Indie games are making a big splash these days. The era of digital titles has made way for smaller developers to put their creativity to work without need for AAA publishers. Case in point: SteamWorld Dig, the latest entry from Swedish developers Image & Form. This digital game just goes to show that you don’t need to spend $60+ for an enjoyable experience. And despite a few shortcomings, SteamWorld Dig is easily one of the best titles available on Nintendo’s 3DS eShop.
Publisher: Image & Form
Developer: Image & Form
Genre: Minecraft + Metroid + Castlevania + Spelunky + Drill Dozer
Release Date: August 8, 2013
ESRB Rating: Everyone 10+
SteamWorld Dig places you in the iron boots of Rusty, a steam-driven robot who makes a long, arduous journey to the old western town of Tumbleton. Rusty has just inherited his uncle’s mine, and he arrives to pick up where his uncle left off – literally. The first mission in the game is to enter the mine and retrieve a pickaxe from his body. This is where your adventure begins. From there, your goal is to obtain valuable ore from the mine, restore the town of Tumbleton to its former glory, and discover the secrets your uncle left behind.
One of the things I truly respect about Steamworld Dig is that it tells such a deep story without any text. Don’t get me wrong – there is dialogue in the game, and it does further Rusy’s story – but the environment also tells a secondary tale all of its own. The further down you dig, the more of Tumbleton’s history you discover, and this is all by simply looking at the background images. Where almost every game these days spoon-feeds narrative through cutscenes, being able to learn a game’s story on your own is very refreshing.
The developers describe SteamWorld Dig as “a hardcore platform mining adventure.” Think Metroid meets Minecraft (or as I like to call it, Minetroid), and you have a good idea of what to expect. The mine is a completely open and randomized world, with specific “sub-mines” peppered about. Using Uncle Joe’s pickaxe, you break apart blocks of dirt and rock in order to dig deeper into the mine. Most rocks break away rather easily, but some contain the aforementioned minerals which you need to bring back to Tumbleton and sell to the locals. You earn money by selling the materials, and use that money to upgrade Rusty’s equipment and abilities. Unfortunately, your satchel only holds so much, and you’ll need to go back up to the surface multiple times to sell what you’ve mined. After all, a video game about an animatronic cowboy digging for buried treasure should be grounded in reality
It’s not that easy, though. Dangers lurk throughout the mine, from deep pits and spikes to exploding barrels and enemies. This opens up a real sense of urgency: If you lose your life as a result of the mine’s perils, you lose half the money you earned, and you need to trek all the way back down to recover the materials you mined. And to make matters worse, your torch – your main source of light in the caves – slowly dwindles until you can’t see anything outside Rusty’s general vicinity. Not only that, but you need to be cognizant of where you’re digging. One wrong dig and you’ve lost your only route back up. This hectic multitasking really draws you into the game, and exacts an emotional response. I can’t say how many times I accidentally dug in the wrong spot and fell into an enemy or toxic waste pool, and then had to frantically make my way back up to the surface with only a fraction of my health – all with my light slowly fading. It’s one of those moments where I knew I was playing a great game, because once I safely reached the surface and let out a sigh of relief, I realized I was holding my breath the whole time. And while the constant up-and-down trips can eventually get a bit monotonous, it doesn’t distract from the overall enjoyment.
The further you dig, the harder the dirt gets, and that is where the upgrades come in. While on the surface, Rusty can purchase harder pickaxes, health and steam tank upgrades, and ladders and teleporters in case you’ve dug yourself into a situation where there’s no escape. In addition to the upgrades, Rusty can find mines within the main mine, where Uncle Joe has left Rusty some equipment – hence the Metroid references. These power-ups increase your digging and enemy-fighting abilities, and you’ll then want to do some backtracking to get those minerals that you weren’t equipped for earlier. By the time you get the final upgrade, you’ll be plowing through the mine with no trouble.
I can’t praise the music on this game enough. While there are only a handful of tracks, they do so much to pull you into the game’s atmosphere. The title screen music beautifully fits into the spaghetti-western theme. The music of Tumbleton is desolate and dreary, with the sound of blowing wind and a single guitar to give you a real feeling that you’re out in the middle of nowhere. But it’s in the mine where the music is really immersive. It’s moody, creepy, and perfect for the setting. The graphics are reminiscent of the 16-bit era, and the attention to detail and animation is incredible. The 3D effect is used to give a sense of depth by separating the foreground from the background, and the subtlety works in SteamWorld Dig’s favor.
The controls, however, do take some getting used to. Jumping is very floaty, and many times you’ll fall to your death due to a misplaced landing. Using one of your weapons, you can shoot diagonally, but only while you’re moving. You can’t stand still and fire on an angle. This gets frustrating, as sometimes your best escape route is hindered by a block that should be easy to blast, but due to running and shooting at the same time, getting rid of that block is nearly impossible. The replay value of SteamWorld Dig really is up to the gamer. The location of the minerals is random, so theoretically it is a new game every time you play – it just depends on how you look at it. The game itself only took me about eight hours to complete, but that was without collecting every mineral and missing out on one or two upgrades. I would have liked to have a New Game + option, but again that’s just personal preference. Also, there’s only one boss battle. It’s a fun and challenging battle, but I would have loved to have to defeat a boss in order to earn each power-up.
SteamWorld Dig is one of those indie games that could truly stand on its own as a retail title. The open-world, exploration-heavy nature of this downloadable game makes it a perfect title for the 3DS. It functions beautifully as one of those “short burst” titles, where you can just spend about a half hour on it and truly feel like you’ve accomplished something. Just be prepared for that half-hour to turn into several hours. SteamWorld Dig is proof that you don’t need a great budget to make a great game. And at a price of only $8.99, there’s no reason for you not to discover this diamond in the rough.
Review Disclosure: A review copy of SteamWorld Dig was provided by Image & Form for the purposes of this review.