Published on September 19th, 2014 | by Lee Davies
Format reviewed: Wii U eShop
Other formats available: 3DS eShop, PS4, PSV, Microsoft Windows, OS X, Linux
Developer: Image & Form Games
Publisher: Image & Form Games
Website: SteamWorld Dig
SteamWorld Dig is a platform mining adventure with strong Metroidvanian influences. You take the role of Rusty, a lone mining Steambot, as he arrives at an old mining town in great need. Dig your way through the old earth, gaining riches while uncovering the ancient threat that lurks below.
It all starts upon your arrival at Tumbletown, where the tumbleweeds out populate the Steambot inhabitants in the hundreds to one. The vastly desolate town has seen far better days, but in the more recent past an entity that lurks below the surface has put paid to the glory days of mining riches. Your uncle, Old Joe, is the sole surviving Steambot miner who dreams of bettering Tumbletown’s present plight, but things fall foul for him. You, Rusty, soon take on the mantle left behind by Joe and follow in his footsteps to uncover the hidden menace, and restore the town to its former illustrious past.
Your main character, Rusty, moves as you would expect. The Left Analogue stick moves you in all directions smoothly, but slowly at first. Later upgrades can add speed to your protagonist by pressing Y to run, this also allows you to jump further. Jump with B and dig, using your trusty pickaxe, with A. Your pickaxe, at least in the beginning, will also be your primary source of offensive capability. Attacking enemies with a good old hard swing of a pickaxe never felt so good.
Once equipped, with the basic move-set, its out, or rather down, into the big bad underworld where the main aim of SteamWorld Dig is to dig down, and down, and down, and yet down again. It all takes place in contained, but vast, vertically scrolling levels. Digging down in a Dig Dug style with moveable boulders that can squash you if you‘re not careful, attacking enemies, different substrates to delve through, exploding TNT crates, etc. all adding to the complex thinking required to not get stuck at certain points. As you venture further into the subterranean void you’ll collect two types of helpful pickups. The Ore, varying from iron through to diamond, has different monetary value attached to each individual type. The further down you dig, the more valuable the Ore you will be able to extract. The second type of pickup is the Orb, which upon striking it explodes the surrounding area and scatters free floating glowing blue spheres into all directions, and when collected act as an alternative currency. Where, you ask, can I put use to all this filthy lucre accumulated during my excavations. The store, and its later extra stores, of course.
Its, at first, in Cranky’s (Kong??) store that you‘ll be able to purchase upgrades to your pickaxe, toughening the material its made from and allowing you to dig through harder substrates in the bowels of the Earth. Later new stores open as other proprietors and purveyors of goods get a smell of all that wealth returning to Tumbletown. Traders Biff and Dandy offer more powerful upgrades to your Steambot and his equipment. Any extra powers that you collect within the game can be upgraded further, but at a cost to your valuable Ore and Orbs. Well, I say valuable, but there is plenty of Ore, and Orbs, to collect, ensuring that you are meticulous enough not to leave more than 5% of it behind, to Max out all upgrades before the inevitable approach to the Final Boss.
SteamWorld Dig, on the Wii U, is an HD version which benefits greatly from the lack of clutter on the main TV screen thanks to the inclusion of the GamePad. The screens are beautifully drawn, backgrounds are pretty, slightly cluttered with repetitive motifs, but nevertheless easily distinguishable from the foreground action. Of which, the animation on all characters, especially Rusty, enemy or otherwise is incredibly pleasing. The enemies vary from level to level, but within levels you’ll find yourself up against yet another beer bottle chucking Troglodyte, a laser firing turret, or an exploding mechanic maggot. This lack of enemy variety within levels takes off the sheen of an otherwise beautifully rendered game.
The TV screen is used to show the main game, which includes the Power Bars of Rusty. You’ll see the Red Health Bar in the top left. Directly below this is the Blue Water Guage, that can be replenished at water traps found within the mines, you will need water to convert to Steam for some special moves. Lastly, located on the top right, is the remaining oil for your Lantern which slowly reduces over time, but can be topped up by defeating enemies or by returning to the surface.
Back to the GamePad where every menu, from the Options to the Upgrade stores, allow GamePad touch access. It makes everything easy and quick to navigate. The Gamepad is also used in game to show your inventory, and the map. The inventory can be quickly accessed with a touch, sorting through your items and discarding unwanted items is easy. Unfortunately, the GamePad usage is adversely affected by the inability to scroll the map around. Whilst having a perpetual map is always a major advantage in this type of game, the lack of being able to move it to where you might want to go next is bemusing. So finding the nearest teleporter is made slightly more difficult by having to ascend to a point where you can see it on the map, by which time you’re practically on top of it anyway.
The Gamepad allows, for the now ubiquitous, off-screen play, with a quick press of the – (select) button. I am always very happy to see when a game supports this, but it’s at times like these when the GamePad map and inventory screens are missed, as they appear on the GamePad screen, but are reduced in size a little too much to be of any functional use, especially the map.
The first 3-4 hours of SteamWorld Dig are a joy to play. Learning the new moves, getting your first upgrades, delving down into your first mine, working out how to use a teleporter for quick travel back to the surface, planning your strategy to reach a removable Ore without blocking your exit and therefore rendering your efforts futile. By the way, ladders can be purchased 5 at a time to help you get out of sticky situations such as these. Then, arriving at your first sub-mine, which are based around smaller puzzles, letting you collect a lot of extra Ore or an invaluable extra Power Upgrade, all feels well-put together. It’s just that after those first 3-4 hours SteamWorld Dig becomes a repetitive slog through its second and third larger mines, especially the third. The developer’s forewarned me that the game would feel slow paced at first, but to stick at it through the first 30 minutes and things will come together. The pace of the opening is certainly slower than when you’ve collected a few upgrades to Rusty himself and his tools, but I found the opposite to be true. The beginning emphasized your vulnerability and weaknesses in the dark as your dwindling lantern light begins to fade. Making you have to climb to the surface to replenish your light, drop off your mined ores, pay a visit to the store, often, broke up the gameplay style into what felt like healthy chunks of short lived fun. Once fully upgraded, there seems little incentive to return to the surface for long periods of time which prolongs your stay underground and, in my opinion, makes the game unnecessarily drag out. It’s during these later levels that, without the necessary pressures of limited time/light and health, that you feel invincible and can just approach any enemy in a full frontal attack and take it down with a few swift pickaxe swings, forget about your health bar, your armor, pickaxe, steam punch, and speed are now too powerful even for the game’s end boss.
As such, it would have been a much better experience to venture into more situations of the type presented by the game’s conclusion, i.e. a boss type scenario. There was a distinct lack of challenge throughout the whole time spent playing this, around 8 hours in total collecting every single piece of Ore, Orb and Steambot Upgrade.
In game music is straight forward, functional and to the point. It doesn’t overstep the mark and is an enjoyable, if slightly downplayed, experience. The main background music fluctuates between a Metroid electronica vibe before building to a crescendo of traditional Western movie music fare that whistles along.
As a quick aside, something I didn’t notice whilst playing through the game, but subsequently found out about, was the ‘randomized worlds with emergent gameplay‘ that apparently takes place. This will allow for multiple playthroughs with a different level layout each and every time, which will add to the game’s longevity if you would wish for another slog at it.
SteamWorld Dig promised to be a unique take on the Collect, Upgrade and Progress type of game, and it delivered. Utilizing elements of Dig Dug and (pick)axing them together with elements of upgrading to allow further access to additional mines works incredibly well. However, allow yourself to play in short stints, or this game can get repetitive toward its conclusion.
SteamWorld Dig (Wii U)
Summary: Can this game delve into the subterranean annals of gaming classics? Very nearly, but it misses its pickaxe swing by a fraction due to repetitive levels and a lack of challenge.