A few hours in
Yeah, turns out it’s actually a greater robot conspiracy.
I dug down a whole lot in SteamWorld Dig! I dug down through the dirt, and the soil, and the densely packed soil, and even the rocks. And then, just when I thought I’d hit the deepest point I could dig, I found a door that led me to another giant pit of sand and rocks! So, I dug down through that one too.
And then, when I finally reached the bottom of the Shiners’ pit of acid and bombs, I found this weird robot world! It had laser cannons, and generators, and robo-worms, and the aforementioned giant robot conspiracy guy that you don’t actually know of.
Then I beat the final boss. Yeah, I bet you didn’t know SteamWorld Dig had a final boss, did you? Neither did I. I was quite surprised when it showed up, let me tell you that. But beat it I did all the same, and that, as they say, was that.
So yeah, I beat SteamWorld Dig in one week. That kind of thing usually only happens if a game is either fun enough to capture my attention a lot of short enough that I can easily power through it, and I’m happy to report that SteamWorld Dig is… a little bit of both, to be honest, but the former more than the latter. It’s fun! I had fun with it. SteamWorld Dig is colourful, charming and engaging, a cute little romp about digging up and selling ores and chasing the lost secrets of your reclusive uncle. It’s not an undivided high, suffering a little from monotonous stretches of filler in-between the interesting bits and an over-reliance on a simple upgrade loop, but overall it’s a fun, entertaining little adventure in digging.
Yeah, ain’t that a bit a of a 180 from my opening paragraph? Remember how I was complaining about not being up for yet another digging simulator? What happened there?
What happened, in fact, is that I discovered that SteamWorld Dig misrepresents itself. Or maybe the promotional materials I saw created false expectations that I then later unfairly judged the game on, that’s also likely. Honestly, it’s probably both: while there’s no denying that my harsh initial judgement turned out more or less totally wrong, the Steam page for SteamWorld Dig introduces it as “…a platform mining adventure with strong Metroidvanian [sic] influences“. Tell me that doesn’t raise some image in your mind.
It’s wrong, though. That description is. Specifically, it’s wrong because it has itself the other way around. SteamWorld Dig isn’t a platform mining adventure with strong Metroidvania influences, it’s a Metroidvania game with strong platform mining influences. And even that doesn’t work completely: I’d say SteamWorld Dig is a Metroidvania game where a bunch of the platforming and the upgrade collection takes the form of mining and mining-related activities.
Stop me if any of this sounds familiar: a large, multifaceted map for you to explore. Enemies and platform-related challenges to hinder that exploration. Particular barriers that you can’t pass now, but you totally could if you had a new, often movement-related power… and you obtaining those powers as a result of exploration and defeating certain challenges. Health power-ups, mana power-ups, experience power-ups, score power-ups. What would you call a game that has all of these things in spades?
The overarching goal in SteamWorld Dig (most of the time) is to dig down, down, forevermore down. The ground you dig your tunnels in is essentially your overworld map: a massive stretched area filled with enemies, resources, challenges, and dirt. Platforming challenges are different from other games in that they’re less manufactured and more organic: rather than overcoming pre-set puzzles to proceed, the challenge lies in digging tunnels that allow you to reach the areas you want to reach. The next level down, the stairway up, valuable ores, you name it. They’re platform challenges nonetheless. And a significant part of SteamWorld Dig’s gameplay is just figuring out the optimal way of getting yourself down to where you want to be.
If organic digging-based platforming is half of SteamWorld Dig’s gameplay arsenal, the other half is formed by the even-more-straightforward platforming dungeons. All throughout the main tunnel you’ll find caves, tunnels and doors, that lead you to small sealed-off mini-maps. Like so:
These standalone areas function as… well, as platforming challenge dungeons, more or less exactly what I said. You start at the door, you make your way around the place, grabbing whatever you can grab, and you end up at the same door, wiser and richer and maybe a little bruised. It can happen. The organic platform digging gameplay is supplemented here by more traditional timing and jumping challenges, though many dungeons do still maintain digging-related puzzles.
Some of these dungeons are mandatory, story-related, bestowing new upgrades on you. Others are optional, and are ‘just’ packed with rare ores and upgrade orbs.
And, honestly, my favourite thing about SteamWorld Dig is how naturally many of the upgrades tie into your exploration of the larger tunnel. Oh, it takes way too long to get anywhere and you can’t jump high enough? Have these boots of speed. You still can’t get up as high as you want? Here’s a steam-powered jumping module that consumes
mana water. You can’t seem to find your way around these impassable rocks? Boom, take this drill. Now you can!
In the grand scheme of things, you unlock two extra mining tools, a handful of movement powers, and a small set of ancillary quality-of-life stuff. And while all of these upgrades mostly shine in the dungeons, there’s no denying they vastly influence your ‘mining’ experience as well.
Nowhere is this subtle influence more clear than when the game contrives an excuse to send you back from the third level all the way up to the first. Suddenly, the tunnels you carefully dug in order to even be able to get back up feel small, weird, constricting. Was I really limited to that jump height? And I guess I couldn’t just drill through this rock, huh? Gods, I was still using ladders to get to places at that point. So young.
I particularly enjoyed, and this might be more of a spoiler than you’re used to, that a big part of the end-game stuff is hidden in plain sight in the very first dungeon you enter. You just couldn’t get to it yet. More than that, though, you suddenly noticed how your very thinking has changed, how you used to think of the high, open ceiling as functionally impassable. And now it isn’t.
And shoutout to this moment, which genuinely made me laugh:
(And as a fun side note: It’s actually entirely possible to access these areas way before you’re ‘supposed’ to, through some clever jumping. The developers are aware of this, and they have no intention of ‘fixing’ it: there’s a Steam Achievement called ‘Sequence Breaker’ that can only be earned by doing this.)
Gaining new abilities through exploration represents half of SteamWorld Dig’s upgrade system. The other half is comprised buying stat upgrades and consumables in town using the money you’ve collected. This part is a little less immediately engaging, because it’s mostly Spend The Gold To Make The Numbers Go Up. +2 ground damage for copper pickaxe, +2 ground damage for iron pickaxe, +2 ground damage for gold pickaxe… And the upgrades aren’t even visually represented on Rusty, either. What’s the deal with that? Everyone keeps talking about how the technology you find down there ‘changes you’, but I’m not seeing it.
Still, as far as stat-based upgrade systems go, it works. Certainly gives you a reason to aim for the ores. And the limited orb currency, which you find in dungeons and occasionally in the main tunnel and which is needed for most high-tier upgraded and for consumable teleporters, is an interesting little complication.
I also like that bringing in more and more gold slowly expands Tumbleton a little, adding new NPCs and shops with new personalities, looks and ‘voices’. Which is to say, new creaking patterns.
Have I mentioned how good SteamWorld Dig looks, by the way? It’s absolutely gorgeous, oozing style at every turn. Just look at literally any screenshot I’ve posted during this review. Except maybe this one.
SteamWorld Dig is a lot of fun for the most part, though it does have some downsides. ‘Amusingly’, and entirely in line with my expectations, the actual digging around can particularly get tedious at times. The distance between plot-critical dungeons can often span up to three or four ‘floors’, each one delineated by the blocks getting harder and requiring more swings — or a harder pickaxe — to break. And for an obsessive collector like myself, there really isn’t any such think as not getting every bit of ore I can see. I mean, it’s there, isn’t it? Uncollected ore isn’t a suggestion, it’s an imperative. The limited inventory space doesn’t help in this regard: it may have been added for ‘realism’, but it’s mostly just an annoying You Will Backtrack Now limiter.
And why is it my lamp fuel recharges automatically when I get to the surface, and I can pay Hank to regain health, but I can’t do anything about my water? As the critical fuel for many of my steam-powered tools — and I do enjoy how they worked that explanation in — it can be incredibly annoying to be out of water in the face of, say, a big bunch of drill rocks. Sure, I can climb back up all the way to the previous water puddle, and hope I haven’t soaked it all up yet. But why can’t I just buy some of the good stuff from Lola? That would also give her a purpose in this town, beyond ‘reminisce about Joe’.
And finally, the updating quest objectives are sometimes a little abrupt. And pointless. On behalf of a quest flag, I enter a dungeon and get an upgrade. And all I get in return is ‘Keep Exploring’? Thanks, flag, but I was gonna do that anyway.
But in my recollection of SteamWorld Dig, these are nitpicks at best. The tedium in particular did occasionally get the better of me, but every time, the enjoyment in platforming and exploration brought me back. I’d probably still be exploring if I hadn’t hit the literal bottom of the world. And that’s not something many games can say.
SteamWorld Dig is a excellently crafted Metroidvania game that incorporates interesting organic platforming and digging mechanics into a relatively well-tuned suite of upgrades, powers, and challenges. It looks cool, it sounds nice, the story makes a surprising amount of narrative sense for how silly it initially seems, it plays rather well if you enjoy performing repetitive actions for small monetary gain — and I think Minecraft and cohorts have shown us that many, many people do — and have I mentioned the secrets?
At the ten dollars it’s currently going for, I would happily recommend SteamWorld Dig to anyone who likes digging, exploration, and grand robot adventure. Some ennui resistance is required to play, so thread carefully if you know you get bored of repetition easily. But even then, it’s a short game, it’s colourful, it involves throwing dynamite at armored robot turtles, and you know you want to find out what Uncle Joe’s deal really was. And have I even mentioned the robot dandy with his robot mustache? I’m not showing that guy! You’ll have to find him for yourself.
If you dare.