Indie Wonderland: SteamWorld Dig

SteamWorld Dig and I have something of a spotty history. I’d seen Image&Form Games‘ fancy robotic digging simulator pass the front pages of Steam every now and again — no relation, as far as I can tell — but in spite of its vibrant colourful look, it never really seemed to appeal to me. I’ve played digging simulators before. Minecraft, Terraria, Starbound. I looked at SteamWorld Dig, and I saw stretch before me another endless progression into the dark bowels of the earth, progressing from ores to tools to better ores to better tools in all-too-familiar pattern. I don’t need another diamond pickaxe, thanks.

But then, last week, Lady Luck saw fit to provide me with a SteamWorld Dig Steam key through the magic of a conveniently-timed #GamesMatter event. And while I was pondering whether or not I should play it for review, I accidentally found some pretty rad SteamWorld Dig fanart on the website of Teslagrad developer Rain Games. Remember those guys from last week? Turns out they really dug SteamWorld Dig, pun only possibly intended.

In other words: on the exact day I found myself capable of getting a SteamWorld Dig key as a gift, I discovered that the developers of a game I really liked a lot themselves quite enjoy this game. I don’t want to say that that makes the pairing of me and SteamWorld Dig destiny… but if there was ever any better reason to bite the bullet and try this game out for myself, I don’t know what that would look like. Maybe some kind of million-dollar-heritage last will clause? “In order to receive my money, you must spend one full night in this haunted video game…”

(Spoiler levels: Narrative, high. Mechanical, high. Be ye warned.)

(Game source: Developer-gifted Steam key, by way of #GamesMatter.)

Opening

Okay, so, before we begin: SteamWorld Dig is a bitch to get screenshots for. It doesn’t actually work with Fraps, which is a known problem, because… Fraps is conditioned to ignore executable names starting with Steam. For obvious reasons. But then manual screenshotting is also finicky and weird, because… the best way to explain it is that if you press Print Screen in SteamWorld Dig, it doesn’t take a screenshot of that exact moment: instead, it takes a screenshot of the first visual on-screen when it loads. Which means that, if you’ve just started SteamWorld Dig, all your screenshots will resolve to black screens. And that they way to work around it is to alt-tab out of the game just at the moment you want to take a screenshot, then tab back in, and press Print Screen at basically any moment thereafter.

Yeah. I made it work, but it was by no means easy. Keep this in mind every time you see a screenshot in this review, alright? I bled even more for these particular ones than I usually do.

Respect my hard work in bringing you these quality graphics.

SteamWorld Dig (subtitle: A Fistful Of Dirt) opens up on the bright yellow-orange display of what appears to be a stick man robot walking through a desert. Cheerful western-esque music is faux-whistled in the background while our little robot friend walks past cacti, skull signs, and a little town in the distance, a perpetual grin on his face and a pickaxe in his oversized glove hand. If I had to make a character study of this robot fella from this animation alone, I’d tell you that a) this robot fella feels like he (she? they?) can take on the world with one needle-thin arm tied behind his back, and b) this robot fella is clearly not worried about heatstroke, dehydration, or getting lost in this endless sandy desert.

Options are option-y, as you might expect. A little sparse. Graphics are limited to brightness, interface layout, screen size, V-sync and bloom. Sound is just sliders for sound and music. The list of keyboard controls is short, but functional, though I can’t see if there’s any option to rebind. And while I appreciate the effort that went into making it graphical, I’m not entirely sure how I feel about the language options not actually including a written description of which language you’re selecting.

This is particularly difficult if you’re the kind of person who routinely can’t tell different flags apart to save his own life.

And that’s it for the main menu, really. Unless you want me to dwell on the credits for a while. Which you don’t, because it’s just a scrolling text list overlaid on Walking Robot Guy. So let’s get straight into New Game business!

Let’s get straight into selecting my save slot!

The bright yellow desert title menu transitions into a bright yellow animated cutscene. It’s mostly more of the same elements: cacti, rocks, sand, sun. A single tumbleweed. Christo-bot Walken’s face briefly takes up the whole screen, his self-assured grin even more evident when it’s literally the only thing you can see. His eyes are green. Were they always green?

Then, the camera cuts to an enticing shot of robo-butt — and associated spindly stick legs — to give me a view of the saddest little desert town that ever was. “Welcome to Tumbleton”, the sign reads, “Population: 3”. Looking at this dust hole, I don’t know if I can believe that. All of three people opted to stay here?

Maybe they were nuts for all that gold.

As robo-guy stands around, dreamily taking in the scenery, the grounds starts to shake. He doesn’t notice. The ground starts to audibly rumble. He doesn’t notice. The ground beneath his very feet starts cracking, slowly at first, but quicker and quicker every second. He doesn’t notice.

He does finally take notice of what’s happening, however, when the ground beneath his feet gives way entirely, tumbling him into a dark abyss.

Initial impressions

Which is where I come in, I guess.

Take a left at the UMPH and follow all the way into the underground.

“Rusty”, that’s my stick-o-bot’s name. He doesn’t seem to be too perturbed by the fall; maybe his spindly line legs absorbed the impact somehow?

“Well, I don’t reckon I’ll get out the way I got in”, Rusty rumbles. Gee, you think? You fell like thirty meters into a cave. I’m surprised you can still stand. But no, none of that matters. “Could be a part of my uncle’s mine, I guess. All it needs is a splash of paint.”

For real, though, I admire his calm tenacity in the face of mortal danger.

Suddenly, another robot runs in from the right. Her name is Dorothy, she has a very Iron Man-esque yellow and red colour pattern over her blue skin, and I can tell that she’s a ‘she’ because of the way her chest plating bulges out.

Because of course girl robots need boobs.

Dorothy is none too happy about me crashing into this cave. “Your dramatic entrance just caved the roof in!” Well I’m sorry my almost falling to my death caused you some distress, Dorothy. But what were you even doing in this cave? I’m pretty sure this was my Uncle Joe’s mine, and you’re no Uncle Joe.

It resolves that the plot of SteamWorld Dig is this: my robot-uncle, Joe, was this town’s resident miner. He sent me, Rusty, the deed to his mine, shortly before disappearing. I’m here to check out what in the digi-devil Uncle Joe was up to; Dorothy is here to try and find Joe. Dorothy is more successful in her aims than I am in mine, it seems, because she’s just found him.

In this case, ‘find Uncle Joe’ basically equates to ‘follow Dorothy around for a bit’.

Controls, controls… Arrow keys control rusty, in an interesting departure from norm. Left and right walk, up arrow talks to Dorothy. Spacebar jumps. Hold on a second, I don’t remember seeing spacebar in the list of controls back at the start! As it turns out, that’s because the controls list scrolls, in a strange and unintuitive manner. But hey, SteamWorld Dig is taking the time to explain the actual controls to me, so that works too.

I run-and-jump my way over to the leftmost side of the mine. There, I find Uncle Joe. He’s, er… I don’t know if robots in this universe die, exactly? Seems to me that if a robot breaks, you should be able to put it back together. But maybe that’s just weird thinking. Whatever the case, Uncle Joe is lying around and not moving and Rusty is eulogizing near him.

So it’s pretty safe to assume he’s at least dead-*equivalent*.

Joe is dead and that’s all sad and whatnot, but I still need to get out of this cave. Joe, if you don’t want me to take this cruddy pickaxe, don’t say nothing! Yeah, that’s what I thought. Thanks!

Pickaxe in hand, I make my way back to the mine entrance. Holding down the A button makes Rusty swing the pickaxe around, handily destroying the dirt blocks in front of him. Or above him, or beneath him, depending on how I angle the swings.

Only the *approved* dirt blocks get destroyed, of course.

I make my way to the right, but oh no! The ‘door’ to the mine got ‘closed’. Somehow. Newly armed, though, I take out my trusty pickaxe and… dig my way down a whole set of dirt blocks, finally reaching the solitary lever that apparently controls the door.

…Somehow.

Door thusly opened, I wall-jump my way back up. Yeah, I can wall-jump. It ain’t even a thing. I run out the open door, grabbing a floating health power-up on my way…

As robots do.

…and climb a handy-dandy nearby ladder into the town of Tumbleton.

It doesn’t really look any better from up close.

Tumbleton, as promised, is home to exactly three people. Which is weird, because I’d assume Uncle Joe was also a resident here? Did they write him off every time he went down into the mine? I mean, I guess that that turned out right in the end, but whatever. Next to Dorothy, Tumbleton is also inhabited by her inventor ‘father’, ‘mr.’ Hank McCrank, and Lola, the saloon operator and possibly robot prostitute madam?

I mean, this *might* be me being super sexist. But come on.

Long story short: both Dorothy and Hank start suggesting I go back into the mine, now legally mine, in order to dig up more ore. ‘It’ll be good for Tumbleton’, they say. ‘Who knows what you’ll find down there’, they say. ‘You might find out why your uncle sent you the deed’, they say, Dorothy in particular. I respond by trying to hoof it out of Tumbleton as fast as I can. Bloody sand pit.

Nope, I’m not allowed. I CAN’T LEAVE

Alright, fine, I guess I’ll go down into the mine again.

Because that worked out *so well* last time.

I dig right for one dirt block, then another. The dirt block just below me has a special graphic made up of many shiny particles, which leads me to believe it’s a block of ore. Hype! I punch it with my pickaxe, quite a few times, until it cracks and reveals…

‘Trashium’.

Wow. Trashium. Ore digging is sure a cool and rewarding career, you guys. I can’t imagine why Uncle Joe decided to bite it in the end. Still, I’m in it to win it, now, so I might as well keep on going.

I dig up a second ore block. More Trashium. The two parts stack in my inventory bar on the bottom of the screen, two out of four Trashium in one of my three slots. I dig up another block. Hey, that’s copper! A thing I know! The copper does not stack with the Trashium, surprisingly, electing instead to take up its own stack slot.

I dig to the left a little. A strange fossil embedded in the wall starts pulsing and chirping. Once, twice, thrice. What the?… Then it suddenly bursts to life, carving out a three-block tunnel to wander up and down in. Like some kind of doofus.

Seriously, though, what a dingle-dangus.

I do the obvious thing, of course: I jump into the creature’s little pit and whack it to death with my pickaxe. Robots rule, organic lifeforms drool! The creature leaves behind a lamp fuel pickup, further proof of my eternal superiority.

Wait, lamp fuel? Yeah, as it turns out, the light I’m casting around myself isn’t the eternal radiance of my rusty amazingness. My lamp does, in fact, have fuel, and it’s slowly running out. Low fuel means low light, and low light means I’m having a hard time seeing what I’m doing. It never really gets too bad to work with, but what’s the point of mining if I can’t even make out the ores in the wall?

‘Sell Loot’, a red ribbon suddenly proclaims. Quest completed? I make my way back up with six Trashium and one copper and talk to Dorothy, who buys the ores from me for ten bucks. This… levels me up, somehow? Or levels the town up? At any rate, it unlocks something called a ‘sharp pickaxe’, which sounds a hell of a lot handier than the rusty pickaxe I’m currently slinging.

Of course, ‘unlocked’ doesn’t mean ‘obtained’. I have to talk to Cranky Hank, in fact, and purchase the pickaxe from him. For eight bucks. And no orbs.

I can’t buy these ladders yet. Ladders are for closers.

With Sharp Pickaxe in hand, I can now tunnel my way through more densely-packed soil. No more sticking to the dirt paths for me! I dig down, way down, all the way past the dotted lines on the minimap, where the dirt is stacked and requires many hits to break. I grab Trashium, copper, and even a green crystal I think might be malachite? I fight some more living monster, kill a few inert ones in their sleep before they wake, and tunnel under a cool grey rock with blue sparkles.

What’s up with you, cool sparkly rock? What are you all about?

The grey rock starts shaking as I stand underneath it. And because my reaction time is apparently impaired from all this mine air, I don’t get out from underneath it before it falls, killing me instantly.

Welp.

I guess that was SteamWorld Dig, then! I had a good run. Wish I could’ve played longer, but, you know, death is death and that’s final. Like, it’s not like I could just come back from the dead or anything like that. That’d just be weird. After all, if I could be brought back from death through some sort of routine parts replacement procedure, how is it that Uncle Joe is still stiff as a metal pipe over in the upper mines? They would ‘a just revived him instead of getting me over here. No, all in all, it would just be… a very weird idea.

And yet…

Yeah, of course I didn’t actually die. I get that. It’s still strange, though. Why didn’t they revive Joe, if getting me back in one piece is apparently so easy? Silly ludonarrative inconsistency, or evidence or a greater robot conspiracy?

Check back in with all of you once I find out more.

Onto page 2. >>

6 comments

  1. I thoroughly enjoyed 99% of Steamworld Dig, so I too recommend it. I found the rhythm of digging for a bit then popping back up to sell stuff and upgrade pleasing, scratching the same itch as Minecraft does for me. I like the Western aesthetic as well. It’s not been overused in games and the graphics are charming.

    I never completed the game though. I tried the final boss a few times, but died. The game had no enemies beyond the level of ‘nuisance’ before that so it was a bit of a shift. As I was no longer having fun, I stopped playing, but I definitely got good value from the game as a whole.

  2. For future reference, if you’re running win 8, the windows key + prnscn makes the OS take a screenshot, which might be an easier way to get game shots.
    Also, hi, I’ve lurked around these parts for a bit (wandered over from 20sided or ruts’s site, one of the two, fell in love with your let’s plays, and stayed for the good writing and entertaining reviews of games I will probably never play).
    If I ever win one of those ridiculous lottos (the 200k million ones), I’ll give you a million to spend 24 hours in a haunted video game, but you must write a let’s play of it!

  3. I’m honestly surprised people liked this game so much. I was kind of luke-warm on the whole thing and finished mostly because I’d already decided to do so over a weekend.

    It’s not quite minecraft or terraria level of repetition but it did start feeling like a bit of a grind before the end, especially if you fall behind in upgrades. Steamworld dig isn’t a bad game, and I do love the art style, it just feels a little bit too padded for not enough reward. I’d have liked something else to do, a Bastion style upgrade of the town for instance would be nice, it would have made the narrative feel like it mattered more.

    But you have presented the game very fairly, so I’m not complaining, just offering my two cents.

    1. C’est ça. I can see why you’d feel that way. Had SteamWorld Dig gone on for much longer than it did, my enjoyment of it might very well have started dropping off more harshly.

  4. I don’t know if you’ve ever played the flash game “Motherlode”, but if you have, is this game a kind of strange spiritual successor to that? But with crafted levels instead of randomised terrain

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