to be found with this game. Which is sad as the narrative pillar in which the plot is held up was that reveal. As the game teases it so much but unfortunately fails to deliver which detriments the experience considerably.
The characters aren’t all that noteworthy but at least the dialogue matches the western art-style as most characters speak in the dialect matching of those in the American west which adds some personality to the characters in SteamWorld Dig. Minus the stuck up posh robot…
The dialogue is conveyed through speech boxes meaning no voice acting which for the most part is fine and personally doesn’t detriment the experience but it might to some players. As it could’ve added that bit more polish in the presentation of the game.
The presentation of SteamWorld Dig is one of it’s best aspects. The steam punk and western mix in its art style is charming. The vibrant pallet and the curved shapes of which form the objects in the game creates a striking animated look that is definitely easy on the eyes. There is real personality with the look of the game that give SteamWorld Dig a light tone. Couple this with the music that mimic the western style whilst in Tumbleton and takes a more contemporary and soft style whilst in the mines. The composers along with the art designers have created an elegant combination of their talents to present a beautiful looking and sounding game.
The is no flaw in the presentation of SteamWorld Dig: sharp textures are everywhere to be seen and the animations are silky smooth. Matching the animated and cartoon look of the art style. Exaggerated and bouncy are the movements of all the character models and enemy types which in turn infers a more light tone due to sprightly and jolly movements.
Character models, as well as their dialect, give them more personality as they’re so detailed. With the garments and expressions they wear you can read their personality type which match the words that they say. Just like the character models what’s so great about the presentation of SteamWorld Dig is that even it’s environments have personality. As detailed they are as the character models, instead of garments, they wear the objects of the past. This gives the opportunity for the game to convey some lore to the player, give them a better understanding of the world these robots currently inhabit and what has happened. Questions like: What happened to the humans? Were there even humans? Who created the robots? Keep your eyes peeled and some of these maybe answered by your sight. There’s no lack of location variety in the game. The further down you go the more strange this world will seem. That is one of the great aspects of the game it’s backgrounds infer a lot and convey lore to the player in an organic way.
Make no mistake even though SteamWorld Dig’s plot isn’t its high watermark it’s gameplay is great. The addictive gameplay loop of the game is what kept me from pulling away myself away from the keyboard and turning off my computer.
The game controls incredibly smoothly with great precision and is very responsive. Even with the use of a keyboard, though I recommend the use of a controller instead as the key binds may prove uncomfortable. But they can be adjusted to suit the players needs.
The gameplay loop consists of the player character ‘Rusty’ delving in and exploring the mines for ore which in turn if collected can be traded for currency. Currency in the form of gold coins that can be traded for upgrades in which may prove useful for later challenges the deeper you go in the mine. This is a particularly effective game play loop which uses the idea of delayed gratification to keep the player hooked to the prospect of reward which increases in percieved value as it takes time to actually earn the desired reward, currency.
The upgrades which the player can earn are great rewards that enable the player to: mine ores faster, jump higher, have increased health etc. All meaningful rewards that either make the player character stronger to help them against enemy damage or access secrets parts of the mine. Which make them more inciting for the player.
Items, that also can also be bought with the currency, exist in the game in the form of: teleporters, ladders and lamps can be bought through one of the NPC (Non-Playable Characters) in Tumbleton. These are tools, that can only be bought at a certain amount, that can help the player in tough situations. They’re necessary tools that require the player to regularly purchase them in Tumbleton if they desire to be ready for anything.
Currency gained by the player by trading ores with the folk in Tumbleton also improve their economic standing with more cash flow. This allows for more vendors to pop up in Tumbleton to sell better upgrades.
The chase for resources is the key to what makes SteamWorld Dig an engaging experience whether it be for currency to purchase upgrades or water to enable the player to use gained special abilities. Which can be acquired through finding secret caves or by progressing through the main story which can lead you to set caves. The relentless chase for resources makes sure that the player always has something to do, something to get. It’s never boring because of it. SteamWorld Dig is designed to never give the player too much. Upgrades consistently cost a considerable amount of the player’s resources at any given time. As you progress through the game a secondary currency is added for the player to collect adding another layer to resource gathering. Making sure the chase doesn’t feel repetitive.
A resource like the mentioned water help a ‘steambot’ like ‘Rusty’ to use his gained special abilities. But water is usually scarce, especially the further down the player goes. Water can be found as small ponds which ‘Rusty’ can consume on contact. But only consumed with a limited amount. Like the health bar it’s displayed on the user interface and also can be upgraded by the folk in Tumbleton.
The game is designed around the idea of never having too much. There’s a limit to the resources you have: inventory space, light longevity, items limited in small quantities. Making sure that at any given time in your playthrough of the game it is made sure: you always need to get another thing, to get another thing, to do something new, to be able to get another thing.
The previously mentioned caves play a great part to the exploration aspect of the game. They’re a great reward to keen-eyed players who scurry into every corner of the Uncle Joe’s mine. They are sections which heavily concentrate in the platforming aspect of the game which, if you reach the end, reward the player with a new item or ability for e.g. Steam Jump which help the player jump higher reaching places ‘Rusty’ hasn’t explored yet.
The penalty for death is reminiscent of the Demon and Dark Souls games as well as Shovel Knight. Where found resources (ores) can be turned to currency are dropped at the moment and location of the player death. But then can be retained later on if found by the player again. The difference being that if the player dies a second time the dropped loot will not just disappear but still wait for the player to find it. A more forgiving system but I’ve always found this penalty system great as rather than discouraging the player to keep on player after a loss it encourages the player to delve again in the wolves den. Which can be linked to the addictive nature of the game. Well all of the games mentioned to have this type of death penalty. Also the player is charged half of his current gold coins for repairs in the event of a death. This helps discourage the player from repeating the same mistake as resources are important to the progression of the player character.
Enemy types in the game are varied and challenging in their own way. As well as being organic you can also find enemies which are robotic. Even inanimate. Most are not aggressive to the player but the further down you go the more hostile they’re to ‘Rusty’. They serve a great challenge to the uninitiated and those with keen eyes, they may prove easy. They make the use of light and the players lamp even more prominent. As if it’s dark they will become hidden from your sight and you maybe literally digging your own cave. Enemies like worms can be killed even before they move by mining they’re sleeping bodies rewarding those who are careful and plan ahead. In short there’s not shortage of enemy types who are also coupled with environmental obstacles such as rocks and spiky objects that might kill those who aren’t careful and are foolishly mining.
The boss fight is worth a mention as it’s a great way to end the game. Test of the skills learnt throughout the journey and encourages the player to use a variety of tools gained throughout. As all great boss fights should. It tests platforming and observation skills, one’s honed throughout the game.
SteamWorld Dig is a polished and (mostly) a well designed experience that I recommend. With some major flaws in the narrative that is predictable and never reaches it’s full potential. But held up by great addicting game play and flawless presentation with a style not seen in many games. In short…I dig it.
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