Hitting the Mother Lode – SteamWorld Dig: A Fistful of Dirt
This game was reviewed on the 3DS.
In Image & Form’s SteamWorld Dig you play as a robot miner in an old west town. Rusty the steambot has inherited a mine in Tumbleton from his late uncle. At first the game is all about digging for loot, but gradually you learn that there’s something strange underground – something your uncle left for you other than treasure.
The basic action of the game is to dig. You begin with a pickaxe and the shallow mine that your uncle has left you. You can swing the pickaxe up, down, left or right, to strike the square of soil just above, below or beside you. Initially, you can only break the blocks of gravelly, yellow soil, and it takes three strikes to break through. As you collect ore in your loot bag, you return to the surface to sell it to Dorothy, the trader. Every time you sell her a target amount of ore, the town levels up and new upgrades are available to buy. By leveling up the town you unlock more upgrades and bring more settlers to set up shop. Upgrading your pickaxe allows you to break different types of soil, and lets you break up earlier soils much faster. In this way, you can pound your way through the top layers faster and faster and you burrow to ever-deeper levels of the mine, full of deadly traps and monsters, and much bigger gems. Along the way you find new power-ups such as a double jump, or a drill that breaks blocks that the pickaxe cannot.
The play experience in the mine is very interesting. It is a natural maze, but more than that, it is a maze of your own creation. As you dig down, you create new passages and collapse existing ones. To climb out you can use the wall jump skill, to skip upwards on vertical surfaces. It is easy to descend, but much harder to climb out if you have not left yourself an escape route. This can get really tricky if you tunnel down through regenerating blocks, which reappear and seal off your exit after a few seconds.
The digging and exploring would mean nothing if it were not fun in and of itself. Especially as you dig deeper there are places where you must watch where you dig lest you spring a trap; you need to navigate around unbreakable blocks to reach the breakable ones, and you must build staircases out of soil blocks so that you can reach treasures that are just out of reach. All of this must be done without destroying the soil that acts as a platform, letting you get close enough that you can dig out precious ore. If you dig too carelessly then much of the treasure will be inaccessible until late in the game, when you have all of your tools for navigating and tunneling.
The developers clearly understand the needs of players in adventures games such as this. They give you very fair shortcuts to return to town. At the start of each of the mine’s three sections there is a shortcut that leads straight to the surface and once you have discovered it underground, it remains open above ground as well. At intervals in the maze there are also teleporters that can take you back to the surface, but the telepod on the surface will only return you to the teleporter that you last used. If you have collected enough of the rare and precious Orbs then you can buy teleporters from Cranky’s shop. These can be placed in the mine when you’re in a real bind, or just want to build your own shortcut. Beware, though: Orbs are hard to come by and are needed to buy the best upgrades late in the game.
There is a fantastic timing element as well. You only have a small amount of lantern oil to light the furnace in your belly; as your oil gauge dwindles, so does your light, until eventually you are left in the dark depths. Once in a while you may find some oil hidden in the earth, and an enemy critter may drop some, but you can’t rely on this. When it gets dark, you can’t see what type of soil is around you or what hazards are there, and it becomes impossible to dig with any certainty. You really must return to the surface before the oil runs out.
In addition to the oil, you must also empty your loot bag. This fills up pretty quickly, and when it is full then there is no more reason to dig. Limiting the time spent in the maze like this really makes you feel the work that you’re doing. You learn your paths through the earth well; you see the progress that you’ve made, and really feel it in the extended trips that you can take once you expand your lantern, sack, health and water tanks.
The music and art style contribute a lot to the atmosphere of the mine. Each section of the mine has its own setting: the first section is full of warm, sandy-coloured soil, with pipes and giant gears in the background; in the second area, muddy soil and glowing radioactive wreckage litters the mine; and in the third area, strange, lost technology can be seen everywhere. Rusty himself is a hunched-over, rough-and-tumble robot with a dusty cowboy hat, some heavy gloves, and glimmering green eyes that stand out in the scenery.
The soundtrack is sparse and the intro theme is honestly the best track in the game, sounding like an old Western movie. The rest of the soundtrack makes the mine feel lonely, and it suits the moods of the backgrounds in each stage, but at the same time the tunes aren’t memorable or remarkable. It would be much better if the sound was catchy, and somehow encouraged you to continue working the earth.
The other shortcoming of SteamWorld Dig is that the game feels very short. Once you’ve reached the bottom of the third stage, you are asked to revisit earlier areas. It’s great fun to blast your way through the top layer of the maze with all of your upgraded tools, but it feels like the game is ending just when you get into the swing of it.
While it lasts, SteamWorld Dig is an addictive and attractive adventure into the depths of the earth. Every trip down into the mine is rewarding, as you carry up huge bags of treasure and become stronger when you return to town, ready to strike it even richer and dig down even deeper. For fans of adventure, puzzle, or action games, this is easily a must-have.
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