SteamWorld Dig 2 comes off as a brighter, more confident, and fuller effort that tackles a gameplay style that is, pleasantly, exactly the same as that of its prequel
Among all niches that indie game developers enjoy exploring, the Metroidvania genre has certainly been among the most productive fields, and not without a good reason. The two flagship franchises that defined the gameplay style so deeply they lent their names to it have, in recent years, left a considerable void, and a desperately hungry fanbase, that ended up serving as the perfect opportunity for smaller gaming studios to fill up a vacuum and earn praise and money without having to compete directly with flashy super productions. While the Metroid space opera, following the conclusion of the incredibly successful Prime trilogy, inexplicably spent a decade with only one mildly received major release; the Castlevania saga has had major trouble adapting to the modern gaming market. With these two giants out of the way, small business filled with creative employees who grew up playing Super Metroid and Symphony of the Night wisely took it upon themselves to keep the Metroidvania genre moving forward while its leaders struggled.
Given the delightful amount of remarkable games with high artistic and design values that have come pouring out of those floodgates, picking major highlights among them is, thankfully, a hard task. SteamWorld Dig, however, stood out from the crowd for a simple reason: while most contemporary Metroidvania releases seek to merely emulate Metroid and Castlevania (a very worthy choice given the world needs games of that kind), SteamWorld Dig opted to take a passing look at those two cornerstones, check out what they did that made them so excellent, and proceed to build an adventure that was clearly inspired by an intergalactic bounty hunter and medieval vampires but that did not attempt to recreate what they did.
With such an incredible concept on their hands and the eyes of the gaming world turned towards them, there was only one path Image & Form could have taken in the building of a sequel to SteamWorld Dig: they had to go bigger, and they had to do better. And that is exactly what happens. While the humble simplicity of the original game broadcast its small indie nature, SteamWorld Dig 2 comes off as a brighter, more confident, and fuller effort that tackles a gameplay style that is exactly the same as that of its prequel; it is a natural evolution that has been undertaken by numerous brilliant gaming series, but SteamWorld Dig 2 pulls it off so impressively it easily ranks as one of the most-improved sequels ever.
In SteamWorld Dig, a robot named Rusty, living in a post-apocalyptic version of Earth where humans have become brainless zombies that live underground and steam-powered bots dominate the wild-west wilderness of the planet’s surface, had inherited his uncle’s mine. Upon exploring it and finding the secret that lay within it, Rusty was caught in a major explosion that had the inhabitants of the town where the mine was located thinking he was dead. After that event, Dorothy, a friend of Rusty’s who had not given up on finding him, put up posters with the missing robot’s face splattered on them. SteamWorld Dig 2 starts when the good-hearted bot receives word from someone, who lives in a distant town, that has seen Rusty enter the local mine shaft. Dorothy travels through the desert towards the town and finds out that ever since Rusty entered the depths of the mine the town has been plagued by destructive earthquakes. With a pickaxe in her hand and a whole lot of questions in her head, Dorothy sets out into the mine to figure out where Rusty is and what is going on.
Like its prequel, SteamWorld Dig 2 is structured in a way that matches the exploration of Metroid with puzzle and platforming elements. The first component is found inside the mine shafts; with her pickaxe, Dorothy must slowly break the stone floor and move towards her next destination, where she will invariably find a piece of equipment that will allow her to explore new parts of the mine. The second component, meanwhile, comes into play in the numerous caves that are found as Dorothy descends further into shaft; housing either extra items or mandatory upgrades, the caves are individual challenges that work like mini The Legend of Zelda dungeons and that test a specific skill.
That mixture is what makes SteamWorld Dig so remarkable. When it comes to mining and moving along the shaft, there is a pleasant degree of freedom; surely, the only way to go is usually down, but given there is a pleasant width to the mine, Dorothy has wiggle room to look for secrets, caves, and pieces of ore that are encrusted into the stone walls. Likewise, she has to do some smart navigation through the tunnels in order to avoid numerous traps (such as falling rocks, explosive barrels, and pools of acid) and deal with lurking enemies of various kinds. As a nice twist, SteamWorld Dig 2 amplifies the sense of discovery of its predecessor. While in that game a marker on the map always showed Rusty’s current goal, SteamWorld Dig 2 allows players to turn that off and go blindly into the mine.
Much of the magic of SteamWorld Dig lies in how it makes the task of breaking through a stone wall by hitting it with a pickaxe into an enthralling and addictive activity, and a lot of that prowess has to do with how the game is constantly rewarding players. When Dorothy first walks into the mine, her tools and stats will be extremely poor: her health will be limited to a trio of hearts, her bag will only have room for a few of gems, medium drops will cause her to die, stronger walls will require many hits from her pickaxe before they break, her lantern – which allows players to see her surroundings – will run out of fuel within a few minutes, and all new powers she acquires will be at their most basic level.
As she advances and collects the abundant ore, though, she can return to the surface, use the town’s services to sell treasure and, with the acquired cash, buy all sorts of upgrades: expanding the slots of her pouch, increasing the destructive power of her pickaxe, gaining new health units, making the fire of her lantern last longer and light up a wider area around her, and more. Therefore, SteamWorld Dig 2, like its prequel, is a constant process of entering the mine; digging further down towards more caves and goals; collecting ore along the way; heading back up either when the character’s pouch is full or when the lantern’s light gets to a point where it is impossible to see what lies ahead; upgrading Dorothy; and going back in.
It is an engaging constant cycle of work and reward, and just like Samus goes from a warrior with a meager laser beam to a machine of destruction during the course of a Metroid adventure, Dorothy will transform from a humble miner into a robotic unstoppable drill that will break through whatever is ahead of her. And it is all made incredibly pleasant because not only do players have total freedom as to what they will upgrade, but SteamWorld Dig 2 also greatly streamlines the exploration process by populating the shafts with numerous tubes that allow Dorothy to move between them (and to the surface as well) at will once they have been unblocked, a feature that existed in the original but in a far more restricted manner.
SteamWorld Dig 2 also executes some nice structural changes. Where the original consisted of one long shaft that could be accessed from a single town, SteamWorld Dig 2 presents a wider world at the surface that leads to different mines. The progression through the game is still pretty linear, for the pieces of equipment that are acquired in the caves will open up the way to either deeper portions of the current shaft or to another mine, therefore eliminating backtracking from the equation; however, retracing their steps and going back to earlier portions of the game is something players may do, because while SteamWorld Dig had no extra content whatsoever, SteamWorld Dig 2 is exploding with secrets. In fact, this optional content is a major part of the experience, because while the regular adventure clocks in somewhere between seven and ten hours, the task of finding everything the game packs can double that time.
And the extras are not just items on a checklist that need to be acquired so that players can get to 100%. The artifacts and cogs found inside the mines are useful; the former unlock special skills to the different pieces of equipment, which can then be activated by using the cogs. More importantly, however, these assets that lead to full completion are usually locked inside the dozens of caves located inside the mines, and they might as well be the most brilliant part of SteamWorld Dig 2. The variety and level design excellence of the challenges they contain are flooring: some demand sheer platforming proficiency, such as a cave whose walls are covered with bumpy mushrooms that send Dorothy towards deadly spikes if touched or another where a series of fireball-ridden corridors and shafts need to be traversed via timely jumps; others tackle more puzzle-focused scenarios, like a mine-cart pushing affair; and a number of them mix these two distinct aspects into beautiful gaming experiences.
As a nice helping hand to those looking for all of the game’s secrets, once the items inside a cave have been fully collected, a green check will appear over them on the map; moreover, SteamWorld Dig 2 (like Super Metroid) has the habit of hiding some of its secret items behind walls that have no indication whatsoever they can be broken, but equipment updates that are unlocked late into the game add visual cues that help players identify where secrets are. The caves, whether they are optional or mandatory, also serve to highlight the different ways in which Dorothy’s pieces of equipment can be used and explore the gameplay possibilities they provide. Surely, there are plenty of opportunities to use her hookshot, her rocket boots, or her bomb-shooting gun while inside the shafts themselves, but the more focused and less wide open level design of the caves puts a much larger emphasis on that gear, and the equipment and creativity of the folks at Image & Form shine on those occasions.
SteamWorld Dig 2 is everything fans could have wanted from a sequel. It looks fantastic, features a soundtrack that makes the mystery and danger of the mines resonate, and fixes the punctual issues of its predecessor while polishing the rough gameplay edges that existed. By combining the usual Metroidvania quest for new gear with tighter sections of puzzle-solving and platforming, it builds its own character and shows that indie ventures into that established genre can be more than simple homages to Metroid and Castlevania. There is still room for new discoveries out there, and if developers are able to find them and make them their own, it is possible to create adventures that, instead of being seen as minor diversions to pass the time while the big franchises do not deliver the goods, can comfortably stand side by side with those juggernauts.