“Wherever he saw a hole he always wanted to know the depth of it. To him this was important.”
Swedish development studio Image & Form Games released the first SteamWorld Dig in 2013 and I realize just how tragic it is that I missed out on that game. Why? Because I have enjoyed its sequel so much. You know that feeling when you run into something that was made for you and you think “Where have you been all my life?” I dig this game.
SteamWorld Dig 2 I compare to a much more focused version of Terraria, a friendlier flavor of Super Metroid, and what Dig Dug would be if they turned the arcade classic into an RPG. Apparently it’s also bigger than its predecessor. Dig 2 takes the better elements of its influences and buffs out the smudges representing their worst elements: frustration over getting lost without any sense of what you need to do next, begrudging backtracking, getting flooded by largely useless upgrades with too much to chose from. Dig 2 is a fairly brief jaunt underground but it ensures that you know where you need to go next before patting you on the booty and saying “now shoo!”.
This is due in large part to a strong emphasis on traditional storytelling over building a personal narrative through exploration.
SteamWorld Dig 2 opens with Dorothy McCrank, a Steambot and mere NPC in the first game. This time ’round, she’s the shero of the day. She’s searching for her missing friend Rusty in a wild wild west stylized desert. On her way to the mines of El Machino, she tumbles into the legend of a hidden temple and meets a digital sprite entity called Fen, who despite his appetite for violence aids Dorothy on her adventure.
Dorothy also runs afoul of some rogues cultists worshiping machines of destruction and prophesying about the end of the world. Besides for finding Rusty and discovering what happened to him after the events of the first Dig, she’ll also help the well-meaning but bumbling citizens of El Machino and face off against the Cult of the Destroyer and the Shiners (the nemeses of robotkind with whom they share a long-running history of strife).
Dig 2’s world is interesting and unusual: not indulgently steampunk, not a straight Western, and not merely self-serious or kiddie sci-fi. The game comes off as a combination of stereotypes (the Old West, robot society cartoons, Metroidvania gameplay) but each of these contribute to a universe which at times feels familiar yet remains distinct. Distinctiveness, that elusive quality among entertainment these days.
There are a variety of areas to explore in Dig 2, not just the El Machino mines which seem to go down and down for ever. There’s the windswept surface, the ancient Mayan-like ruins, the mechanized lava pits, the subterranean forest. Each area feels different, possessed of its own unique lore and character with its own set of traps and dangers. Exploring them is a delight and there’s an air of deliberateness in their design. By that I mean that delving deeper into each area yields layers of history and culture that build up this world and help us to understand it and its characters and races. It’s not merely passing through sediments of clay, granite and igneous rock. This gives the game purpose in its exploration and that much needed characteristic in these digging/Metroidvania games: focus.
The exploration is only half of what SteamWorld Dig 2 has to offer, though. On its own, it’s interesting but it’s one side of a coin. If only exploration was present, the game would probably not entice players on the merits of its slender story and small world. Fortunately, there’s upgrades to close the loop and bring the gameplay into a perfect circle.
By relying on these two things to get you addicted to its world, exploration and upgrades, SteamWorld Dig 2 draws you into itself. In order to progress further in the game, you’ll need to expand your inventory, but in order to buy a bigger backpack you’ll need to harvest some ore. Once you get your gold sold and you’re bigger satchel is in hand, then you’ll be able to go deeper. But ah! Your lantern quickly goes out, so you’ll need to find more treasures and rarer gemstones to sell to upgrade your light. With bitterer foes comes the need for better armor and so on it goes. The odd machinery you find underground compatible with Dorothy grants her new abilities or gear, such as a hookshot and a jetpack, which in turn can then be upgraded as well.
Upgrading gear and abilities not only improves their performance. Doing so grants you access to new cog mods for each armament and armor. Cog mods each require a set amount of cogs to activate and you can find more cogs by buying them or digging them up underground. The best part about this system is that you can return to El Machino to swap your cog mods around, allowing Dorothy a certain degree of customization to suit each situation as well as the player’s chosen emphases.
Not all of the cogs are worthwhile but many of them are essential. Some of the best in the game include support abilities such as preventing your lantern from completely running out of fuel, minimizing damage from lava or acid pools, and allowing you to teleport back to town instantaneously provided Dorothy is standing in a safe area.
There’s no place like home. That tagline is significant so far as SteamWorld Dig 2 is concerned. Several gripes against the Metroidvania sub-genre include too much emphasis on backtracking and getting hopelessly lost. Dig 2 attenuates the impregnability of traversing the average Metroidvania world by including not only the aforementioned teleportation ability but also transport tubes that lead directly back to El Machino. The tubes allow Dorothy to quickly backtrack to sell off materials when her bag fills up and then dive down again without having to manually crawl back to where she left off. The tubes also provide easy access between Dig 2’s areas. They’re essential for navigation and they make the game less tedious to explore. That’s polish. You won’t have to build a “Hellelevator” à la Terraria.
The presence of El Machino itself is, in my opinion, a fortunate addition to this kind of game. As a hub, it’s an anchor for the player to return to and venture out from in any direction, providing a much needed center of stability to prevent you from getting lost. It’s a haven more functional than Samus’ ship or a mere save room in Symphony of the Night. The NPCs in El Machino don’t all provide you with substantial aid but they’re willing to dialogue with Dorothy and yes a few of them offer goods, rewards, or other perks. You’ll find yourself constantly returning to El Machino to drop off your ores and gems, and the place quickly feels like your home away from home between exploring and upgrading.
Gaming history has proven that these twin elements of explore to get more and upgrade to get ahead (doesn’t rhyme, shuddap) nearly always equal addictive gameplay. SteamWorld Dig 2 furnishes that in amounts nearly as tremendous as the amount of secrets packed into this game. There is still plenty more to find post-game by the time you reach the end of its still too brief story, a journey that’ll take the average player around six to twelve hours depending on how often you stop to scour for treasures. Upgrades and abilities can make these secrets easier to find but only the very dedicated will want to backtrack and examine every wall for an invisible passage, hidden cog, or buried artifact.
Still, Image & Form promised that those who completed the game 100% would be rewarded. There’s a “big gem” hidden after all the spelunking and avarice are over… something “as surprising as it is challenging!” I can attest to the fact that the descriptor “challenging” is very true. Not only did it take me a chunk of time just to hunt down every last artifact (I haven’t found every cog), but I sense it may take a greater amount of time to beat the post-game content.
SteamWorld Dig 2 gives you a hearty meal to sink your teeth into and, after all is said and done, I simply want more.
The 8-bit Review
I don’t often say this but that parallax scrolling is on fleek. Generally speaking, 2D graphics reached their peak early on and there’s not much room left for innovation in this category of visuals but the techniques which developed over time, such as those which provide an illusion of depth and perspective even on a side-scrolling plane, these techniques have been further refined. SteamWorld Dig 2 proudly displays a richness of color, a sense of background penetration, a hint of living ecology, and a lot of personality through its graphics.
There’s more than a little tendency toward pixel art in indie games, that’s no secret, but SteamWorld Dig 2 sheds the pretense and pretending of paying tribute to the 16-bit era by featuring modern, fluid, painted character models and settings. The few downsides in this game’s visual department include some lack of transitional animation frames and as well as little ultimate variation in the enemies and hazards you face. Though the different areas in the game are each unique, I could probably count the total enemies in the game on two hands. This reminds us all too wearily of Dig 2’s status as an indie project and not as, say, a double-A game: it’s still sadly short and you may find yourself still wanting more content, even visually.
Everyone who has seen me playing this game has commented on the music. As with visuals, there’s a tendency toward a specific philosophy of music in indie games. I’m sure many of you reading this can at this moment summon up the sounds of chirpy chiptune tracks and synthetic warbling in vein of the original Nintendo’s range. SteamWorld Dig 2 dispenses with that commonplace 8-bit ambiance and takes aim instead for a flavor of music which is as strange in its juxtaposition with the rest of the game as steampunk robots are with the Wild West with the threat of doomsday cultists.
I really love this song. It’s my favorite in the game and it plays in El Machino. We have the Swedish main composer El Huervo, aka Niklas Åkerblad, for the smooth, jazzy, hip-hop, country guitar fusion that goes on in this game. Huervo worked on various tracks for Hotline Miami and Hotline Miani 2: Wrong Number before joining this project. Here, Huervo brought a notable urban sound the Steamworld. This musical approach was surprising but so charming that it ended up being one of my favorite elements of the game.
At the start of the game, you’ll really feel constricted. Dorothy’s pack hardly has room for any gems at all, her lantern runs out of fuel in a snap, she can’t attack when in midair, her pickax has difficulty piercing the deeper soils, and fall damage can be final. Death in SteamWorld Dig 2 isn’t permanent but you do lose a portion of your resources every time Dorothy dies before she respawns at the surface. Considering the treasures underground do not respawn, there’s a chance that frequent deaths can make paying for every last upgrade a steep but not impossible challenge. Enemies still drop bloodstones which can be sold for a bit of coin but it’s not much. Be careful. Take as many trips back to the surface as you need in order to sell off items without wastage and in order to plan out your next spearhead of progress.
The item descriptions are pretty funny with more than a few pop culture references.
These frequent trips back up to town with the initially extremely limited inventory space can be frustrating, though. I felt that perhaps Dorothy starts out with a little too little capability in this regard and I wonder if any players were put off by how slow going digging is at the start of the game? If you manage to push past it, you’ll find that money and upgrades flow fairly quickly. Once you begin to get the loop in motion, it’s easy to get hooked. Flying around through your self-made tunnels launching grenades and throwing out your grappling hook marks a comparative level of freedom which makes the sluggishness at the beginning worth wading through.
What else? The game, as mentioned, is pretty short. It seems geared for the completionist mentality with so many percentiles tracked automatically for you by the game and so many invisible checkboxes to tick, such as finding every artifact. Those looking for a swift and casual excursion may find a lot of enjoyment here, and likely will completionists as well, but those looking for that robust RPG or Metroidvania experience may find SteamWorld Dig 2 to be lacking. It has a functioning experience points system and a boss or few but not much in the way of the kind of vigorous gravity that some players may be looking for. Just remember it’s an indie title.
Hey now since this is a new game I’m throwing up the SPOILERS warning right here. If you don’t want to listen in on story-talk, press Ctrl+f and search up Replayability to skip to the next section.
It seems like the world is some distant future akin to Wells’ Time Machine but with robots. The mechanoids dwell on the surface in their yeehaw society whereas the remaining humans mutated and live underground, the Shiners, beneath a wall erected during the last robot/human war. Robot cultists worship the end of the world and there are doomsday devices underground designed to earthquake the earth to smithereens. I thought of Beneath the Planet of the Apes, as well.
Turns out this is exactly what Image & Form wanted to get across. From an official statement:
“SteamWorld is an alternative world set on Earth – an alternative past leading to an alternative future. After having embraced and developed advanced technology already in the 19th century by adapting ideas and actual blueprints of British inventor Charles Babbage (1781-1871), humanity develops mechanical computers and, later, simple robots to carry out meanly chores.
Unfortunately, as an effect of this leap in technology, very advanced weapons were also developed, leading to premature, full-scale world war. All sides lose, and history is changed forever.
In this post-apocalyptic world, where time has stopped at the height of steampunk and Western style at the onset of the 20th century, these hard-working, steam-driven robots – Steambots – have inherited the Earth.
The remaining humans have since long devolved into simple-minded cave dwellers, surpassed by their creations. This is where SteamWorld Tower Defense and later SteamWorld Dig and SteamWorld Dig 2 take place. Following a cataclysmic event the planet is torn apart, and this chaos is the premise of SteamWorld Heist.”
So yes the SteamWorld games are related to each other, however it’s that relationship and not the somewhat basic storyline of Dig 2 which brings down the Narrative score a little. This game tells a simple story and there’s no problem with that and in fact the ending of the game is surprisingly sad. Not moving but definitely involving a real sense of regret and loss. No, the issue I took was with how heavily this game required I be familiar with its world and characters as presumably outlined in previous games.
For example, Dig 2 references the events of the first Dig frequently but I don’t think I ever got a working idea of what happened in the first game beyond “good guy beat bad guy”. Now that good guy is missing but it’s hard to visualize why or who Rusty even is. Maybe a flashback would’ve had some merit here? Even after having completed the game, I still don’t know why Rusty went missing at all and why it fell upon Dorothy to go find him.
Perhaps the most baffling inclusion was the sudden intermission into the realm of Vectron, which I gathered to be significant to the events of the first game but here it seemed like an aside put in for the sake of connective tissue and continuity. Without explanation, even from in-game encyclopedias or artifacts, all I got was Dorothy entered some kind of ruined alternative dimension of crazy, futuristic and markedly evil machinery with the aid of Fen? Take note that this all wasn’t a deal breaker for me, a guy who unfortunately hadn’t played the other SteamWorld games before this one, but grading it from my perspective as a newcomer to the series I think that the narrative could’ve benefited from expounding on that connective tissue. It certainly seems like there’s a lot of interesting interconnecting between the games. I don’t know if preserving an air of mystery was the devs’ intent or if they assumed everyone would be familiar with the lore. I’ll just have to play the others to know more about it… or I could read the wiki.
I sincerely believe that this game’s strength is just how fun it is. The exploration-upgrade cycle plays out to full effect in SteamWorld Dig 2 in a way that still tempts me to play it, even after I’ve scoured its surface and underbelly. Even though I’ve played many a video game that utilizes this gameplay loop, I felt that the replay value of SteamWorld Dig 2 testified to how well this game implements that loop. I didn’t want the loop to end but all good things must cross their finish lines, some sooner than others.
With your only real losses being financial, there’s not too much pressure on you through the bulk of SteamWorld Dig 2’s play time. Two or three puzzles stopped me in my tracks for a good portion of time but they didn’t withstand trial and error solving methods. There are only a handful of bosses and even the final confrontation is energetic, if not hectic, but far from impossible. The core of the game, the exploration itself, isn’t particularly challenging either. You’ve got to keep an eye on your health and traps but again, if you die it’s only resources that you’ll lose.
Interestingly, however, there are a few cog mods which let you bump up the difficulty of the game, causing enemies to become more deadly. Perhaps these are best used on a playthrough? By the time I accumulated them and then felt comfortable switching them on, I was already at the end of the game with pretty much everything discovered and unlocked. The true challenge lies in the post-game content, but given that it’s set that far at the extreme end of the game’s playthrough, it’s not something which swayed my grading here. You can play through SteamWorld Dig 2 casually enjoying the sights and be just fine.
SteamWorld Dig 2 has a few improvements over the first game, an already well-received title, by my understanding. Most notably, people seem to be reporting that Dig 2 is beefier in content than its predecessor. We could expect that from a sequel but there’s also the technical steps taken forward and the now non-linear underworld rather than a linear procedurally generated one. Can’t forget about the cog mod system, as well. Combine these changes with the distinctiveness of this Steamworld and we’re talking about a notable indie game. And in 2017, no less! I know, can you believe it?
My Personal Grade: 9/10
I am so close to beating this thing into the ground. That’s good! At the time of this writing, I only have found all the artifacts and upgraded everything to the max. I’m at around 94%-96% completion in each area of the game. After the end, I discovered (spoilers: highlight to reveal) a floating skull-shaped island in the sky but I cannot beat those trials!! I might’ve conquered nearly everything in SteamWorld Dig 2 but I haven’t bested its allure. I quite nearly want to play it through a second time, learning from my past mistakes, upgrade my lantern right away in order to better spot secrets, farm EXP for a bit to raise my sales bonus multiplier before harvesting gems and ore.
I looked forward to playing SteamWorld Dig 2 since it was first announced as one of the headlining Nindies on the Switch, and I’m also thankful to Image & Forms Games for bequeathing me with a press copy of the game for review. Thank you! I hope that my take on the game has been informative and encouraging. SteamWorld Dig 2 left me wanting more, so now I begin the hunt for SteamWorld Dig and Heist!
Aggregated Score: 7.7
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Categories: Game Review