I’m back with another platformer! This time around, I played a title that is a real mouthful - SteamWorld Dig: A Fistful of Dirt. SteamWorld Dig is available on a plethora of platforms, making its most recent splash on the Wii U, where I was able to complete it. You can also pick it up for 3DS, Vita, Playstation 4, and PC via Steam or direct purchase. Given the theme of SteamWorld Dig, comparisons to other games like Spelunky may be natural, but I haven’t played enough of those to comment on how well it holds its own in such company.
Your player avatar in SteamWorld Dig is a steam-powered robot named Rusty, who inherits some property and responsibilities from a late relative, Harvest Moon-style. Almost immediately, you are encouraged to delve deep in search of buried treasure. You can haul increasingly heavy and sparkling loads of ore back to the surface to be sold for a pretty penny. This income is nearly always reinvested in your character immediately, granting you power-ups like increased carrying capacity or health, reduced damage, and faster digging tools.
One of the more novel mechanics of SteamWorld Dig that I’ve come to enjoy is your limited-capacity lamp. While you still have fuel left to burn, the lamp allows you to see clearly while traversing areas between the torches and other light sources that are already present in the world. At the beginning of the game, this time constraint is just a few minutes, but the capacity of the lamp is one of the attributes that can be upgraded at a healthy cost. This puts a highly effective time limit on your spelunking, forcing you to return to the surface or defeat the aggressive denizens of the caves to resupply. This combat is initially a very risky proposition, as you set out with nothing more dangerous than a pickaxe, which most monsters can shrug off a few times before expiring. Another mechanic I enjoyed is your ability to wall-jump repeatedly to climb straight up vertical surfaces, without needing to bounce off an opposite wall as in other games. Since there is fall damage, you often need to press against a wall and slide down to keep from crippling yourself when you reach the bottom of a long drop.
As you explore farther and farther underground, your trips back to the surface start to become quite the ordeal, but at least in my case, relief arrived just ahead of my total exasperation in the form of a quick-travel point that took me instantly to the surface. The areas you explore underground are striated into different visual themes, which are accompanied with new tiers of loot to dig up and often new enemies as well. Humorously, these include deranged human beings that appeared to have soaked up too much background radiation and spent too much time alone. You eventually unlock the option of purchasing a consumable item that will create a permanent portal back to the surface anywhere you like. I was careful to make sure I only used these on a wide, level surface, so I can’t say whether or not they might work in a more narrow space.
Over the course of your journey through the game’s mysterious storyline, the surface town will become populated with several NPC merchants carrying a variety of stock, most of whom sound like caricatures of the American West. Should you completely run out of health, you will reappear alive and well on the surface in front of the saloon, where you will be varyingly chided or advised by the female proprietor. A young woman and her father round out the original inhabitants of the town, offering a place to sell your loot and restock on general supplies respectively.
Aside from gems and precious minerals, you occasionally dig out glowing orbs that scatter around in a very satisfying display of outlandish physics. Once you approach close enough, they will gravitate towards you. These are used as a special currency for more powerful unlocks from the various NPCs in town, and I never really felt quite like I had enough of them. In fact, given the exorbitant totals your loot will begin to earn later on, the rarity of these orbs (and the death-penalty leeching away half of my money) were just about the only thing stopping me from unlocking everything long before I finished my play through.
The underground terrain of SteamWorld Dig is generated randomly, and at first I was puzzled at times as I noticed shining spots of wealth in walls that I seemingly had no means to reach and plunder. Never fear, as soon enough you will gain more abilities that make these obtainable. Fully new powers, rather than upgrades of an existing mechanic, are found underground on shining altars that harken back to the Metroid days, and these greatly improve your mobility and digging abilities.
SteamWorld Dig has received its fair share of accolades, but I’m afraid I have some reservations about heaping similar levels of praise on this title. The game is visually a high achievement, and the music has enough in common with the famous “Good, Bad and Ugly” style to be rather enjoyable. The controls were adequate, but lack the responsiveness of other well-regarded platformers and combat feels kind of spotty. However, my chief complaint comes from the game’s brevity. I was not rushing through by any means, and yet I finished the game in a little over 5 hours playing casually. Despite the claims of “randomized worlds with emergent gameplay” from the game’s website advertising a high level of replayability, I don’t really feel any desire to repeat the experience. Once you’ve completed the storyline, you’re treated to a dramatic finish and credit roll to really seal in the finality of your accomplishments, with a brief after credits scene to tease the opportunity for a sequel. After that, all that’s really left is exploring and amassing wealth - which only count towards a finite set of character upgrades that ultimately serve the purpose of helping you dig faster. I feel that a true crafting system of some kind or a New Game Plus mode would have really elevated SteamWorld Dig into truly honored company.
Overall, I would say that SteamWorld Dig is a game that is fairly well executed, but given how much emphasis it places on tunneling further and further underground, it ironically lacks enough mechanical or story depth. This shortcoming leaves it all too brief to be fully satisfying.
Review by Shane