Once Upon a Time in the West.
Stepping onto the sun-scorched plains of the wild, wild west — or, more accurately, the PlayStation Store — this week is Image & Form’s 2D platformer, SteamWorld Dig. Much like its unassuming protagonist, the company’s side-scrolling adventure has clambered up the gaming hierarchy over the last six months. Once a 3DS eShop exclusive, the digital mining expedition is currently available through PC platforms and, more recently, on PlayStation 4 and PlayStation Vita as part of Sony’s annual Spring Fever promotion.
Upon first glance, it’d be easy to dismiss SteamWorld Dig as a smorgasbord of different genres. From Spelunky’s loot-mongering to the resource management found in Terraria, the game undoubtedly draws from other titles in the side-scrolling genre. However, after several wondrous playthroughs, I soon discovered Image & Form’s title to be much, much more than the sum of its assimilated parts — the wild west, brave explorer, is just the tip of the iceberg.
After arriving on the outskirts of Tumbleton, players step into the worn, tattered boots of Rusty, a nomadic wanderer who inherits a mine from his Uncle Joe. In fact, it’s as though the mechanised Josef from Machinarium hopped through a teleporter and onto the Western Frontier. Nevertheless, with precious few details to go on, our protagonist sets forth to uncover the mysteries below the petite mining town.
From this point, SteamWorld Dig wastes little time in getting started. As soon as you touchdown in the mine, it isn’t long before you have a pickaxe in hand — your trusty companion amidst the dark caverns beneath Tumbleton. Granted, the beginning of the game unfolds rather slowly, considering that Rusty’s limited abilities makes for gradual progress as you chisel your own, bespoke way through the environment.
That said, the gameplay itself is intuitive and incredibly rewarding. Uncovering secret passageways and precious ore in exchange for power-ups may be an age-old formula, but the steady stream of unlockable items and upgrades means it never tires. So, once you emerge from an expedition, blinking into the sunlight, pumping your hard-earned progress into the town’s economy is enormously satisfying.
Moreover, at the heart of the game, there’s a subtle arc of blue-collar triumph; a rags-to-riches tale that allows a humble steambot without a pickaxe to his name to overcome the odds and become the hero of Tumbleton. And thankfully, too, considering that the game’s side characters are wholly unremarkable.
Although certain residents imbue the mining town with a sense of personality — from the brash Lola to the pretentious Dandy — they lack the depth required to elicit any form of attachment beyond a stop-gap between shopping and digging for treasure. If SteamWorld Dig’s narrative falls flat, though, its excellent design and Western aesthetic do more than enough to compensate.
In essence, the control scheme is rather straightforward. Given the game’s 2D interface, SteamWorld Dig’s dank, claustrophobic world is essentially a tiled environment, with your choices guiding Rusty along four cardinal directions. It’s a concise system that doesn’t require a laborious tutorial, and drilling through the depths of the earth feels organic and, in a sense, liberating. What’s more, accessing your inventory instantaneously through the DualShock 4’s touchpad — or, in the Vita’s case, via the touchscreen — is a neat touch, and one the makes the transition from PC to console that little bit smoother.
As a general rule of thumb, the farther down you venture, the more treacherous the path. In fact, tunnelling through the dirt is consistently tense thanks to your finite reserve of light. Not only does this add that extra incentive to return topside and replenish your supply, it also introduces an element of resource management as you sidestep radioactive acid and dynamite-wielding zombies. Those three resources in questions encompass health, light — which also affects your field of vision — and water. And, given Rusty’s steambot anatomy, it’s the latter asset that will inevitably inform your method of approach.
You see, after you unlock (or assimilate) the first hoard of abilities, you’ll discover just how water-reliant our protagonist really is. Whether it’s the mechanical drill or the ever-trusty Steam Punch, navigating through the mines and indeed around enemies becomes a question of risk over reward. Stumble too close to a dormant critter, for example, and you’ll waken an enemy from their slumber. Mind you, after tunnelling your way to the depths of the underground, these crustacean nasties act as beacons for potential item drops — your very own source of fossil fuel, if you will.
Whether it’s luring the larger, turtle-like critters under boulders or pushing onwards in spite of your ailing lantern, this element of strategy introduces a genuine sense of tension as you venture ever so further to grasp that extra shard of Gravitonium. Curtail your dependency on water-based abilities will no doubt extend your potential window of time beneath the surface; adopt a blasé approach, though, and you’ll soon find yourself up shit creek without a shortcut.
And so, the inevitable backtracking comes into play. Once you run out of H20 or, crucially, oil for your lantern, exploring further into the depths becomes nigh on impossible. Thankfully, the game introduces teleporters and steampunk-esque pneumatic tubes the further you dig, which circumvents the potential chore of clambering back to the surface manually — particularly in the early stages, when your rucksack is limited to three spaces.
Though your overriding goal is to burrow deeper, there are abandoned caves scattered along the way than can be completed once you unlock new abilities in true, Metroidvania fashion. There’s a surprising variety in the environment design, too, so once you bypass the Old World and touchdown in the cybernetic Vectron, that joyous sense of discovery never fades.
Granted the overarching campaign may be on the shorter side, and the world itself only stretches down to around 870m, but SteamWorld Dig was built for multiple playthroughs. Given the density of the environment along with the abundance of customisation incentives — particularly the likes of the Uber Armour and Diamond Pickaxe — you’re subtly encouraged to stray from the beaten path on more than one occasion.
Because in truth, that core, beaten path took me a little over three hours to complete on my first round — just shy of the speed run achievement, too. Although, it’s a testimony to the game that I immediately went back for seconds; only this time, I took up Rusty’s pickaxe on the Vita.
Much like Hotline Miami and Stealth Inc., SteamWorld Dig includes the cross-buy feature, and although the lack of cross-save is disappointing, beginning an all-new adventure allowed me to discover one of the game’s true, hidden gems: procedurally-generated worlds. And while the environmental changes aren’t as apparent as, say, Spelunky, the game introduces just the right amount of variety with each new playthrough to peak your curiosity.
That said, the story arc and progression system feel a little out of sync. For example, once you destroy the pair of generators, you’re ushered towards taking on Voltbot — the game’s final boss — in the lower-levels just as you unlock the most enviable weapons and abilities. In this sense, your subterranean adventure feels as though it’s been cut short — disappointingly tapered just as it was starting to pick up steam.
Furthermore, while one, ultimate showdown is effective for story purposes, as it ties your own mining expedition with that of your Uncle Joe’s, the introduction of smaller, satellite boss fights would have brought a welcome change of pace. Unfortunately, almost to its own fault, SteamWorld Dig is one-dimensional, with scarcely any puzzles or notable side-quests to flesh out its intriguing world.
Alas, Image & Form’s 2D platformer is a succinct and overly fun venture onto the arid plains of the wild west. And though the side-scrolling adventure lacks the depth and content to reinvent the wheel, SteamWorld Dig strikes such an addicting balance between risk and reward that it deserves a place among your digital collection.
This review is based on the PlayStation 4 version of the game, which we were provided with.
For SteamWorld Dig, it’s a case of the great, the good and the mildly disappointing. Image & Form’s Western-infused expedition may be hamstrung by its limited scope, but the breezy platforming and addictive progression system will have you delving into the labyrinthine depths of Tumbleton on more than one occasion.