Developer: Image & Form
Publisher: Image & Form
Platform: Wii U, 3DS, PC, PS4, PS Vita
Release Date: August 28, 2014 (Wii U)
ESRB: E 10+
This review is based on the Wii U version of the game
SteamWorld Dig was one of the biggest surprises of 2013 when it initially debuted on the 3DS eShop before subsequently getting an HD version on Steam and later PS4 and Vita. Not that the eShop doesn't have its share of great games, but this was a game from a small Swedish developer that had the ambition, charm, and polish of a triple-A developed title. Now that it's finally arrived for the Wii U audience, how does it hold up one year after its initial release? Grab your cowboy hat and pickaxe, because we're about to find out!
The game begins with a cowboy hat-wearing robot named Rusty arriving in the nearly deserted town of Tumbleton in order to investigate a mine that his deceased uncle Joe left him. Like most everything else in SteamWorld, Rusty is a steambot that runs on... well, steam, instead of electricity for reasons that aren't made apparent (at least not initially). In fact, the entire game is set to reflect an Old Western setting, even riffing on a certain Clint Eastwood movie with its subtitle. But why exactly is the world seemingly only populated only by steambots? Why does everything run on steam? And what happened to humans (if they even exist)? These are a few of the mysteries you'll uncover as you dig down deeper and deeper into the earth.
And dig you shall, as that's what the game is centered on. After a brief tutorial scenario in the beginning which has Rusty falling through the earth and having to make his way out, he obtains his uncle's pickaxe, which he'll use to dig through the ground in the mine. Your ultimate goal is to dig deep and discover exactly what uncle Joe wanted Rusty to see. Also, it may not be apparent at first, but SteamWorld Dig has some really interesting subtext and undertones in its story, especially late in the game; something that was a pleasant surprise. While the gameplay does take precedence, it was nice to see that there's a deeper story going on here; one that Image & Form seems to be making one of the building blocks of the SteamWorld franchise.
One of the most unique and interesting aspects of the game's design is the fact that the layout of the mine itself is procedurally generated (i.e. randomly generated) in each new playthrough. No two mines are the same, save for certain subsections and areas where Rusty collects new parts that help him advance. The process of digging is a bit of a slow process at first as it takes anywhere from 5+ hits to destroy a unit of earth/dirt. Fortunately, any paths you dig are permanent, and you'll eventually make your way deeper and deeper into the shaft this way.
Digging aside, one of the other primary things you'll be doing in the game is mining different kinds of ore which Rusty can then sell back in Tumbleton for gold coins. In turn, you'll use the coins to buy more equipment and upgrades for Rusty which in turn will help him progress further and further into the mine. You'll also be forced to return to town every so often due to limited light from your lantern (which slowly burns out) and limited room in your rucksack for ore; both of which you'll incrementally upgrade to last longer and store more, respectively. This sense of gradual progression on two fronts—digging deeper in the mine and upgrading Rusty with newer, better equipment—makes the game incredibly fun, and mining for more valuable ore becomes addicting.
As you dig deeper into the ground, the level design becomes increasingly more complex as well. You'll run into enemies that require more thought to destroy, be more decisive about where you dig, and avoid toxic waste, spikes, falling blocks, and more. The areas that contain new upgrades or rare ore are also a welcome diversion as these present more platform-oriented gameplay and puzzles. Especially interesting is the level design in the later areas, where the setting and obstacles change pretty drastically, resulting in some of the most gratifying, intense gameplay in the game.
Another thing that makes SteamWorld Dig so good is its visual presentation. The game looks great with its traditional 2D sprites, cartoon-like appearance, and silky smooth animation. Its quality is readily apparent from the title screen alone—this is a game that could easily be mistaken for Nintendo's own. Those that only played on 3DS before will also notice that the previously static portraits for each of the robot townsfolk are now animated, which is a nice touch. The Wii U version even gives you three different options for displaying the HUD (on Gamepad entirely, on the TV screen entirely, or offscreen-play on Gamepad) as well as fully customizable controls, letting you make any control scheme you want.
Interestingly, SteamWorld Dig isn't Image & Form's first rodeo, but it most certainly is its best. Despite being on the shorter side (you'll beat it in 4-5 hours the first time through), the game's pacing is fantastic, making it one of those games that treads the line between leaving you wanting more and feeling just long enough to leave you incredibly satisfied with the experience before the magic wears off. Its visuals and world within are charming, the gameplay is addictive, the western-inspired music is catchy, and the sense of exploration you get from mining is incredibly fulfilling. If you haven't played yet, do yourself a favor and check it out, because SteamWorld Dig is possibly the best new game IP to come out within the last year.
+ Premise of digging, collecting ore, and buying/collecting upgrades is a lot of fun
+ Visuals/presentation and music are charming
+ Great pacing throughout with the progression and level design
- Not a huge thing, but traveling in and out of the mine manually can be repetitious for the first hour or so
Overall Score: 9 (out of 10)
SteamWorld Dig is charming, addicting, and lots of fun to play. Definitely check it out if you're a fan of platformers and Metroidvania-type games.
Disclosure: This game was reviewed using downloadable code provided by the publisher.