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SteamWorld Dig 2 (Switch) artwork

SteamWorld Dig 2 (Switch) review

"Image & Form struck gold with this one"

It seems like only a decade ago I was lamenting the fact that 2D sidescrollers were banished to second-tier status on handhelds. And yet, since that time, the indie revolution has returned the genre to something approaching its former glory, with dozens upon dozens of interesting games available to download and play on the big screen. And yet, it's hard to escape that second-tier feel. For obvious reasons, many of these games just seem to be missing some key element - whether it be aesthetics or level design or precise controls or just originality - which keep them from reaching the quality of the older NES and SNES games they seem to be emulating. But every once in a while, you find something that pushes the envelope a little bit more, that deserves to be held up as a true modern classic. And Steamworld Dig 2 falls into that realm.

First of all, don't make the mistake of calling it a Metroidvania; this game is far too original to be considered a clone. Really, the only game of its nature is its predecessor. You act the part of a robot miner in a post-apocalyptic world trying to find your long-lost friend and determine the mystery of the odd earthquakes. And so, you dig. Like Dig Dug, I guess. As you dig through the mines (it's a tile-based 2D game, so if you whack a tile a few times with your pickax it disappears), you'll come across valuable metals that you can store in your pouch and sell when you return to the dusty old mining town. Sell enough, and you can purchase some much needed upgrades to your pickaxe or your pouch or your lantern or whatever. Which allows you to dig deeper, making increasingly longer tunnels and avoiding or killing the creatures you see in crevices along the way. Oh, and you may also find some caves along the way, which lead to puzzle-based or platformer-based rooms that give you a new ability (or at least new treasures and secrets). And as you dig deeper and solve these caves, you will find yourself opening up new areas to explore as the story unfolds.

With the exception of its predecessor, there's just nothing like it. It's not combat intensive, and it's not exploration-intensive in the sense of moving through a maze-like series of tunnels a la Metroid. It's oddly calming at times. You make your own path through the caves until it gets too dark to see or your pouch gets filled up, then you go back to the surface. Then you start digging for more. Mining the minerals might sound repetitive, but in reality it's not even the main purpose of the game; you could ignore the minerals entirely if you wanted to. But it hits that feeling of accomplishment and progress every time you return to the surface, since you get a bit more money and can usually trade in that money for something useful. So, even though your real goal is to dig through the mines to advance the plot, it's a nice distraction that gives you more incentive to keep moving. Likewise, killing enemies nets you experience that allows you to level up, but it doesn't change your stats any. It just gives you more money when you sell stuff. Really, killing enemies is another option aspect, and it's mostly just there to make traversal through the areas easier (once enemies are dead, they stay dead: no respawns). There's no stress about being overleveled or underleveled. It's just a minor part of the game. And bosses? They are very, very rare.

Really, you're just moving along. Watching your path grow is half the fun. Perhaps another half of the fun is in stumbling across the various caves in the giant underground mine (wait, isn't the mine itself a cave? Fine, it's a cave within a cave. Trippy, eh?). Some of these caves are vital to progression, as they give you a new move or item. But some are just cool new challenges. Maybe its a puzzle room, where you need to push mine carts around so you can reach certain blocks. Maybe it's a platforming room, where you need to avoid bumping into switches that will slam a door shut. Maybe it's a maze you have to get through, with traps that shoot arrows at you that you must be mindful of. Who knows? But you always get a reward, whether it be new moves or rare minerals or new cogs (which you can use to give special statuses to your items) or hidden secret treasures. Usually more than one. Thankfully, the game will put a checkmark on your map if you obtained everything from the cave, so you always know if you miss something. That makes exploring a lot less frustrating, and gives you an incentive to look everywhere just to fill your maps with checkboxes. But don't think that that makes things too easy; many of these artifacts are very well hidden and force you to consider all sorts of possible hidden alcoves besides searching for a cracked rock or two.

In any case, the variety of actions and objectives is a big part of what makes the game work. Sometimes, you're just digging. Sometimes you're reaching new areas and advancing the plot. Sometimes you're just making money. Sometimes you're doing tricky platforming or hunting for secrets. If you get bored of one aspect, another is right around the corner. But the thing is, it's not just thrown at you in a hodgepodge manner. Level design is at its peak in this game, with the different environments and different challenges and different rewards interspersed at perfect intervals. It seems like just at the moment you get bored digging for new paths, you come across a new cave or a new checkpoint. Every time it seems like things are becoming a grind, you get a new ability. Every time you are forced to return to the surface to recover your light or your health, you seem to have enough money for a new upgrade. Every time things start to become routine, a new area and plot element open up. It's not just variety for variety's sake, but it's variety with a purpose.

And that variety is also why this game towers over its predecessor. The original Steamworld Dig has a lot of the same aspects of the game, but without the tight level design. In that game, you're just digging in one giant trench with some random caves along the way. It's hard to keep interested in everything when it feels like you aren't making any progress. But here, there's always something new. Am I being repetitious by constantly mentioning the new stuff and level variety? Perhaps, but the reality is that this game is all about the execution of all these ideas, which makes it more than just the sum of its parts.

Oh yeah, the story. As you may have surmised from my summary, the setting is combination of steampunk, post-apocalyptic horror, and old-West gold rush. How's that for a weird combination? The playable character, Dorothy, is a steambot, as robots rule the Earth and humans are devolved underground moonshiners. But there was an electricity-based robot that was causing serious problems which led to the disappearance of the playable character from the first game (Rusty) and pushes Dorothy forward in her quest. As storylines go, it's not bad, but what it does is use the odd setting to maximum effect. There's a bit of comedic value in seeing sentient robots act the role of Old West tropes, and Dorothy's interactions with the electric sprite she meets early on can be fun. I should also point out that the themes and approach of the plot can change quite suddenly, although I'll stop talking there so I don't ruin any surprises. But the game can move seamlessly from this lighthearted world to deadly earnestness, eerie creepiness, and back again at the drop of a hat. Hey look, we're back to talking about variety and integrating it in perfectly! So yeah, just like the level design, it works. Oh, and the art design and music absolutely fit the game as well. No complaints there.

Normally, the phrase "Jack of all trades, master of none" has a negative connotation, but not here. Sure, it's not as combaty as an action game, not as platformy as a Mario game, not as puzzley as a puzzle game, and not as exploratory as a Metroidvania. But it does have all those elements, and blends them all together with excellent controls, exquisite level design, and enough charm to keep you more than satisfied. You never lament that something isn't the focus, because the entire feel of the game - the platforming, the exploration, the digging, the puzzles - all of it combined is the focus. You want to see what's beyond that stone floor you hit in the mine, what's inside that cave, what's beyond the desert. You want to fill your bag with gems and jump through the acid caverns and get the latest powerup. And when you finish, you want to collect all the relics you missed and find the secret hidden challenges. And you want to start the whole process over again, because you notice the complete package really is that special. So yes, this is indeed a modern classic, and will hopefully always be remembered as such.


mariner's avatar
Community review by mariner (February 12, 2018)

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