Steamworld Dig 2
Developer(s): Image & Form
Publisher(s): Image & Form
Platform(s): Nintendo Switch
Release date: September 21, 2017
Between Cave Story +, Shovel Knight: Specter of Torment, and Slime-san, the Switch eShop has been on fire with one (timed) exclusive indie after another. But in Steamworld Dig 2, the best so far may have just arrived. A direct sequel to the 2013’s Steamworld Dig (and less direct sequel to 2015’s Steamworld Heist), Steamworld Dig 2 is developer Image & Form’s crowning achievement. It’s an innovative, finely-tuned, idiosyncratic game that ranks among the most ingenious indie titles of the year.
The story of Steamworld Dig 2 takes place after the events of the original Steamworld Dig, in a future where Steamworld Dig protagonist, Rusty the mining robot, has gone missing. Set off to find her old friend by following his trail, the player plays as former ally Dorothy. Over the course of the game, Dorothy treks through a wide array of environments, building relationships with dozens of denizens and stumbling across mysteries possibly linked to Rusty’s curious departure.
For such a brief game (it took me five hours to reach the credits at 23% completion, though I imagine it will take another five to ten hours for full completion) the story is fun and compelling, with a clever premise, strong sense of character, and deft blend of mystery, comedy, and drama. Add in some plot twists and Image & Form’s trademark cheeky dialogue, and Steamworld Dig 2’s narrative far exceeds expectations.
Similarly, the sights and sounds of Steamworld Dig 2 blow the original’s splendid art out of the water. Within seconds, the clean, colorful, crystal-clear art of Steamworld Dig 2 marks itself as a major HD upgrade. This is further underscored by the game’s impressive variety of environments, each with its own distinct style. From personalized character animations, to succulent landscapes, to lustrous collectables, looking at the screen is always a delight. Combined with a lush, catchy soundtrack, Steamworld Dig 2 a shockingly transporting aesthetic experience for a game about digging a deeper and deeper hole.
But the heart of SteamWorld Dig 2 is its delicately honed and calculated gameplay. While there is some above-ground exploration and straightforward platforming, most of Steamworld Dig 2 takes place underground, where mining is the name of the game. Starting off with only a simple axe and lantern in tow, the player’s goal is basically just to dig until the X on the map, carving their own path and gathering valuable resources along the way. These resources can then be sold at the surface, where equipment upgrades can be purchased to help the player dig deeper. And then, for the most part, rinse and repeat.
This might sound monotonous, but it’s not at all. It’s as wildly addicting as any scientifically-calibrated mobile games featuring similar progression loops. Only here, the progression feels meaningful because it’s player-directed, and the ways in which the player decides to invest in his digging arsenal affect play style. In addition to these more standard upgrades, players discover cogs that can be used to activate a piece of gear’s special features, allowing further loadout customization.
The biggest changes of pace to this formula are caves the player discovers while spelunking. Similar to the shrines in The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, each cave features a miniature challenge that offers a brief linear experience to percolate the more open-ended nature of the central mining experience. These caves offer a huge swathe of variety, from platforming gauntlets to combat arenas to brain-busting puzzles, and somehow each one feels like a special present to the player in its subtle, flexible, and often dazzling design.
From the path the player chooses to carve to character customization, meaningful choice lies at the center of Steamworld Dig 2’s design. This is what elevates it above similarly loop-centric mobile games and places it alongside today’s best Metroidvanias. From a unique digging core mechanic, to a gorgeous sprawling world, to sugary-smooth loops, to its varied puzzles, Steamworld Dig 2 succeeds on so many fronts it’s admirable. Yet there are some ways in which the game doesn’t dig quite deep enough.
Although exploration and platforming (minus some slippery movement) are spot-on, combat suffers from several small issues. For one, hitboxes seem a little vague at times, sometimes resulting in what feels like unfair punishment. This undermines the game’s sense of purposiveness because death from visual miscommunication feels especially frivolous after deliberately choosing a loadout and considering a strategy.
Additionally, combat feels a little too shallow for its own good, lacking the depth of situational weaponry of Steamworld Heist. Instead, it comes off hack-and-slashy, less oriented around the meaningful choice central to the game’s successes. After seeing the depth a simple counteract button could add to Metroid’s combat, it’s hard to not hope for a similar mechanic to spicen up combat here. Greater enemy variety and boss fights could have also helped combat feel less like an afterthought.
Minor gripes aside, Steamworld Dig 2 is one of the best games on Switch. In some regards, it even manages to beat Metroid: Samus Returns at its own game. And it’s perfectly at home on a console-portable hybrid, as its loopy structure suits playing in short bursts. Whether you’re a fan of the original or just a 3DS-less Switch owner embittered by a lack of Samus, I highly recommend Steamworld Dig 2.