At its best, the 3DS eShop is host to titles with a simple, well-formed idea that's executed with care and skill. SteamWorld Dig, the second in the SteamWorld franchise from developer Image & Form, fits into that mould, incorporating puzzle platforming mechanics within a continuous process of digging and resource management. It's also a particularly challenging proposition, which is well-suited to experienced gamers while a stiff — but not impossible — challenge for others.
SteamWorld Dig opens with our hero, Rusty the steambot, walking towards the town of Tumbleton to inherit a mine left by his Uncle. After a short cutscene you're underground, meeting the first of the townfolk and picking up the first of a number of useful tools, a pickaxe. The early imagery sets the tone for a quality overall experience, a colourful but dusty steampunk world where bots rule the roost, and the presence of humans is part of robot mythology. The storyline, though fairly minimalistic, fits the setting perfectly.
This is the beginning of a solid, steady progression in new tools and abilities that transform you from an incapable newcomer into a multi-functional mining machine. Progression through the storyline — around four hours if tackled fairly quickly — is a relatively linear affair if prompts are keenly followed, but there are opportunities to explore every inch of the three primary mining sites.
These three sites each have their own style, even if in theory they actually represent one continuous mine going deeper into the earth; initially, basic tools serve their purpose as you dig and explore. What's important to know, and something that prompted us to restart after a sloppy opening 45 minutes of recklessly digging our way into traps, is that every move you make, every block of dirt removed, is a permanent change, necessitating due care in constructing pathways downwards. Early on you can wall-jump and have a limited-use "steam jump", but it's possible to leave an unreachable gap to jump back up, meaning an auto-destruct is needed to return to the surface.
Those mistakes are learnt from and it becomes natural to pick a path through the mine that can be re-traversed to the surface, while also digging up valuable ores and metals along the way. While greater direction and map tools emerge towards the end-game, the perceived linearity is still restricted to a red arrow telling you to go downwards, with much of the route determined by your own curiosity. It's not just a simple move from checkpoint A to B, either, as characters in Tumbleton convert your findings to gold, which levels up your character and makes certain items available. With a combination of gold and special ore that you discover, you level up features such as your health meter, water storage — for various steam-based moves — as well as various digging tools/ weapons.
Although your primary role is to mine goods, mixing resource accumulation with digging further down, you gradually encounter enemies. Your move set and tools become twofold as means of exploration and weapons, and early on the going can be tough. Charging through the environment gung-ho can lead to death, which strips you of half your gold, while any metals you were carrying are left behind in a bag where you fell; they can be retrieved, however, so all is not lost.
Enemies and environments become increasingly challenging to tackle as you progress, and neglecting to upgrade tools and capabilities can be costly. Developer Image & Form made a point, ahead of release, to describe this as a game for experienced, capable gamers and that seems to be completely accurate; the diligence and skill required may prove too much for some. That's not a criticism in itself, far from it, but the absence of an Easy difficulty is perhaps a missed opportunity — nevertheless, this delivers a challenge to engage gamer's minds, in particular, with some sharp reflexes and inquisitive natures needed.
For the duration this is a title that hits a sweet spot of freedom, subtle direction and intuitive leveling up. By the conclusion you have a broad range of abilities that make previously tricky areas a doddle, but the first two-thirds to three-quarters test your patience and focus, with one misstep potentially costing you funds and necessitating tricky backtracking. At all times it feels like fair difficulty, however, with problems almost always traceable to your own mistake; it's vital to carefully manage a route back to the surface or checkpoints, as well as race to return before your light dims — various elements drive the tempo.
For all of its purity of purpose, this is a title that goes to pains to avoid any complications or flexibility. As well as the aforementioned lack of difficulty settings, finishing the game gives you grades based on time to complete, money earned and number of orbs recovered. Reloading the save leaves you with the mine sites without any storyline checkpoints, so it's possible to work through picking up any left over parts; perfectionists can, of course, use another of the three save profiles to play again, seeking top marks. Yet the pleasure with this experience is with exploration and discovery of the underlying plot, so after an initial play-through some may be satisfied, meaning that the developer's cited playtime of over 10 hours is really restricted to a specific demographic, rather than all players.
Overall, however, the campaign itself is worth the price, as it's structured and formed to hook gamers each step of the way; it hits its mark.
SteamWorld Dig represents a strong coming together of concept and execution, with relatively simple mechanics impeccably layered to coax the gamer through its story. It's demanding and perhaps too punishing for some, but the mix of basic platforming, puzzling and action works well, with a beautifully balanced leveling system underpinning the whole undertaking. Beyond the initial thrill of exploration it's questionable whether much else can draw you back, but this is a game that achieves its goals with some panache and plenty of style. If a challenge and thinking-person's platformer appeals to you, this one should be added to your 3DS collection right away.