It’s time to bring back our Steam Treasures series.
With hundreds and hundreds of titles now receiving the all-important right to be on Steam - through Valve’s Greenlight initiative (that Gabe Newell now wants to do away with) - the idea of a “jewel” of an indie game somehow “making” it through to the service (against all odds!!) no longer carries the
same much any weight.
Where Valve’s standards may have changed (for better or worse), ours haven’t: In this series, we review budget-sized, budget-priced, big-small games that deserve to be added to your Steam library, period - even, when they’re not currently in a bundle for beans! Our first new entry to the series, then, is none other than the aptly-titled SteamWorld Dig: A Fistful of Dirt.
Curiously, the game’s developer, the Swedish Image & Form, actually did not target Steam first, as the game found its original home on the Nintendo eShop. Even on the Nintendo 3DS - a system I don’t currently own or have access to - the game immediately caught my attention due to its colourful look and feel, cute robot designs, and overall Steampunk shenanigans.
Ultimately, nomen est omen, and so forth, and we computer folks ended up receiving a full OS smorgasbord, from Windows to OSX to Linux, all via Steam. I was overjoyed to discover the game was to be ported so quickly over to PC - there still exist footage of me posting awful puns on Twitter. That’s how excited I was about getting to play the game.
Essentially, SteamWorld Dig is the answer to the question: What if Metroid and Mr. Driller (or Dig Dug, if you like) had a baby?
“Dig” is a minuscule 2D Metroidvania through and through. Though seemingly open-world at first, it has its slew of discoverable and purchasable power-ups that then allow players further access to areas once out of bounds. It has its secret areas, and a great emphasis on the player’s side-scrolling movement. The game begins as Rusty the steambot arrives in the nigh-deserted bot-town of Tumbleton, to lay a claim to his uncle’s old dig.
And diggity dig he indeed does. Fear not, however, as the digging, drilling, and blasting, then, is in all actuality quite a neat twist to the basic Metroidvania concept; as popular as games such as Minecraft and Terraria are, with all those pickaxes and shovels, SteamWorld Dig’s approach still felt very fresh to me.
Its gameplay is, too, as each playthrough has the game’s main world randomly generated, which adds a further sense of luck and randomness to the mechanics. It goes without saying that in a random world map, your own decisions, and subsequent actions, can have a great deal of effect on how good or bad you do - or how easy or hard the game is.
It’s perfectly possible to fumble around haphazardly, getting accidentally squished by falling rocks, or being blown to pieces by explosives, or slipping and falling to your death. You might have chosen your route poorly, accidentally leaving behind precious ore - or, say, a foolish enemy sets forth a chain reaction of explosives, forming a massive cave that suddenly becomes lethal due to fall damage.
Not to say the game is too difficult at any point in time; SteamWorld Dig is a sporting feller indeed, and displays nothing but respect and fairness towards its players. Dying simply means paying a repair fee - a percentage of your earnings - and then getting hauled back to the surface. Too many resurrections can still mean you lose on some of that hard-earned money, and will be unable to get every upgrade, as every playthrough has a finite amount of resources to harvest. Other than that, the penalty for failure is usually minuscule, as there are ways of travelling back down rather quickly, and you can go pick up your stuff back from where you had died.
While the game’s enemy AI is simplistic, players still often have the option to approach them from all four primary directions, which adds in some much-needed variation. Furthermore, enemies will often also be sleeping, or hibernating, and can be surprised if you are silent and/or fast enough.
The game’s path of upgrades and progression feels elegant, too. Every upgrade - like, say, the “Steam Jump,” for which your robot’s boots must be filled with water - feels relevant, and even the more mundane speed/damage upgrades show their meaning quickly as your robot is going to be digging increasingly and increasingly faster.
What I really enjoyed about SteamWorld Dig is that you can pick it up for a few minutes, for a quick haul or two. One hallmark of great design that’s often overlooked are fair yet interesting achievements, and SteamWorld Dig doesn’t disappoint in that respect, either: if you do fall in love with the game, the game’s Steam version comes with fair and well-designed achievements that you can try to do on subsequent runs should you miss on them on your first go. Three separate save game slots ensure that you have a chance to fool around with different runs without losing your upgrades and progress.
I’ve not yet mentioned one of the game’s selling points - and for future titles in the series - because I know I won’t have to dwell on it; it goes without saying that Agnieszka Mikucka’s superlatively cute robot designs leave a lasting impression.
Beyond the game’s lovely look and feel, though, the game’s greatest strength is its steely constitution. Without insider information, it’s impossible to say how hard Nintendo comes down on developers in Q&A, exactly, but make no mistake: this is as mechanically solid and sound a game as they come, Nintendo-like, even.
I fully understand if you feel that a certain Nintendo-ness, as a comparison, feels like a descriptive cop-out; it doesn’t really tell us anything about the game’s features per se. Yet, for a design-minded person, it’s nigh-alarming to note that your brain hasn’t come up with a nag, or a complaint, or an improvement. For a critic, after all, it’s always pointing out things that are wrong that comes easy; pinpointing good things precisely and exactly is much harder, or when or why a multitude of mechanisms, and systems, work together well in a video game.
In this way, every feature, every mechanism is thought out, nothing is ever out of place, with tight pacing and fantastic controls to boot. For a PC game, SteamWorld Dig is also considerably snappy and responsive, with barely any load times a-waiting. If you’re like me, and greatly dislike playing on a gamepad, then you’re also in luck: The developers added keyboard layout customization options in a recent patch, which makes SteamWorld Dig’s PC port just about perfect! It’s a good sign that I never once thought about switching to a gamepad away from the keyboard - not even due to the game’s relatively peculiar default key bindings.
Now, understandably, there has been some criticism about the game’s length. Personally, I expected less of game time than I got, actually, and found the game’s running length to be pretty much on the mark. I got about five hours of tight action from it, in fact taking my time to mine about as much as I could. It’s certainly possible to breeze through the game in two and a half hours - that’s an achievement, too - but that would require knowledge of the game’s inner workings.
Streamlined is the word I’m looking for; there’s little filler, and almost no repetition to speak of - unless, that is, you count the actual digging process! (After one playthrough, I’m 5,000 tiles into the 15,000 required for unlocking the pertinent achievement.)
SteamWorld Dig: A Fistful of Dirt is available now, on Steam, and on the Nintendo eShop.
The game was provided to us by Image & Form for the purpose of this review.