Release Date: 7/8/2013
Played On: PS4
Available On: 3DS / PC / PS4 / Vita / WiiU / XBO
Time Played: 7h 15m
Developer: Image & Form
Publisher: Image & Form
SteamWorld Dig is not a deep game with a compelling narrative and complex mechanics. It's not an action platformer with knuckle-whitening controls and precision timing. There's absolutely nothing about the game that warrants excessive hyperbole; but make no mistake, this is a very, very good game.
I often define entertainment in broad strokes by using film as an example, so I'm going to do that here. There are a wide range of movies available, from big budget blockbusters, to indie art house, to banal teen hijinks, and they all have value. I adore the masterful films with deep storytelling and great actors, because they're the ones that will stay with you for years to come, like all great art. However, there is a place for the switch-off mentality of pure escapism that exists at the other end of the scale. Thus, even "bad" movies serve a purpose, and everything else sits somewhere along the continuum.
The same can be said for games, which are not always the kind of experience that will blow you away with original mechanics and systems. Playing a masterpiece like Dark Souls is a heavy task, full of rewarding gameplay and challenge, but sometimes I'm not in the mood for brain-draining masterpieces.
Sometimes all I want to do is catch up on some YouTube videos or podcasts and have something to do with my hands at the same time. That's when I rack up hours in games like Euro Truck Simulator 2, or the Farming Simulator games. They're all games that don't require much attention to play, so are a great way to wind down while watching a movie at the end of a day.
With that continuum of experiences in mind, I'd have to put SteamWorld Dig smack bang in the middle of the spectrum.
This is a game that doesn't do anything that you haven't already seen in other games, but instead of being a boring copy, it succeeds at kicking off its own style and universe. Since the release of StemWorld Dig we've seen SteamWorld Heist released and the developers are currently working on SteamWorld Dig 2. There was an earlier title SteamWorld Tower Defense, but I have never seen it because it only released on Nintendo DSiWare.
Image & Form are beginning to be recognizable for the art style they use in their games, which is a nicely polished 2D animation aesthetic. It looks great and provides a unique identity to the SteamWorld universe that I would be happy playing around in for other games in the future. They have successfully managed to create a 2D platformer that isn't immediately offensive to look at; something that's put me off platformers for a long time now.
In fact, this is one of the first 2D platformers I have genuinely enjoyed in recent times. With the deluge of games in the genre, I discovered a while ago that it definitely was not my favourite style of gameplay. So when I say that I really enjoyed SteamWorld Dig's platforming, they must have done something really great with it to stand out.
That's not to say that it's difficult or challenging, in fact there really is no challenge at all in the game short of a few enemy types that are simple to defeat. The start of the game is probably the most difficult as later on you upgrade your character with tools to get around any of the challenges the game provides.
As a short overview: you play as a robot who is returning to the town where your uncle Joe disappeared and left you with the deed (or something like that, it's not really important). At the beginning the town is fairly desolate and you have limited abilities to start mining for riches below the town. The further you progress through the earth, the wealthier the town becomes and more robots move in to sell you higher level upgrades, so you can mine further down, and so on. It's a neat progression system that works well and upgrades are paced well throughout the game so that you always feel ready for the next challenge.
I'm sure that a lot of people would dislike the fact that there really isn't all that much challenge to SteamWorld Dig, but what's there was interesting enough for me. There are enemies that get stronger as you progress, and there's even a kind-of-tough boss fight, but the enemies scale at the same rate you upgrade, so you're always ready for the next difficulty spike.
The real challenge comes from the actual digging, which takes place on a basic grid system where you start at the top and remove one 'square' of earth at a time to progress lower. There are ladders you can buy to climb higher than you can jump, as well as a few abilities that let you jump higher, or fall further. Some parts of the earth can only be mined with high level pickaxes, others disintegrate as soon as you touch them. It's a regular rogues gallery of earth types that would be familiar to anyone who has played Minecraft and experienced how different substances react to each other.
With that in mind, it can be a real puzzle to dig into the earth, but maintain a path back up to an exit. If you get stuck in a hole and have no way of climbing out, there is the option to self-destruct and be rebuilt above ground in the town, but you will lose the gems (currency) you've acquired. It makes it fun to plan out how you are going to approach each level of the mine, as there are obstacles and enemies that require some creative digging to path around while maintaining an exit strategy.
Once you get into the flow of digging, it becomes fairly straight forward, but the game does a good job of mixing up what lies below you to make you think about your path. At the same time your lantern is dimming over time, so there's incentive to push forward quickly so that you don't run out of light without having progressed.
This loop of heading into the mine, digging away for progress and riches, fighting off some enemies, then heading back to the surface to cash it all in and restock, is a satisfying one. The developers have balanced it all to avoid getting frustrated, which works out well. I'd pull my hair out if I had to restock too often without making good progress, but the game would be a snooze-fest if you could simply mine your way through without ever having to back-track or upgrade. It's these touches that make all the difference for me and are often why I dislike platformers, because a lot of them are obnoxiously frustrating.
Aside from buying upgrades in your growing town, there are challenge areas that are found throughout the games as you dig. These are the real points of progression as they unlock abilities that are essential later in the game, and offer a chance to find rare gems and resources.
These are where the basic progression has a time out and the game becomes more of a puzzle platformer. It creates a nice level of difficulty to master before unlocking these essential abilities, as you are tasked with difficult platforming sections, hard enemies in greater numbers, and challenging areas to dig. I had a lot of fun with these rooms and would have liked them to be a little more difficult and longer to get through. However, it would have been a bit of a mean decision to lock required abilities behind a huge difficulty spike, so I have to appreciate the balance once again.
SteamWorld Dig is a good example of what an indie team can accomplish, without having to compete for out of this world greatness. I felt extremely satisfied after digging as much as I could dig, with little to nothing bad to say about the entire experience.
We often talk about the games that have a lasting impact, or games that are so terrible you feel like you've been swindled into playing. The ones that often get ignored are games like SteamWorld Dig that do everything they set out to do and provide a fun and satisfying value for your money. It's why I love the independent culture of gaming that is consistently growing, and why I look forward to discovering more quality titles in the future.