Steamworld Dig is the second in a series by Image & Form. It is a different original game despite being part of a pseudo-series and has a great core of gameplay and themes surrounded by a strong aesthetic and sense of style. It has a great balance of substance and style.
I first played the game on my 3DS a few years ago when it first came out and I replayed it recently in preparation for Steamworld Heist. I remember vaguely that I really enjoyed it and that it had something to do with mining and platforming? I tried playing again a few months ago but couldn’t get past the introductory part. I played again this week though and I couldn’t put it down.
The Allegorical Story:
One of the things I didn’t realise until playing the game so thoroughly is how interesting the story is in this game. It doesn’t really beat you over the head with it and hell it barely gives you little nuggets but it does and the rarity and little information they pack make them all the more interesting.
The game starts as Rusty, the player character, comes into an old town upon receiving the will to his uncle’s mine. He doesn’t have a very deep pre-established bond with his uncle but they both think highly of one another. But when Rusty accidentally falls into his uncle’s old mine shaft he finds his old corpse. Damn.
He also finds one of the towns natives Dorothy. Who lives in the deserted town with her dad Cranky. The town has seen better days and is mostly deserted having no business and no advancements recently. Then you start mining up materials. As I said in the gameplay section you bring ore and sell it and level up exponentially. The interesting bit is that each level has its own ore and once you bring back enough to level up more upgrades are added. Mechanically it doesn’t require you gather each kind of ore but the other characters mention when you level up how the ore you gathered is going to be used to craft new gear. It’s a nice touch to make you feel more important and that YOU are the one keeping this town alive. As you get higher levels and better gear though the town gets bigger. A western guy Biff moves in and offers new gear. This is where the story is really interesting.
The game is this whole metaphor for technological advancements and the old west really emphasizes it. You see like the old west and its new beginnings, Tumbleton in Steamworld Dig is a new town built on the remnants of humanity. It’s never directly addressed but the robots mention how humanity used to rule but now are desensitized to crazy people in the mine.
The new frontier formed by the robots paints them as fully capable but still widely underdeveloped with simple steam powered technology being top of the line. As such they are very scared of the unknown. As you gain better upgrades Dorothy and Cranky are happy you’re able to bring in more money but are scared of the repercussions. Unknown where this technology came from they wonder what its use is and what it will lead to. They are welcome to growth but are wary of the unknown and really scared. Meanwhile Biff and the later upgrade shop welcome the growth unquestioning as it gives them more money.
To mildly spoil the arc of it all you start dependent on Cranky and Dorothy and while you constantly need Dorothy, to sell ore, Cranky soon becomes kind of unnecessary as Biff’s gear is much better. But then it gets a little twisted. See Cranky sells health and disposable items like ladders and dynamite that you need even at the end of the game while Biff is introduced and a hot commodity but once you buy all his gear the last vendor, Dandy, replaces him. It’s a shorter streamlined version of the industrial revolution.
Having necessary workers like Dorothy and Cranky used throughout businessno matter the broader trends and a passing trend of upgrading older methods like the pickaxe through Biff ending with the most modern use through Dandy. If the game went on all of Dandy’s upgrades would be purchased and then another character and then another character. Exhausting a single trend and passing fad until the next one comes in. It’s a really strong interesting plot about advancements. Biff and Dandy pushing for more money and more advancements but because of their greed and investment in passing trends they burn out faster that reliable Cranky.
To get away from allegory though the whole world is interesting and whenever you talk to them they give you some really nice interesting flavor text teasing you into this big world. I loved reading all of the dialogue with all of the charcters and their conflicting views.
This game is a strange different take on the whole mining, resource gathering, and crafting. The core of the experience is going down into the mine making elaborate labyrinths and getting resources. Most of the terrain is destructible with each block getting harder and harder as you go deeper. So while near the surface the average block will only take 3 hits to break at the very bottom it can take 15 hits to break. To make it easier you get upgrades for your pickaxe, drill, and later oddly enough a power glove that shoots bursts of steam? It gets a little weirder towards the end. That being said in the first level it is a clear distinction with the clear ground blocks being easily destructible and the blocks with rocks only being destroyed by the drill. It makes for a nice visual distinction to make sure you vary your play styles.
The other interesting thing with the mining is the platforming. As you go on there are more and more falling rocks and indestructible blocks that you’ll have to maneuver through to keep going and have a path to get back to the surface. It lends itself to the insane trappings and ramblings to your eccentric uncle who owned the mine before(more on that later). You get into a weird mindset where your mine shafts only make sense to you and you know the entire layout and what path to take to get up and down. The tight platforming and wall jumping lends itself to this sense of making your own dangerous difficult to traverse mine shafts. This is improved later as you also have to avoid lasers and get a double jump making you feel really cool for evading a laser jumping about everywhere and taking it out.
Once you mine up ore and blue orb things(???) you bring it back up and sell the ore and purchase upgrades with the orbs. The money used to buy upgrades and is also used as an experience bar. Each level of the experience bar unlocks more upgrades for gear and items to buy. It also unlocks more characters that you can purchase upgrades from later on. Functionally they are the same as the starting guy only offer exponentially better upgrades for your gear as you progress. More on them later though.
As for the eccentric uncle who had the mine before you, there are mini levels in each main level. The more basic ones are very simple platforming puzzles for expensive ore, and some orbs while the longer mini levels bring in necessary upgrades to progress the game. Some of them are really fun inventive platforming levels with hidden paths and a more Metroidvania feel to it. The whole game has a Metroidvania feel to it but it really shines in the mini levels left over from your uncle.
The game has a beautiful western steampunk vibe. The character designs are a good mix of robotic steampunk and a dirty western. The levels progress to a western mine that feels right to ancient remnants of toxic humanity to a futuristic and mysterious cave and as varied as that sounds Steamworld Dig keeps it all similar enough visually that I never questioned it. any screenshot for the game is just beautiful with its cartoony visuals and 2D sprites.
Flavor Text/World Building:
While I do praise the game and it’s rich world it’s a bit difficult to read. The text boxes take up so little of the space and the advance button went so fast that I kept accidentally missing dialogue. It’s partially my own fault but the mechanics really take over the game and I missed out on a lot of the flavor text even when I was playing it slower.
The Non-Allegorical Plot:
While I love the overarching themes of technological advancements and revolution it is more of a backseat to a lackluster plot. As you dig deeper and deeper you gain more upgrades with story nuggets about your uncle that add little overall. It takes place over a strange curve of interest and progression and a weirder abrupt ending with a boss fight out of nowhere.
As I said earlier in the mining it starts with a clear distinction as to what blocks each piece of gear is suited for. The pickaxe is slower but doesn’t take up your limited supply of water to fuel it while the drill is reserved for special rocky blocks. It requires you to use both to traverse the mine as efficiently as possible. But as the game went on I could simply upgrade my drill and water consumption to the point of making the pickaxe completely unnecessary. It had a strong beginning that burned out faster. I wish there was a wider variety of blocks and textures to add more to it.
Another miner(heh get it) gripe with mining is fuel and light. A few of your upgrades require water to steam power them making you ration it out and resupply every so often. It usually went without a problem but there were a couple times the water wells were really spaced out and made it more difficult than necessary. The light source was especially difficult as you only had a few minutes in each mining session where you could see. Upgrades were also very far and few making it more valuable and balanced to an extent but also made it too difficult in some places again. Interesting mechanics that could have been tweaked a little better.
The game is decently short taking about 6 hours to complete and has little replay value. While I think it’s great as the length it is others may want a longer game.
The game is definitely more tailor made for it’s mining and platforming but there is combat. Most encounters add up to little more than,“hold attack until one of you die,” and unless you pin an enemy in a corner and hold attack you’re gonna lose health for little other reasons than, “the game says so.” It is slightly improved later when you get a ranged attack but anything it gains for that it immediately loses for having fast kamikaze droids.
Steamworld Dig is overall a beautiful western steampunk game with a core of great gameplay that is enthralling and absorbing. A thematic coating of character interactions mixed with the level progression of advancements works to great effect. Although there are weaker parts of all the best parts and a godawful combat system overall Steamworld Dig would be recommended on its core gameplay alone. The added aesthetic and themes are just a cherry on top of the beautiful ice cream sundae that is Steamworld Dig.
Methodical players will love the mining and intricacies of building your own mine shaft. The core gameplay is very similar to minecraft obviously and you can spend a long time making your own labyrinth scoping out for more ore. It’s a deepy engrossing game that gets better with easy to miss context and flavor. I’d highly recommend it to anyone wanting a shorter game that’s equally satisfying.