SteamWorld Dig is a good looking game. Go on, just look at it. Gorgeous sprites, fluid animation, and a 3D effect that adds a delicious sense of depth to a 2D world. The sprite work echoes some of the best in the business, feeling similar to Way Forward or SNK Metal Slug in quality, with a healthy dollop of impressive lighting making proceedings look even better.
Musically, it’s pretty impressive, too. The Western jaunt and whistle of the over-world plays a tempting theme, tainted with minor twang and suspicious guitar plucking. The music only stays strong throughout, complimenting the various areas and environments found beneath Tumbleton. Sound effects do the job, too, with the metallic clunk and thunk of your character giving an impressive feeling of heft and adding personality to the atmosphere.
The controls are responsive, and lurching around the mines has a wonderful gait as you wall-jump and fling yourself around the tunnels of your own design. It’s an unfortunate realisation, then, that despite all this good, Steamworld Dig is not that brilliant a video game.
A brief preface: in SteamWorld Dig you play the role of Rusty. Rusty has just arrived in Tumbleton as he has inherited the town’s mineshaft from his uncle. After a brief natter with the towns-folk it’s into the mine with Rusty, where you must use your pickaxe to hack away at the dirt to carve a path deep underground in the name of retrieving precious minerals to sell to the aforementioned townsfolk.
As you dig deeper and deeper you’ll come across more and more mysterious features, locating upgrades along the way. Upgrades include traversal skills – such as the ability to run faster and jump higher – alongside extra mining tools, including a drill, that become necessary to cut through the more sturdy blocks deeper down. It’s a fun and quaint concept, and one that could surely produce a bona fide classic. But SteamWorld Dig never truly finds its feet during its short adventure.
Take, for instance, the main “shaft”. You can dig wherever you want here – within reason – and you’ll quickly adopt the mindset that you should dig carefully as you’ll need to navigate back up your tunnels (you’ll be returning to the surface every few minutes to cash in your spoils and refill your light source) so you’ll dig in sensible patterns. Then you realise that Rusty’s wall jump is a sticky, gravity-defying miracle that renders most traversal concerns mute, making careful digging far less gratifying.
The thoughtful side of digging does attempt to become more apparent in the later areas, through larger obstacles that can and will shift of their own accord but cannot be mined directly; however, in the main shaft it’s easy to ignore these altogether. Enemies are another questionable presence in such a free-form adventure. The combat is largely unsatisfying (run up to enemy, bash with pick/drill until dead) and better avoided, leading to much laborious circumventive digging. Combat issues are elevated somewhat in the latter stages thanks to some ranged offence, but this portion of the game never feels properly fleshed out.
The problem with the main shaft is that in offering you the freedom to dig wide, the area never feels like a well thought-out environment. It is what it is, a series of blocks in a big shaft with little rhyme or rhythm to their construction. This is a shame because the game clearly wants to be better than this. Head back to the surface and shops sell useful items alongside upgrades to your tools. Ladders, teleporters, TNT… SteamWorld Dig is certainly not unsatisfying for a lack of trying. When playing the game I wanted to use the ladders, I wanted to use more TNT, but the situations just weren’t there. Heck, the main reason I used the teleporters was because it made the repetitive – and frequent – return trips to the surface slightly less obnoxious.
SteamWorld Dig should reward someone that is prepared with ladders. It should promote carrying torches. It should encourage clever and brave play. Returning to the surface should be more unwanted and questionable, it should be laced with a fear of some unwelcome result to your desire for upgrades and light. The game has a rogue-like approach to death, with accrued swag staying at the point of death until reclaimed, yet takes no attempts to make re-treading old ground interesting or exciting. No enemy re-spawn, no cave collapses, no fear. All this means is that going back through old tunnels is a necessary, frequent, and dull inconvenience. Imagine if Dark Souls didn’t respawn enemies upon returning to a bonfire – suddenly the whole act of “cashing-in” XP would become a thoughtless, tension-free irritation.
That’s the main problem with SteamWorld Dig’s design: everything it does is one small tweak or notch away from being fantastic, but much of it comes across as undercooked. Why do I need a high-jump when I can just climb the walls with my incredible spider-boots?
It’s a shame because when the game gets clever in its handful of independent, enclosed puzzle “chambers”, its traversal and digging mechanics are allowed to come to the fore and the entire experience is stronger for this. Suddenly the world is designed to test your knowledge of its construction. Suddenly the world features wall-jump-denying hazards that you must work around. Suddenly you have no choice but to tackle enemies (occasionally in smart “drop a block on your head” ways) so you think about how you should fight them instead of groaning and finding a way around.
Indeed, the game’s only boss encounter is actually a delight, and I personally wish that the campaign was filled with more spectacular, thoughtfully-designed moments like this, rather than focusing on the shaft and those dull trips to Tumbleton.
Perhaps what disappoints me most is that the game appears to promote speedy play, yet I can’t see how this would solve any of the clear design fallacies. My completion time of 3 and a half hours netted me a silver ranking and, while I’d like to think that those who enjoy speed running will find some true, greater calling within SteamWorld Dig, I find that the wide shaft and focus on personal digging denies the sort of laser-focused skill test that the Metroid design so beautifully encapsulates.
VERDICT: I know this review sounds rather down but SteamWorld Dig is, ultimately, absolutely pleasant; it just lacks a certain oomph – a particular degree of design intelligence – that’s necessary to elevate it to essential status. If you want a beautifully presented diversion then Rusty’s jaunt into the mine of mystery is a curious and gorgeous one, it’s only a shame because it comes so close to greatness that you just want to give it a box to stand on so it can reach because of everything else it does so well.
It looks gorgeous, controls like a dream, and when it’s putting its ideas to the fore in a sensible manner then it has some genuinely delightful ideas, but when you really start to analyse things and think about it with a harsh critical light, it effectively turns out to be all bust and no brains. Lovely to look at, and somewhat amusing to poke, but ultimately a little lacking once you try to get serious.
DECENT. A 6/10 indicates that, while this game could be much better, it still has a fair amount to offer the player. It might be an interesting title sabotaged by its own ambition, or a game denied greater praise by some questionable design choices. Don’t avoid it outright, but approach it with caution.