Sometimes you can tell straight away whether or not you’re going to enjoy a game. While plenty of titles can take time to grow on you, requiring a lot of investment before you truly appreciate them, on occasion something comes along which immediately grabs you and won’t let go, providing substantial enjoyment from the moment you start playing to the time the final credits roll.
Steamworld Dig is a perfect example of the latter.
Originally released on the 3DS this past August and now available in HD on Steam (the version being reviewed here), Image & Form’s latest game is a joy from start to finish; a fact that has resulted in the title receiving critical acclaim, recognition and love from players, and has seen the game placed on several Game-of-the-Year award shortlists this winter.
The basic premise is simple – you’re a robot called Rusty, one among many on a version of Earth in the far future where humanity is long-since extinct and robots now rule. Think of it as Planet of the Apes, except with more screws and circuit boards, instead of fur and fangs, and you’re halfway there.
Upon pressing the start button and getting past the title screen, the first thing you’ll notice about the game is the lovely presentation. Visuals are simple but well done, with some nice character design and backgrounds which really come into their own in HD. The game was good-looking in its original form on the 3DS, but the benefit of being in high-definition on PC really lets the quality of the artwork shine.
To go along with the visual side of things, some well-judged audio helps to convey the Wild-West atmosphere as you get started, with Rusty arriving in a town that could have been plucked from any number of Spaghetti Westerns. You half expect Clint Eastwood to saunter on the screen with his trademark grimace; it may be a very different game from Red Dead Redemption, but it does just as good a job in the way it handles its theme.
Gameplay results in the title coming across as some sort of prodigal lovechild of Metroid, Boulder Dash and Mr Driller. Upon grabbing your starting pickaxe and descending into the town’s mine, you’ll find yourself digging out shafts underground, plotting paths to avoid falling rocks and uncovering gems, which need to be sold back in town to afford further upgrades such as a stronger pickaxe, bigger storage pouches, ladders and longer-lasting lanterns.
The farther you descend through the mine, the harder the material you’ll come across; upgrading your pickaxes allows you to dig through the earth faster and mine through obstacles that were previously impeding your progress. Longer-lasting lanterns means you can extend your digging time without ending up in the dark and you can also place permanent light sources around the environment to keep your subterranean tunnel network illuminated. As a result, gameplay becomes a regular back-and-forth between the town above and the mine below, as you frequently return above ground to sell your wares and strengthen your equipment in the local store.
This to-and-fro, far from being aggravating, means that the next upgrade is never too far away and adds to the motivation to keep playing when you really should be getting on with other things. You’ll tell yourself that you’re only going to play for five more minutes, then before you know it, you’ll realize that you’re still glued to the screen an hour later and the cats are crying for their dinner. You negligent monster.
Aside from the purchasable upgrades, you’ll also explore abandoned caves that require careful navigation and some thought in order to reach their secrets. Achieve that, though, and you’ll be rewarded with new abilities – a super-jump, for example, or a sprinting dash which enables you to cross sections of the mine that crumble underneath. For roughly every half-hour of play (the game contains about 8-9 hours of content, not counting the Easter eggs that have been peppered through the game for the Steam release) you’ll gain some sort of upgrade to your skillset or equipment. There’s a constant feeling that you’re making progress and being rewarded for it.
Rusty also comes equipped with a handy wall jump, so you never have to worry about digging yourself into a hole you can’t climb out of, and the clever placement of obstacles and gems mean that you’ll be digging as much sideways as down. There’s always something off to one side that will catch your eye and pique your curiosity.
In addition, later in the game you’ll be able to purchase teleporting devices. The first one you’ll come across is already placed in the world, allowing you to quickly return to town without having to climb all the way back up through the tunnels you’ve carved out, but later you’re able to purchase your own and place them wherever you want, something which can save a lot of time and alleviate the tedium of needing to backtrack whenever your pockets are full of treasure.
The story is pretty simple, avoiding exposition dumps. Some gentle humor and memorable characters ensure that the tale is told in a way that is pleasing throughout, never intruding too much on the enjoyment of the actual gameplay. Many games bludgeon the player over the head with huge exposition dumps, but Image & Form have demonstrated that they have an excellent eye for pacing and gameplay flow. A couple of sections will have you scratching your head trying to think of a solution, but there’s nothing that will spoil your enjoyment and when you stumble on the solution you’ll kick yourself for having been stuck in the first place.
Differences between this latest release and the original version on the 3DS are minor. The visual upgrade is the most obvious, of course, but additional work has also been put into the animation and a few secrets have been dotted around the game to be discovered. In addition, it comes with the usual array of Steam achievements, trading cards and the like. It’s a neat package which adds just enough to feel like a worthy purchase if you own the original, without including large amounts of extra content which would make owners of the previous version feel like they are missing out.
If you were to get picky about things, then you might think that the length of the game is slightly short. A dedicated player could finish the title wanting more, but to be fair to Image & Form, what it lacks in sheer volume of content it makes up for in quality; besides, it’s always better to finish a game and wanting it to continue than it is to get bored halfway through because of too much filler padding out the experience. There’s enough here to leave you feeling satisfied without the risk of ennui setting in.
So the story is good, the visuals are charming and the sound is understated but evocative of the theme. Difficulty, pacing and flow are well-judged, and the game is short enough to leave you wanting more whilst leaving you satisfied that you’ve got your money’s worth. In every single area that matters, Steamworld Dig is a masterclass of game design. Although the gameplay is kept simple and it isn’t about to cause a revolution, from start to finish it is an absolute joy to play. You could say that they’ve mined a rich vein of creativity.
Image & Form started out making business presentations back in the mid-nineties before moving into game development some years later. Based on the evidence in Steamworld Dig, they should have made the transition to game design a lot sooner. We look forward immensely to whatever they come up with next.
Steamworld Dig is a perfect example of a developer digging deep… and striking 18-carat gaming gold. It isn’t perfect – no game is – but it’s pretty damn close. And that’s certainly not something to be sniffed at.