The Good, the Bad, and the Rusty
Hot off the releases of SteamWorld Dig 2 and SteamWorld Heist: Ultimate Edition, Image & Form Games is one step closer to its SteamWorld takeover with the Nintendo Switch port of SteamWorld Dig. It’s a straight no-frills HD rerelease of the original 2013 title, but I still dig the mining adventure’s gameplay.
Here’s my Video Version of the review for your viewing pleasure!
The story takes place in the SteamWorld universe, in which uniquely designed steampunk robots known as Steambots inhabit a stylized Wild West setting, complete with an ambient Western soundtrack. One Steambot Rusty arrives in the town of Tumbleton after receiving his uncle’s deed to the local mine. Upon learning of his uncle’s death, he decides to take his pickaxe and explore the mine for himself. Though SteamWorld Dig is light on story and dialogue, the revelations are exciting to discover. The deeper you dig, the more you uncover about the world below, providing a good motivator to see this journey to the end.
The bulk of gameplay involves digging down a long, vertical mine. It’s akin to Dig Dug but with a bigger focus on survival adventure and Metroidvania elements. You start out with a relatively weak pickaxe that can only break through soft dirt. As you collect gems embedded within the crust, you take them back up to town to sell for gold, which goes toward upgrades like stronger pickaxes and health. More power helps you travel deeper and collect more loot, which you again bring up top for more upgrades. Rinse. Repeat. It’s admittedly repetitive, but the constant rewards kept me coming for more. It’s a continuously gratifying stream that showcases your progression effectively. And Rusty controls smoothly, mostly thanks to his wall-jump ability, well-suited to climbing the vertical tunnels.
Regardless, the pacing can feel slow at times. Gameplay rarely deviates from this central, simple mechanic, and the constant backtracking loop only grows more tedious the longer you play. Plus, since your item pouch starts out small, it doesn’t take long before you are unable to carry more gems and must halt progress just to carry your spoils back up. While there are teleporters that can instantly take you above and below ground, they are few and far between or may cost you hard-earned resources. Additionally, there are other important factors to keep track of, like diminishing light and water. The latter fuels your stronger abilities but can only be refilled at a spring. I like the sense of resource management, but having to prematurely end an excavation just to replenish my light was tiring.
Yet the game manages to escape tedium by nestling interesting hazards throughout the mine. Bouncy mushrooms, acid, and lasers keep the journey from growing stale. In addition, there are caves that house platformer-focused challenges, often revolving around newly obtained abilities. Aside from breaking up the repetitious backtracking, these miniature dungeons also expand Rusty’s robust moveset, adding new tools like the hard-hitting drill and special abilities like the high jump.
SteamWorld Dig also reinforces the gameplay loop with a well-implemented risk/reward system. Yes, you receive numerous upgrades…if you can make it back to town alive. The mine is perilous, and a wrong move can easily lead to unfortunate accidents, be they falling rocks or explosions. When you die, you immediately return to town at the cost of half of your money and loot, effectively adding a survival component that gives weight to every action: Do you risk your life to get that last gem or do you rush back up to town to avoid losing it all? Luckily, you have a chance at reobtaining that lost loot where your old corpse laid, like in Shovel Knight or dare I say it, Dark Souls.
However, there are some frustrations with the level design that keep this system from reaching its potential. The mine is procedurally generated, which is a fancy way of saying random. Each playthrough grants a different arrangement of dirt, rocks, and other hazards. I admit I like the personal nature of exploring a brand new mine your own way; it’s a sense that is lost in the sequel. But the randomness occasionally results in unintentionally poor level design. Enemies and dangerous rocks can feel haphazardly placed and difficult to maneuver around. Not to mention I would often get hurt while attempting to hit an enemy, simply because I had to be very close to attack. Worst of all, the unpredictable level design can leave you trapped without a way back up, forcing you to manually self-destruct.
The game is fairly short, clocking it at about four to five hours, though you can increase that time by collecting every upgrade or playing the game again with a new random layout. What’s most disappointing is that the game caps off with Rusty revisiting entire portions of the mine again, as if the backtracking weren’t excessive enough. Also, the story ends just when it begins to get more compelling, so I’m especially thankful that SteamWorld Dig 2 now exists to continue the series.
Although SteamWorld Dig was a hit when it premiered on the Nintendo 3DS, its mechanics and design have grown a bit rusty. The constant back-and-forth is tiresome, and the randomly generated mine layouts potentially lead to troublesome areas. Nevertheless, the game sports a gratifying feedback loop and enjoyable challenge caves. The Switch version adds nothing new aside from that crisp portable tablet screen, so there’s little reason to double dip. It’s not a bad a game at all, but better ones now exist from the same developers. If you haven’t yet played any SteamWorld game, I would first recommend the sequel SteamWorld Dig 2 as the ideal entry point and overall superior title.
Note: A review copy was provided by the publisher for this article.