Admittedly, I don’t delve too deep into the Indie scene. Not for a lack of interest: there are plenty of games that interest me, but for this reason or that, I never seem to play any of them. Maybe it’s because my time is taken up by the big budget titles that seem to be coming out in steady succession these past few months. And then there is SteamWorld Dig: A Fistful of Dirt on the 3DS. Combining the best elements of Metroid and, umm… digging (?), SteamWorld Dig has forever changed my outlook on the Indie game.
The town of Tumbleton: a small, Western-style locale complete with saloon, watering hole, and … robots. SteamWorld Dig puts you in the boots of Rusty, a cowboy robot who winds up in a traditional Western town after receiving a notice from your uncle about a mine in said town. The mine is the only thing Tumbleton really has going for it, so it comes as a bit of a surprise when you start to find odd mechanical baddies down in its depths. Story isn’t even in the backseat of this game; it’s damn near non-existent. There are very few characters to interact with (five total, maybe?), and the plot is as thin as watered down soup. Fortunately for you though, you’re not here for the story.
You’re here to dig! And dig you shall!
The best way to describe SteamWorld Dig is a cross between Metroidvania games and Spelunky. You dive deeper into a series of tunnels, using your pickaxe to clear away debris and collect gems. The gems can be taken back to town and traded in for cash which can in turn be expended to acquire upgrades to your gear: faster pickaxe swings, more damage, extra health, etc. The game has all the necessary parts to make it fun, challenging, and addictive. You’ll find yourself exploring every nook and cranny to uncover more gems and find hidden caves and rooms to explore even further!
The catch to all this exploring is that you can dig yourself into a rock and a hard place: literally! If you simply dig straight down, which is ultimately where you are trying to go, you’ll eventually run into a dead end, but then you’ll have no way of getting back out because there are no ways to create paths or tiers of levels to get back up. This adds a great sense of caution to the whole experience, as well as a much needed layer of complexity to your madness. I found myself thinking out each consequence before I decided to clear away a few patches of dirt, only to have a new shiny piece of gemstone gleam at me in the distance below! It’s addictive, and I haven’t played anything quite like it before.
Aiding you in your journey are a handful of tools, some of which are necessary to continue exploring, and some incredibly useful for getting out of tight spots. The power drill is capable of drilling through rock, which the standard pickaxe cannot do, but it runs on water, which is a scarce resource in the world. Ladders can be placed on the ground to help you climb back up a hole you may have accidentally dug. Lanterns can be placed o the ground to illuminate dark areas of the map. Along with these items you can also unlock new abilities to use, such as the incredibly handy double jump. They all go hand-in-hand to create a game much better than the sum of its parts: everything works well together and gives credence to the staying power of the inspired genres.
My only major gripe with the game is the ending. It seemed very abrupt. You’re playing for a few hours, discovering the mysteries the mine has to offer, and then you off one boss and the game ends. Literally there’s one boss and it’s over. It was a sweet experience that lasted a fair amount of time (6 hours or so), but I couldn’t help but feel it was over too soon. The mine layout and placement of the gems are random on each playthrough, and you can continue on harder difficulties if you wish, but for me there wasn’t very much reason to go back to the top of the mine once I found out what was at the bottom.
SteamWorld Dig’s control are tight and natural. Movement is simple and responsive, which is critical to a game where every move and swing needs to be precise. I only found some confusion/getting used to when switching between weapons and items. You have to cycle through them in your inventory before you can use them, and sometimes you might mess up and pick the wrong item, only to waste it and then go back to town and buy another. But once you get a handle on that the games feels smooth.
The animation is stellar all around. Characters and backgrounds have a definite steampunk feel to them. Rusty is a charming robot complete with red ascot and cowboy hat. Residents of Tumbleton seems to fit stereotypical Western tropes: a young lass, a bartender, and so on (but they’re all robots, of course). The mine itself is well done too, with neat lighting effects causing unexplored areas to be dark and foreboding. I liked how enemies would still run around even if you weren’t there, causing debris to fall and hit you even from off the screen and in the dark. Overall it’s a charming game that pays a surprising amount of attention to small details.
SteamWorld Dig is a short game, but it’s an incredibly polished experience that is unlike anything else I’ve played. The ideas may not be original but they are down in near perfection, making the game feel fun and addictive. The steampunk world and excellent visual style make the game as fun to look at as it is to play. Somewhat quirky controls and brevity aside, SteamWorld Dig is a game that I recommend whole heartily to anyone who enjoys Metroid or Castlevania games, as well as puzzle/platformers. I sincerely hope more games are released for this series, because I definitely consider myself a fan!