Steam World Dig – Final Review

Steam World Dig isn’t the type of game I would usually play; the 2-D genre to which it belongs is like this unexplored frontier for me. True, growing up I played ports of Donkey Kong Country and have had the obligatory exposure to the Mario games, but beyond those titles, I know next to nothing about the genre. Still, I gravitated to this title partially out of the whimsical screenshots present on the e-shop; crisp and creative, I was immediately taken in. Also, I was in keen search for something more subdued and relaxing, after the bold, bombastic, over the top Borderlands 3. I certainly found those tamer qualities present here; the game is very relaxing, though this is in no ways to dismiss it as boring or lacking of challenge. Indeed, there is still present within the game tension – it is just of a decidedly different sort. Whereas in that previous title, failure or success seemed – at least in part – out of my control, here, every mistake I made could be attributed to my own personal failings and lack of forethought. Totally lacking in any sense of overwhelming cheapness, the tranquil nature of the game is reinforced; it is this weird balancing act of the tense and the calm, though, the majority of the time, the calm aspects remain dominant

The story on offer here is very simplistic, existing only to provide a framework for the gameplay. The robotic player character, Rusty, explores a sprawling mine, digging deeper, ever deeper for clues as to the disappearance of his uncle, the similarly robotic Joe. Very little is revealed in the opening and, at the end, things are kind of left dangling in the air – no satisfying resolution is achieved. Still, I wasn’t entering with any great expectations narratively, so I can’t say I was exactly disappointed – the game is just different, placing always gameplay above all other things. Usually I prefer some deeper, more compelling motivation and narrative, but even if here things are flawed and lacking, at least these elements are minimalistic and non-intrusive, rather than objectively bad. As the story progresses, the cast of characters on offer steadily grows numerically, the machine like companions and vendors planting themselves in the small overworld, just above the entrance to the sprawling, multi-levelled mines, where the vast majority of the gameplay takes place. These characters do have brief snippets of updating dialogue, issuing new plot-centered lines once some threshold has been passed in the mine, but it is never very exciting or insightful, again reflecting the unambitious (if intentional) role of the narrative. Really, these characters – admittedly diverse in terms of design, some male, some female – serve a more passive role, a role that is absolutely essential. They serve as the primary vendors in the game, willing to exchange coin and resources for health refills or, critically, crucial player upgrades.

These upgrades are rather diverse, a litany purchaseable, some more exciting than others. This wide variety brings about a strange sort of complexity to the title, forcing the player to choose one upgrade over the other – the ore which serves as currency is in amble supply, but it is finite, increasingly difficult to obtain as further tunnels are constructed, Rusty descending lower and lower. Many of these early upgrades revolve around boosting the power of the handy pickaxe, perhaps Rusty’s greatest, most reliable tool, what he opens the game with. The drill, a powerful secondary weapon introduced later on, can also be buffed, receiving similar upgrades to those available for the axe. There are upgradeable lanterns, too, which extend the duration of spelunking, before Rusty is left in the dangerous, crippling dark, and forced to return to the surface. Inventory size can also be increased, while better armor is also purchaseable. Rather early on, there are special hydraulic abilities introduced, also having their own upgrade paths. The resource costs associated with these abilities can be lowered, while the water storage capacity can be increased. It is a very smart, deceptively complex and elaborate system, and there is this constant, wonderful sense of progression. All of this is especially notable as experience points and complicating numbers are totally lacking, setting this game’s progression systems at odds with so many other mainstream video games. Everything here has been streamlined, though this in no ways robs the game of its complexities. Similarly, the very nature of these systems results in a welcoming accessibility. But at its heart, the game is focused on digging, constant digging, a quest for resources and betterment.

Before being introduced to the powerful, mentioned game changing drill, the double jump, or the more eccentric water-based abilities, the game revolves slowly around the pickaxe, initially very basic and even unexciting. This device is fine, though descent can be rather slow at times. While the game is straightforward, it can still be punishing on occasion. I got about one hour into my first playthrough when I realized I had, basically, put myself into an unwinnable situation; I could travel below quite easily, but due to my digging strategy – or lack thereof – reascension became this great impossibility. This wasted hour did bring about a frustration, but it was a frustration I brought upon myself. After coming to grips with the systems, I never found myself in a similar situation, though there were some instances where disaster did seem imminent. There were a few times, for instance, where my path seemed futile, inaccessible blocks or enemies hindering my reascent. Luckily, in these cases I was able to employ the dangerous, very situational dynamite, which can absolutely wreck the mine – usually for the worst. Still, eeking out success here was very satisfying, as it seemed to elicit stimulation, problem-solving, and the cerebral. Digging blindly for resources can result in an easy death. Strategy, then, is absolutely necessary. If things do get overwhelming, there is a handy feature – self-destruction. This option intentionally destroys Rusty, sending his mangled machine body back to the surface, in exchange for a hefty blow to the bank. I never used this, though if I didn’t adapt my strategy early on, it might have become a frequent occurrence. Skirting this is fantastic, as the resource drain can be ridiculously high, detracting 50% of total wealth. Fortunately, any minerals dropped upon death are recoverable, but either way, death is not something to be taken lightly.

Most deaths can be attributed to three factors: player mistake, ruthless enemies, and environmental hazards, which exist in abundance, particularly in the late game. The diversity of enemy types is lacking greatly, there being only a handful spread throughout the game. Combat is, unfortunately, a very simplistic affair. The foe which appears most often is this smallish creature who coasts along the ground. One strategy which greatly contributes to success involves cornering the beast, then striking at him at the appropriate time. They are dull to fight. Some of the greatest tension arises, though, by the appearance of certain more threatening enemy types. There is a turtle who can project spikes from its shell, easily destroying the surrounding dirt, making traversal difficult or impossible, wrecking the carefully constructed tunnels. They were quite horrifying to encounter, though even they are bested by dynamite-wielding foes in the very late game, who pose a still fiercer threat. Environmentally, there are rocks, which can be unlodged if the supporting dirt is removed, falling on and crushing the player, reinforcing the need for strategy and planning. Turrets also make an appearance, themselves threatening, armed with high-tech, robotic lasers. Overall, I found the difficulty level to be spot on. At the ending screen, I was informed that I had experienced 27 deaths throughout my playthrough. This rather sounds a lot, but the frustration factor accompanying these deaths was usually minimal; I lost a bit of gold, but, undeterred, anxiously, and giddily proceeded below, to reclaim my gear, and to further search for answers. As a title, it is firm but fair.  

Just in line with the upgrades to be purchased on the surface, there is a secondary system of upgrades to be obtained within the mines proper. Scattered sparsely throughout the landscape, there are portals of sorts, which bestow more dramatic upgrades. Initially, a sprint feature is unlocked, which can be employed to jump somewhat higher, and increase maneuverability options. A massive vertical jump is then unlocked, Rusty rocketed upward at the cost of some of his precious water supply. This further increases the aggressiveness and security of digging options, Rusty now able to escape especially difficult situations. Many of these abilities, though, are very situational and rarely used. Still, it is again symbolic of the constant sense of progression. Alongside these abilities, there are still more notable upgrades: in one instance, hydraulics are installed upon Rusty, dampening and even preventing fall damage, which can be quite debilitating early on. A metal detector, which identifies resources on the map, is soon unlocked, though, most noticeably, a double jump is unlocked near the game’s conclusion. With these improvements, coupled with the improvements to weaponry, the end game feels decidedly different than the early game. I can’t quite make up my mind, though, on which stage I like more – the opening is simplistic and rewarding, the ending similarly rewarding but less awe-inspiring; some of the luster wore off.

Even if the luster and novelty wore off somewhat, the charm never did; the eccentric characters reinforce these charming aspects, with their beeps and boops, and their imaginative character designs bring about this endearing quality to the whole game. In the mines themselves, true staleness and boredom never set in because of the variety of environments. Rather than consisting of one large, sprawling map, so deep as to become difficult to navigate, the game is split up into three different areas. The starting area is basic, fulfilling the role of a traditional mine, aesthetically – while bright and crisp, it is not particularly imaginative; it is not boring, just rather uninspired, unoriginal. Later, though, a sort of swampy area is introduced, with mushrooms which can serve as spring-boards, and there is an overall atmospheric, exotic, and bizarre feeling to this map, decidedly different from the first explorable area. The final area is an advanced, futuristic zone, with a large number of turrets and other robotic devices, lending to this map a sort of electronic vibe. This world is a great example of the developers’ creativity – it is fascinating to consider that such a place could exist underground.

Touching briefly on the music. While minimalistic and dwelling largely in the background, it further establishes a whimsical mood, this mood connecting back to the soothing nature of the game overall. The sound effects are well done, (if too loud) and, mechanically, the game is perfect – digging, leaping, bouncing along walls, it is all perfectly done, very precise and snappy, and very intuitive. Beyond the progression, the greatest asset to the game is the sense of wonder it elicits with regards to exploration. It is kind of free form, with very vague objectives, like “explore further.” There is really no handholding here; Rusty is just set loose. At the ending of the game, the previous maps must be revisited, in a search to destroy quest-specific generators which dwell there. Sadly, there is really no other reason to revisit previous areas beyond this mission, as the value of resources to be found there is, comparatively speaking, rather low. This is disappointing. Towards the ending, too, the game falters a bit when it destroys the elements of exploration. For the first time in the entire game, there are map markers present. I get they did this for convenience and as assistance to the player, but it is this very jarring shift. Earlier, objectives would only appear when the player was in close proximity. I kind of wish the developers had stayed consistent here, that they continued to prioritize organic exploration.

If the journey leading up to the final boss was lackluster, the final confrontation, itself, was rather epic – if a bit frustrating, in a sharp break with the game overall. There is some sort of massive, lumbering, robotic figure who occupies a prominent area in the center of a large room. He spawns rapidly many enemies, employing at other times devastating laser beams, which can absolutely wreck Rusty, tasked with leaping about, avoiding fire, and destroying the generators which power the beast. There are three cycles of this, and then the game abruptly ends. There isn’t a great deal of resolution, revelations related to Joe, his past, and his expeditions within the bottomless mines. To be honest, I have kind of forgotten what exactly happened narratively, despite the fact that I completed the game last night. That is not a good thing to say. But the game was never about the story; it was always about the gameplay. Absolutely. And the gameplay is fantastic, with steady progression, tension, and a constant sense of reward. The charming characters, even if they are narratively inconsequential, really sell this bizarre, Western/Futuristic hybrid world. Right alongside my death counter, I was told my total playtime clocked in at a little over eight hours. This length rather surprised me, I having the expectation of a shorter experience. Still, that surprise was a pleasant one, and I had fun consistently throughout. If I could fault the game for anything, I would have to consider it as being somewhat unambitious. A tighter, more complex narrative, which really developed the mystery component surrounding Joe, would benefit the game immensely. Not every game needs a striking narrative, but a secondary reason for constant exploration and digging would only increase motivation within the player. I know a sequel has been released, and I am excited to try that – just not right away. Perhaps it will have a broader scope, with narrative heft. Either way, Steam World Dig is a fun, rewarding, if at times basic title, abounding with charm and deftly capable of evoking childlike wonder.  

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