By Andrew Matt
Deep below the surface, I labor away with my pickaxe, trying to move ever deeper in my search for riches. I break through layer after layer, until I come across a small cache of rubies in the bedrock that are worth a substantial amount of gold; I've hit the jackpot. What other treasures might I find down at these great depths I'm uncertain of, but I have the taste for more. I realize my lantern light is dwindling and the cavern getting darker. I need to return to the surface soon, but the possible rewards to be had at my location are incredibly tempting. Do I press on and risk the darkness and the threats it holds to get more of those oh-so-valuable minerals, or do I make the long trek back to the surface to cash in on my loot? SteamWorld Dig provides you with a game full of risk and reward as you try and make it big in this unique platformer.
SteamWorld Dig places you in the role of Rusty, a steam-powered robot who has come to the town of Tumbleton after receiving a claim to the local mine from his Uncle Joe. Upon arrival, you discover that your uncle has passed away within the mine. To uncover the mystery behind his death, you set out to delve into the depths below Tumbleton in search of clues. The story doesn't get much more complex or deep from there, mainly unfolding in conversation with other characters that populate the town. The story mainly becomes background filler, giving room for the true star of the show to shine: SteamWorld Dig's addictive gameplay.
Digging is the game's simple core mechanic, with your main motivation being the hunt for various valuable minerals hidden underground. Minerals can be traded for gold, which in turn can be used on upgrades to make the process of excavating for more minerals more efficient. As you dig through the mines you will also discover new skills that will radically change how you approach the game, the first major ones being the introduction of a steam-powered jumping ability and drill. These skills require water, which can be found in pools littered throughout the mines, in order to be used.
The things working against your ability to descend deeper and deeper into the mine is the availability of light. Rusty has a passive, solar-powered lantern that diminishes over time, reducing the light radius around him eventually to total darkness when its resource bar is fully depleted. If you decide to press on with minimal light, you eventually will be mining into blocks of the earth without the knowledge of what you are drilling into. Unbreakable blocks of earth can fall down and crush you from above Dig Dug style, while in the midsection of the game TNT barrels hidden in the rock become a threat that could lead to an untimely death.
This risk with light leads into how SteamWorld Dig manages death. Unlike some games where death may be permanent or you respawn at the same location, SteamWorld Dig utilizes a penalty mechanic where you lose half of the gold and drop the loot you're holding in the location that you perish before being respawned at the town's surface. Considering that the randomly generated levels only contain a finite amount of minerals you can dig up, this loss can add up quickly with multiple deaths and potentially block you from the valuable upgrades the shops offer in town.
SteamWorld Dig is a treat of a game that is easy to pick up, but hard to put down. What really makes SteamWorld Dig tick is how everything comes together to make a surprisingly deep resource management game. You could be low on light and need to debate making the long trek up your winding pathways to recharge on the surface, or you may have depleting supplies of water that require you to drill further down into the mine in an effort to find more. You constantly find yourself evaluating your position and trying to decide if you should make calculated risks to push yourself forward in an attempt to get that next oh-so-sweet upgrade. You'll soon find yourself entranced in the ascent and descent of your mine as hours melt away.
Reinforcing the game's well-balanced resource act is a charming art style, enhanced in its port from the 3DS to the PC. Hints of old worlds gone by can be seen in the portraits painted in the background of the game, and there is a distinct but gradual change as you dig deeper and deeper into the earth. Visuals overall are bright and crisp, aided by being displayed in much higher resolutions, looking particularly stunning at 1080p. The soundtrack is impeccable, with a twangy western theme with a whistling melody that will surely be ingrained into your head. Sound design is also pleasing; whether it's your pickaxe clanging off metal or the poofing noise made from performing a steam jump, everything has a satisfying ring to it.
There truly is very little to be upset with when playing through SteamWorld Dig, but some small gripes do remain. The addition of new skills from the storyline do make overcoming new challenges easier, but unlike platformers like Guacamelee!, it doesn't feel necessary to retrace your tracks and get to new, previously unexplored regions. While plenty of easter eggs can be found in the structure platforming areas, it is lacking in the main portion of the mine. As you're primarily scouring for minerals to collect, additional resource to find would've made sense to include. The ascent and descent of your mine may also become a tedious task to some players, as it becomes a burdensome chore if you are not truly invested into the game. Lastly, and perhaps the largest shortcoming of SteamWorld Dig, is the distinct lack of daily challenges, co-op, or leaderboards. While these are features that aren't necessary to enjoy the game, they would have pushed SteamWorld Dig to a new level and make it nearly a masterpiece.
SteamWorld Dig is a treat of a game that is easy to pick up, but hard to put down. Randomly generated levels and the finite amount of resources in the world encourages multiple playthroughs, giving a great level of replayability. Mastering the art of digging through the earth below Tumbleton is an enjoyable journey of risk and reward, one that will take players about five to seven hours to complete with some thorough exploration. If you are a fan of Dig Dug or Spelunky, you will surely find hours of entertainment to be had in this addicting and original experience.