Platform: Nintendo 3DS / Genre: Platformer, Digger
Developer: Image & Form / Publisher: Image & Form
One of the hallmarks of some of the best 3DS eShop games, is their ability to take a simple, repetitive task, and make it enjoyable. From Pushmo to HarmoKnight and more, a select few 3DS titles have proven this concept to be a sound strategy for player enjoyment.
SteamWorld Dig: A Fistful of Dirt follows this same strategy, and I’m pleased to say, it does so to great success. A puzzle platformer with rich exploration, clever resource management, and a solid progression system — the title provides much to discover, and a lot of fun to be had along the way.
SteamWorld Dig begins with the main protagonist, a small steam bot named Rusty, arriving in the dust-covered town of Tumbleton where he hopes to claim the mine left to him by his late uncle. One short cutscene later, and the player is dumped right into the exploratory action that makes up the majority of the game. Rusty meets the first of the colorful townsfolk, receives a rudimentary pickaxe, and from there, it is left to the player to explore and discover the many secrets of the Tumbleton mine.
To be sure, the narrative concept is a simple one, however, the lack of a complex story is not in any way detrimental to SteamWorld Dig. Much of what makes the game’s world feel so special is the matter-of-fact way characters deliver the narrative-based dialog. It’s a steampunk western where steam bots have always resided, electricity is almost magical, and humanity is nothing more than a legend passed from one steam bot to the next. Everything about the narrative and surrounding world fits perfectly within the game.
This is only enhanced by the colorful, varied artwork than spans SteamWorld Dig. As players dig deeper, and explore ever more of the Tumbleton Mine, they will dig their way through three distinct areas. Each section, which cleverly blends with the last, has its own unique art style. From the traditional dust choked upper mine shafts, to the metallic, almost alien underworld, everything is beautifully rendered.
Exploration deeper into the mine is cleverly balanced by player tool progression. The deeper Rusty digs, the less effective his tools become, and the more essential it is for the player to invest in upgrades. This is where that simple game mechanic method comes into play.
SteamWorld Dig has a wonderfully devious gameplay loop to it. Players dig to find valuable minerals and gems. They then invest the gold earned by selling these to upgrade Rusty so he can dig deeper and reach previously inaccessible areas. Rinse and repeat.
The end result is that the more the player explores, the more the mine inevitably opens up to even greater opportunities for discovery. Over the course of the game, Rusty goes from being a simple steam bot with a dull pickaxe, to a ultra-powered mining machine, complete with a powerful drill, steam and electricity powered jump augments, and more. Players can use gold to upgrade Rusty’s tools, increase his health, and water supply, and even increase the duration of his lantern, allowing for longer mining sessions before returning to the surface.
This is not to say that SteamWorld Dig’s exploratory game design is not without its fair share of problems, one of the biggest of which, is the ability of the player to trap themselves in the mine.
You see, every swing of the pickaxe is permanent in SteamWorld Dig. Once a section of earth has been obliterated in the Tumbleton Mine, it remains gone for the entirety of the game. While this becomes less problematic towards the end of the game when Rusty has significantly more mobility, it can lead to some frustrating mistakes towards the beginning.
Players who are not careful can actually dig themselves into a not-so-proverbial pit, from which even Rusty, with his wall jumping maneuverability, can not escape. This results in the player being forced to either self destruct, or dig deep enough to find the mine’s next exit point, hopefully doing so before they run out of light.
While this can present a somewhat disconcerting learning curve, most players are like to catch on quickly, digging channels into the mine that allow for clever platforming back to the surface.
Players will spend the majority of their time in SteamWorld Dig, going through the aforementioned gameplay loop of digging up and selling valuables. However, Rusty does inevitably run into a number of enemies — enemies, who will quickly, and mercilessly turn Rusty into a heap of scrap metal in the blink of an eye. These enemies are particularly problematic towards the beginning of the game, when there are few upgrades to help you deal with them, but luckily, most players will be able to mete out some hefty destruction of their own as the game progresses.
Despite these issues, SteamWorld Dig is a game that comes with a significant sense of purposeful clarity. There are no difficulty levels, no obtuse story to get in the way, and no fixed linearity. Refreshingly, players are free to explore and discover everything that the title has to offer from the very beginning.
Whether players choose to shoot to the bottom of Tumbleton Mine, or spend all their time exploring every nook and cranny the dusty old place has to offer, there’s quality value to be had in the title. My first playthrough, filled with hours of additional exploring, came in at a solid eight hours. It should be noted however, that determined players, digging straight to the objective, can complete the game in half that time if they so desired.
Additionally, SteamWorld Dig features a clever rating system that ranks the player’s completion time, amount of money earned, and number of electric orbs collected. This adds some additional replayability for the perfectionists out there, but even those who don’t feel like chasing a perfect rating, can load up a completed save and finish exploring any part of the mine they may have missed in their playthrough.
In the end, SteamWorld Dig represents a tremendously successful combination of simplicity and player freedom. The title’s clever layering of new mechanics, with increasingly dense exploration is sure to leave many players well satisfied. While the game is not without fault, it takes a few solid ideas and executes on them with near flawless precision. If you’re the type of person who enjoys smartly designed, well executed platformers, do yourself a favor and add Steamworld Dig to your download list.
+ Lots of Exploration
+ Solid Player Progression
+ Non-intrusive Story
+ Addictive Gameplay Loop
– Stiff Learning Curve