Steam World Dig 2 – Final Review

Steam World Dig 2 possesses an abundance of charm, manifest in its various explorable environments, in the robotic NPC’s who inhabit them, each individually named, each possessive of a unique visual design, each accordingly possessing a distinct identity, almost all of them steeped in humor of some sort, humor marking a commonality. Furthering this commanding sense of charm, whimsical imagination abounds, the game displaying a rather unique fusion of science fiction and more traditional Western stylings – the sometimes arid, orangish desertscapes are contrasted sharply by those metallic figures peopling the desert. Formal voice acting is totally lacking, the game instead relying solely upon written dialogue to convey its narrative, a choice problematic for most people, though the excellent nature of the writing compensates for this potential flaw. Accompanying this dialogue are playful beeps and boops, simulating robotic speech patterns in a very clever, charming manner.

In addition to their inherently charming nature, the various environments explored are abounding in diversity, each possessing a certain aesthetic and atmospheric distinctness – a bold embracing of color and vibrancy elevates the engrossing, arresting nature of these maps, often large and sprawling in construction, extending deeper, ever deeper, almost cavernous. The first of these environments explored, though, lacks such physical depth, even as the Western components are especially dramatic – El Machino, a hub world of sorts, is a remarkable achievement. Being a sanctuary of sorts, it follows that most of the friendly, named NPC’s congregate here, imparting a sense of life, motion. This sanctuary, though, is now threatened, damning, destructive earthquakes striking with considerable frequency, leading to one of the game’s major plot points – investigate these earthquakes, discern their cause, and, potentially, resolve the issue, save El Machino. This threat, so imminent, only leads to considerable player agency, investment, even from the first.     

While such commanding agency is so early established, the game’s narrative morphs into a sort of slow burn, the opening hours seeing very few narrative developments, occurrences mostly devoid of any real consequence. A secondary plot thread is promptly introduced, to inject some intrigue and depth to the narrative – find Rusty, the protagonist Dorothy’s old friend and companion, long missing under mysterious circumstances. That thread monopolizes the narrative for some time, and is also where the slowness shines through, the beginning centering solely around the boring acquisition of information, the unravelling of a mystery. Rusty, being the protagonist of the first game and making considerable contributions in that narrative, has been transformed into an almost idealized figure, a literal savior of sorts – he must be saved, must be questioned. His disappearance, then, is of immense consequence, for all robots, this character idealization not exclusive to Dorothy.

In addition to the narrative thread regarding the earthquakes, that is the central motivation – plunge into the mines below, navigate them, salvage a fallen hero. That the narrative can be expressed so succinctly points to a certain shallowness, which is only validated as the narrative progresses; it is shallow, but, again, it is charming, owing to the environments and the characters, Dorothy’s character modelling and writing being particularly excellent, if minimalistic. An escalation of stakes gradually emerges, Dorothy herself becoming a hero and savior of sorts, and the conclusion – featuring a difficult boss fight – is of a very satisfying sort. Here, in the conclusion, a friend is turned foe, while many surprising revelations are advanced – Rusty was being exploited, manipulated, much to Dorothy’s horror. Still, this revelation evokes very little emotional response. What does elicit emotion, pathos, is the consideration of El Machino, its inhabitants. If Rusty is not absolved and rescued, if the ultimate antagonist and earthquakes are not bested, all will crumble, all will die. The campaign overall, then, is basic and mundane, even as intrigue is sought through the inclusion of two primary plot threads. It advances slowly, though it is not totally uninspired, and ultimately finds its footing, though after much stumbling.

The title’s gameplay is of a robust – though uncomplicated – sort, very accessible, boasting a highly compelling core gameplay loop. Central to this gameplay is, naturally, exploration, exploration of the various mines and other cavernous areas, seeing a gradual descent into their depths. Alongside this near perpetual descent comes the acquisition of various resources, each possessive of their own individual values, some of the more difficult to acquire being of a very valuable sort. Once ample resources have been gathered, or overall inventory space has been met, comes a reascension, a returning to El Machino where those resources can promptly be sold for gold, the game’s currency. With this gold in hand, it can be spent on a litany of various upgrades, which make exploration and combat easier – and more satisfying.

These upgrades, too, exist in considerable abundance, even though some are of a more mundane sort, seeing the expansion of overall health, the elongation of lantern oil, permitting longer excursions into the mines. These may be mundane, but they are still highly useful, necessary for success when considering the great depths ultimately reached by the late game. Here, then, is the cycle: dig, explore, and gather resources; ascend to the surface and sell those resources, then employ the currency received to purchase upgrades; then return to the mines and begin the cycle anew. It is a very simple gameplay construction, but it is immensely satisfying, satisfying most strongly because of these progression systems, every action seemingly pointing to progress, character growth. Even a basic experience system in place, points conferred upon defeating an enemy during exploration. This system is rather lackluster, the primary award being a boost to the value of goods sold, though it also permits the purchasing of more valuable, exotic upgrades – it is a welcome inclusion. As the cost for upgrades increases, increases are seen in the value of resources – a perfect balance is struck.    

Were the upgrades these resources purchase entirely lackluster, none of this would matter, gameplay strengths would be lessened. Fortunately, this is not so. Foundational upgrades are present, like the mentioned extensions to health and lantern capacity, though additional such upgrades are also present, like the expansion of Dorothy’s water reserves, highly useful when considering water permits her to employ her more dramatic robotic abilities. The strength of Dorothy’s pickaxe can also be bolstered, permitting more efficient digging, rocks and other obstacles disintegrating in fewer hits, permitting swifter navigation, descent. The greatest enhancements, though, center around a secondary currency found while exploring – golden colored cogs. With these, even more dramatic upgrades can be purchased, providing permutations to Dorothy’s core abilities. Many of these are of a very exotic, imaginative sort, and can change the gameplay in fundamental ways, sometimes to such an extent that the game can almost become broken.

As illustration, one purchasable upgrade limits the lantern’s oil reserves from ever dipping below fifty percent, permitting indefinite exploration, trips to the surface now undertaken solely to sell resources or to replenish health. It is a highly useful, though odd, inclusion, owing to its potential brokenness. As secondary illustration of these overpowered abilities, one such upgrade enables Dorothy’s water reserves to regenerate automatically, permitting almost permanent acquisition to her more useful abilities. Admittedly, the recharge rate is rather slow, and the ability is obtainable only in the very late game, but it also is very overpowered. The value of these cogs, then, is immense, and locating and obtaining them was accordingly a rewarding, joyous experience, only heightening the joys of exploration. Often difficult to obtain, many are located in more self-contained areas, detached from the larger maps proper, these areas actually abounding in puzzle solving, frequently posing considerable challenge. In an additionally clever maneuver, the obtainable upgrades can be enabled and disabled at will while above the surface in El Machino, resulting in impressive flexibility.

The game unabashedly belongs to the Metroid-Vania genre. Reflecting genre tropes, the obtaining of these skills and equipment upgrades often opens up new avenues for exploration, access to new areas, or at least altering how the old ones are navigated. From the first, Dorothy is relatively restricted in terms of mobility, with a low jump height, though a basic and highly useful climbing feature is present in the game, Dorothy able to leap deftly off of walls, permitting easier ascension. As the narrative progresses onward, a double jump is eventually obtained, as is a grappling hook, greatly enhancing the gameplay, simply increasing the enjoyment factor, already immense. Before such items are acquired, a certain cautiousness characterizes the gameplay – destroy the wrong patch of dirt, and a rock may fall from above, crushing Dorothy, ending her instantly. Similarly, dig about lazily, and returns to the surface may become difficult or even impossible.

But with the double jump and grappling hook in tow, such concerns disappear entirely – Dorothy is simply too mobile, too powerful, the grappling hook permitting her to escape from almost all situations. But outside of puzzle solving and the occasional usage to escape from such perilous scenarios, this particular item goes underutilized, a frustrating, odd gameplay decision, considering the creative acts that the item permits the player to execute – here is considerable missed potential. Manifold other upgrades are present, many centering around combat, a highly damaging drill being of particular note, tearing through blocks and opposition alike, and with considerable haste. It doesn’t break the game like certain other upgrades, but is another useful addition, as is a bomb launcher, increasing combat flexibilities while also bolstering the joys of exploration. The most dramatic upgrade, though, enables a brief levitation feature, empowering Dorothy with limited flight. The late game, then, is decidedly different from – and better than – the early game; progression is a remarkable achievement.   

The game is characterized by a certain casualness, accessibility, a more tranquil gameplay experience deliberately sought; the game is inherently calming, relaxing – and highly forgiving. Objects like the grappling hook and jet engine, while increasing flexibility and increasing enjoyability, only serve to destroy potential difficulty. True, before their acquisition some challenge is present, but it is promptly and totally destroyed. Furthering this forgiving casualness, the punishment for death is often very slight, only trivializing death. Upon Dorothy’s destruction, she is repaired, reassembled, transported back above to El Machino, permitted to restock, recover. Upon death, a number of collected resources are lost, but the number of lost resources is often very slight, as the totality of the player’s inventory is not lost, only a fraction – a small one – disappearing. They can never be recovered, true, but a purchaseable upgrade only lowers the penalties of death even further. The game, then, is too forgiving, showing a dearth of challenge. True, this does foster tranquility, as tension is largely lacking, which could be taken as a positive attribute – calmness, serenity, these are not objectively bad things. They can be excellent, in fact. But traditionally, in this game, a vast stock of resources will be on hand at death; were they totally drained away, the consequences of death would be enhanced – tension would arise. Furthering this triviality even more, the reserves of cash on hand are untouched, as is the total supply of collected gears – once obtained, they can be hoarded or spent, but never taken away.

But reflecting the emphasis upon tranquility, it is immensely enjoyable to merely delve into one of the various mines or other explorable locations, move about, gather resources, merely relax in a safe, inviting environment. This safeness, whatever its failings, imparts in the game a very distinct identity – so many modern games thrive on challenge, the Souls series and other games lauded – or despised – for their difficulty. Steam World Dig 2 is like the antithesis to those other titles, a relative anomaly. Focus required is slight, though minor resource considerations remain a consistent concern throughout, particularly when regarding water, that resource directly equivalent to power, permitting levitation, and all the more dramatic abilities. But beyond this management, and the initial management of lantern fuel, relatively little thought is required, save the basic tactical intelligence required to construct easily navigable tunnels. Also, if the usage of the grappling hook or jet engine were directly connected to the water reserves, the extent of tactical considerations would be amplified. Instead, they are independent, accessible always; tension is destroyed, essentially – tranquility abounds.   

Ample differentiation from environment to environment is present, while enemy diversity is considerable. The game is consistently engaging in this manner, as something new rests always just around the corner – seeing a new enemy type, unaware of their movement patterns, their precise health amounts or other quirks, makes for a particularly exciting adventure, as ponderances of their threat level instantly arise, even if, characteristically, that threat level is rather low, though certain enemy types are endowed with attacks not necessarily excessively damaging to Dorothy, but endowed with attacks which can literally tear apart the environments, destroying in an instant tunnel complexes oftentimes laboriously and tactically constructed – their threat level is immense. Initially combatted are small, horned enemies, easily dispatched. Late in the game, relative difficulty is achieved – relative, for tranquility is maintained to the last. Most dangerous are various wizard-like enemies, with considerable health, damage, and, most threateningly, the ability to teleport about the environments at will; they exist as compelling, if occasionally frustrating, foe, devastating at close range. Explosive enemies, meanwhile, destroy the tunnels with great rapidity and efficiency, though many of them can be avoided, some totally stationary, easily perceptible – a bit of added cautiousness here, an abandoning of haste, trivializes these enemies, who have the potential to be most threatening.

These explosive enemies, interestingly, are most prevalent in the game’s most visually arresting environment, Yarrow. Beautiful in its coloration and vibrancy, its exotic foliage – a stark break from the other environments – it is immensely enjoyable to explore. In efforts to inject some challenge, various environmental obstacles are also in place, as with various mushrooms, which push Dorothy about wildly on contact, making navigation more difficult, certainly, though they are more annoyances then actual threats, owing greatly to their inability to inflict any real damage upon Dorothy. Beyond aesthetics, then, Yarrow is perhaps most enjoyable to explore because there are some semblances of real challenge, another departure from everything which came before – challenge reigns here and here alone, with the mushrooms, the wizards, the explosive enemies; it truly elevates gameplay, this challenge and aesthetic beauty marking Yarrow as a stand out. Boss fights, while infrequent – and accordingly welcome – mark some occasional displays of difficulty, but they are often completable in two or three attempts, if not bested on the very first attempt. Demanding some player skill, requiring intimate knowledge of gameplay and mobility systems, they, too, are remarkable. The final boss best illustrates this, challenging but fair, not excessively punishing.  

Steam World Dig 2 excels in its evocation of place, abounding in atmosphere, fostering ample tranquility, punctuated by real challenge only occasionally. The various explorable environments are all visually distinct, though they are all linked by an abundance of whimsicality, creativity, though the tactics required to traverse them rarely change. Given the strengths of the gameplay systems – particularly the excellent progression systems – this lack of challenge is not a true failing, something insurmountable; it is merely different, and differentness is often a good thing. The mobility-enhancing grappling hook, the jet engine which permits limited levitation – these are welcome inclusions, elevating the gameplay even as they break it. Engaging music, meanwhile, also enhances the joys of exploration – the game is never dull to play. The narrative falters, certainly, lacking any real ambition or depth, even as a pair of distinct plot threads are explored, and this shallowness marks the game’s greatest failing, though it is tempered by an abundance of charm, the various NPC’s possessing compelling, humorous dialogue, injecting some life into the narrative.

Indeed, the game deliberately embraces a more lighthearted tone, only imparting further uniqueness – Steam World Dig 2 fully succeeds in forging its own distinct identity in a rather oversaturated genre. The Metroid-Vania elements are implemented very well here, though the game manages to avoid feeling derivative, building upon those mechanics rather than merely imitating them. The exploration components, right alongside progression systems, are another achievement; digging lower, ever lower, discovering new resource types, new enemies, only results in a perpetual maintenance of freshness. As an experience, then, the title is mostly flawless, mired only by an unengaging narrative and a considerable lack of challenge, difficulty. With a very short playtime and an overall inviting nature, it is certainly a journey worth undertaking, even for those generally opposed to the genre.

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