SteamWorld Dig: A Fistful of Dirt makes manual labor a fun exercise.
Developer: Image & Form
Publisher: Image & Form
Platform: Nintendo 3DS (eShop)
Release Date: August 8, 2013
Current MSRP: $8.99 (Size-348 blocks/43.5 MB)
Set in a Wild West mining town called Tumbleton, you play as Rusty, a steam-powered robot who wears a cowboy hat. Rusty’s uncle Joe sent him a message to return to Tumbleton to claim the mine he owned. As he gets near, Rusty falls through the ground and meets one of the townsfolk who guides him out of the mine. Back in Tumbleton Rusty is informed he should keep the mine open and continue the work his uncle began.
Image & Form, a small Swedish developer based in Gothenburg, made SteamWorld Dig. A previous title in the series called SteamWorld:Tower Defense on DSiWare released July 2010, but Dig is in a completely different genre. This one is all about platforming, going further down the rabbit hole to discover just what your crazy uncle was into below the Earth.
Down in a Hole
SteamWorld Dig is a seriously addicting game. You’ll play an hour and it’ll feel like only a few minutes. The way Image & Form designed the gameplay made for a great experience, especially on a handheld system.
In the beginning Rusty’s only tool is a pickaxe. This is the first main weapon used to break up the mine and travel further down. The game’s storyline is driven by the chase to find more tools and futuristic abilities hidden away in the mine that only your uncle knew about. Eventually your basic pickaxe can’t get the job done. There are certain blocks that need a number of smacks or can only be destroyed with certain attacks.
SteamWorld Dig isn’t like most other traditional platformers. Instead you’re creating your own trail with various tools, forging permanent changes that last for the entire game. There are three different areas in SteamWorld Dig, each feeling more daunting than the last. Every decision gets trickier the deeper you go. Until the end of the game, there are paths that you can get stuck at, where going back up the way you came isn’t an option anymore. You can only hope there’s more health or the next area of the game on the way. Forming a path becomes a puzzle itself, trying to figure out the best possible route to escape back to town while still getting the most resources. Carving out your destination can backfire, with boulders from above falling on top of you for an instant death.
Watch Rusty travel the mine:
SteamWorld Dig combines a lot of familiar elements from well-known games, like jumping up the side of walls in Mega Man X, mining from Terraria on a smaller scale and becoming a fully evolved Rusty by obtaining powers Metroid-style. Smooth movements around the mines make it an enjoyable trip while switching between weapons and items is fast.
There’s just a few audio tracks in the game, with only one looping during each stage. The background designs are detailed with items that compliment the surrounding level’s theme. The game’s 3D feature is easy on the eyes, not overbearing or distracting during gameplay. SteamWorld Dig can be played with or without 3D on. There’s no touch screen elements integral to the gameplay either.
You need the elements of fire and later water to guide you through the caves. There’s a meter in the top right corner showing how much light remains. Your range of light gets dimmer as the meter naturally shrinks. When out of flame, you become enclosed in darkness, unable to see the next block in front of you. This has a big impact on any decision making, since it forces a return to the surface because you can’t move forward without making a regretful mistake. Even if you come across light posts in the level, these aren’t enough to brighten much of the surrounding area. Water banks are a way to get back your juice for certain abilities. Standing in them refreshes your meter, which is used for some of the weapons and skills you get throughout the game.
The plot is just a backdrop for more digging but the game’s few characters are all charming. SteamWorld Dig is a slow start for the first 30 minutes while stuck with only the pickaxe but gradually picks up as more upgrades are discovered.
Scattered in the ground are various upgrade stations that give new powers. These drive the storyline as Rusty gains more abilities while opening up more of the mine. There are also a ton of upgrades to buy as well, from stronger weapons to making your fire and water stocks last longer. Without any upgrades it becomes almost impossible to go deeper into the mines. Digging requires stronger tools and upgrades that cut up blocks faster and more efficiently.
Minerals are everywhere underground. These valuable gems are in easily identifiable blocks. They are traded in at the town for money and to increase your level, which there are more than 15 ranks to. Leveling up opens up better upgrades at the shops. There’s also blue orbs that float away after being smashed, flying around the nearby area. These are much harder to come across and are used for more of the expensive and powerful upgrades. When you start there’s only three inventory slots for collecting gems but you unlock more throughout the game at the town’s shops.
Later on you obtain a drill and a punch ability as well as various movement skills to make traveling across large distances faster and less time consuming. These special upgrades also strongly help with climbing to previous paths you couldn’t reach before without starting from the mine’s entrance. There’s also caves not tied to the game’s advancement that usually have a highly valued gem or a large dose of blue orbs. These are a lot smaller in scale than the caves tied to the storyline.
The town can be upgraded as well. Two more shops appear through the course of ranking up, each one with better goods than the previous. There’s nothing to do in Tumbleton though. It’s not that big, it being only a single flat location with a few screens to move through. The other robots just say a few lines before repeating them, at some points even bluntly telling you to get back in the mine. The place is more of a quick stop for purchases and saving your game.
The way the upgrades continue to escalate and build upon previous areas is one of the better subtleties of SteamWorld Dig.
The mining tools are also your defense against the several types of monsters crawling underground trying to block your progress. Some of these enemies are hidden away in blocks and break out when you’re near. Many are out in the open patrolling a small section. A few will do a kamikaze run at you, giving only a split second to react and get out of the way. Enemies do the same amount of damage regardless of your level or what health upgrades you buy. Much later there’s even lasers seemingly everywhere that destroy blocks and even the monsters in your way.
The enemies get more annoying the further you are from the surface. They often toss dynamite that destroy surrounding blocks or throw toxic bottles from a distance that can be tricky to avoid. Encounters become nerve-wracking because you don’t want to lose your progress. Fighting is the weakest part of SteamWorld Dig. For the first few hours of the game while you’re using basic attacks until unlocking better combat abilities, each encounter feels like a burden that you’d rather avoid than take on. Enemies follow a predictable pattern but can still be a challenge to sneak by. Each take several hits to kill when using the pickaxe to conserve water, which only has one basic attack. Even with better powers it’s not easy because of how aggressive enemies are.
However enemies do drop much needed health, flame and water, which can make the encounter worth it if you manage to remain unscathed. Store-bought items like dynamite can be used in combat situations and digging assistance, which can take out enemies from a distance when you’re low on health. While at the shops health restoration can also be bought. Taking out enemies when they’re first encountered is helpful because it makes climbing back to the surface a lot easier when monsters aren’t blocking any upward paths and your attacks can’t reach them.
If you die from falling too far down or getting beat up by an enemy in the larger mine area, you lose 50 percent of your cash and start back in Tumbleton. Any gems you collected stay behind in the mine and can all be recollected in the spot you expired at. The water meter also depletes to zero. If you face a game over while inside one of the caves, you start back at its entrance with everything intact but have to redo anything there. You don’t unlock a damage resistance upgrade until you reach max rank. By that time you’re close to beating the game and don’t really need it anymore if you’ve consistently upgraded your health.
A few teleporters are placed throughtout the mine. These allow you to instantly return to the surface. While these appear like an oasis in the desert, they’re so far from each other that you can’t rely on them for a bailout. Teleporters can also be bought at the town shop and used at any spot in the mine. You can’t choose the teleportation spot from the town, so it just sends Rusty back to the last teleporter you interacted with.
Break a Sweat
SteamWorld Dig is a somewhat challenging game, not only at the beginning when there’s just the basic powers to use. It can be frustrating, but not in a cheap way. There’s a healthy amount of difficulty throughout the campaign. In this regard the game is reminiscent of old school platformers that didn’t baby you or hold any hands. With enemies throwing objects at you, explosive barrels blocking potential secrets and advanced technology trying to turn you into liquid metal, it can be hard to stay alive. Managing your resources is another reason for the difficulty. Disappearing blocks, regenerating dead ends and groups of enemies are a combination that can lead to depleted energy bars faster than intended.
You’ll constantly be going back up to the surface to trade in your gems and refresh your flame bar, especially since the inventory slots only carry a small number of items. The obsessive side of players will come out during their time with SteamWorld Dig, with the urge to collect every gem, open up every path and get all the upgrades, their tool set and pocketbook growing larger the deeper down the mine. The game works well in both small and large doses of play time, with either five minutes or an hour giving satisfaction.
This addictive aspect makes picking your battles when encountering enemies especially important, because you don’t want to lose all your findings and have to make a double trip just to get paid for one collection.
When you’re ready to enter the final cave, you’ll have several cool upgrades that make traversing much easier than it was during the first few hours. Toward the end of the game treasures start appearing on the map as pink boxes, allowing you to go back and recover the ones you missed. Before you get all your super abilities though, the tunnels are so massive that you can easily forget which cave you planned to enter or path you were going back on to smash up some more gems. There’s no way to see the map besides on the bottom screen, which only partly shows the full area. Bringing up a large in-game map to see your path would have been extremely helpful.
There’s a final boss encounter, the only one in SteamWorld Dig. It’s a good challenge that the game prepares players for by the time it happens. A few more boss fights would have added depth to the game’s combat mechanics though.
With its addictive gameplay and gradual escalation of new abilities, SteamWorld Dig is a nice surprise from Sweden by a developer that’s not well known. Finishing SteamWorld Dig can take 5-7 hours, depending on how much you decide to explore and acquire upgrades. It took me close to eight hours after getting most of the upgrades and reaching the highest level but there were still caves that I didn’t fully explore. Beating the game gives you bronze, silver or gold stars ratings in different categories like finished playtime, money earned and total orbs collected. There isn’t a new game plus option but there are three total save slots to start the game all over from.
SteamWorld Dig is one of the strongest titles on the 3DS eShop, a game that can hold its own against full retail releases. Image & Form crafted an example of what the handheld experience should be. If you’re looking for an addictive game on the 3DS, SteamWorld Dig: A Fistful of Dirt is the one to get. Just a few more lines of broken dirt is the mantra, but it always leads to another hour of digging.
- Addictive gameplay
- Smooth movements and platforming
- Lots up upgrades
- A nice challenge
- Combat is a drag the first few hours
- Can’t bring up an enlarged map
SteamWorld Dig was purchased for $8.99 on the Nintendo 3DS eShop. The game was completed in 7 hours and 49 minutes, achieving the max level.
Images by Image & Form