SteamWorld Dig turns a concept that could have been repetitive into a kind of grind that is hard to abandon
In a world where humans have devolved into brainless creatures whose intelligence lies well below the level of that of a caveman, steam-powered robots have risen as the dominating sentient beings. Rusty is one of those bots. Sporting a look that matches wild-west attire with steampunk motifs, he receives the deeds to his uncle’s mine and heads to where his new property is located: Tumbleton, a decaying town in the middle of a vicious desert. Looking not only to explore the place, but also to discover what has happened to his uncle, Rusty climbs down the entry shaft and starts digging towards treasure and the mine’s distant depths. And dig he will until Tumbleton recovers some of its glory and he finds out what his uncle has left behind for him.
SteamWorld Dig has, since its release, garnered numerous comparisons to the Metroid saga, and such parallels do make some sense. Like Samus, the protagonist is roaming through hostile dark caves that hide a secret and that exhale an air of ominous danger and mystery; moreover, the deeper Rusty digs – and he will indeed do a whole lot of digging – the sturdier his equipment needs to be in order to deal with the threats that lurk in the dark and with the obstacles that stand in his way. However, the similarities end there, as SteamWorld Dig – much to its benefit and to the delight of gamers that decide to jump into these mines – lifts itself from that familiar launchpad to build its own character with a good degree of success.
The first key difference is that SteamWorld Dig is somewhat linear. Starting from Tumbleton, and going down relentlessly, its overworld is one gigantic shaft – of around 1,000 blocks in height – made up of three distinct segments that are progressively deeper are creepier. Additionally, although its setup could be compared to that of a maze, it is not that intricate; in fact, in broad terms that are somewhat unfair to the impressively calculated way in which level designers have constructed tunnels and positioned a wide assortment of enemies, the mine is basically an immense block of solid rock that needs to be broken down piece by piece so that Rusty can make it to his next destination.
Therefore, even though there is a general path that needs to be followed (after all, the only way to unearthing the place’s secret is down), players are given plenty of wiggle room to make their own journey and dig their own tunnels, meaning it is highly unlikely SteamWorld Dig has ever been played the same way by two different players. The game, however, is far from an endless series of A-button presses that allow the hero to move forward block by block, as SteamWorld Dig does take some occasional turns towards tight platforming challenges.
At all times, Rusty will be guided by a shiny beacon on his map indicating his next stop, which is invariably a room that has some mixture of jumping, exploring, and puzzle solving; and that holds a power-up that is vital to proceed at the end of its gauntlet, including dynamite, a steam-powered high-jump, a fall dampener, and others. Although those pieces are vital, they are far from being everything that is necessary for Rusty to get to the literal bottom of things. SteamWorld Dig is loaded with extra upgrades that can be purchased back in Tumbleton once enough precious stones have been gathered and converted into sweet gold coins back on the surface.
Other than his uncle’s trusty pickaxe, Rusty also carries a drill to break through solid rock, detachable fists that let him punch distant targets, a lantern whose fire slowly diminishes until it leaves the environment completely dark, a pouch to carry precious metals, and more. All of them – just like Rusty’s health, armor, offensive power, and water tank – can be upgraded many times at Tumbleton’s shops, which is a must considering how the further one gets into the shaft enemies get more powerful, the mine’s stones get more resistant, lakes that replenish water get scarcer, and fire units – dropped by enemies – that recover the lantern’s light get rarer.
SteamWorld Dig, then, is not about mindlessly aiming for the depths of the mine. Players need to explore its areas slowly, not only heading towards their next destination but also mining for ore and punctually returning to the surface to convert what has been gathered into useful equipment. It is an amazing characteristic that adds a lot to the game, giving it a dash of strategic value (as gamers must choose what to upgrade), catapulting the need for meticulous exploration into the stratosphere, and making the whole experience incredibly addictive.
Smartly, SteamWorld Dig turns a concept that could have been repetitive, as there is an eye-popping amount of stone-breaking with varying amounts of pickaxe swings, into a kind of grind that is hard to abandon. To alleviate the backtracking, which is obviously necessary, the two deepest areas of the mine have, at their entrance, tubes that lead automatically back to the town; moreover, all three areas, at their midway point, feature teleporters with the same function. Sadly, the latter’s implementation is poor: instead of featuring three separate teleporters, the town only has one terminal, meaning that it only takes Rusty back to the one that was last used, an issue that could have been fixed if players could simply choose where they want to travel to.
A couple of other issues also affect SteamWorld Dig. The game’s value, despite its low price, is hurt by the fact there is not much reason to replay it, as there are no collectibles or meaningful secrets; its length, however, which ranges between three and five ours, is rather suitable for a title of its kind. Finally, the grand question mark that sends Rusty to the mines does not find a satisfying conclusion, even if one or two things are revealed when the adventure ends; consequently, the game seems to squander an opportunity to deliver one great tale, something that would certainly be worthy of its intriguing setting, great visuals, and general hopeless atmosphere.
Nevertheless, SteamWorld Dig is just too good to be considerably harmed by any of those shortcomings. It is a game with clear inspirations, but instead of sinking itself into their waters, it opts to simply take a brief look at them and build its own character from that starting point. Its main motif is unique and somewhat bold, and SteamWorld Dig successfully lands its premise right on target, making it yet another example of how far simple ideas can go when aligned with indie creativity.