Deep in the heart of the desert wasteland is the remnants of a town that’s seen better days. The four remaining residents eke out an existence that barely counts as the robotic equivalent to living, but one of them has a secret. If he’d lived long enough to pass it down to his nephew it might have done someone some good, but now the only way to find out what it is and restore the steambot town of Tumbleton is to grab hold of your uncle’s trusty pickaxe and get digging. There’s good ore and a deadly secret deep in the earth, and neither will excavate themselves.
SteamWorld Dig: A Fistful of Dirt is a mining game in the classic style, loaded with personality and set in a fun world that hints at being much larger than what we see here. Rusty is a mining steambot digging deep into the earth to pull up anything he can sell in order to afford upgrades to make the next excursion that much more profitable. New tools are found in special areas that get marked on the mini-map when he gets within range, but upgrading them to their full potential involves selling a whole lot of ore. A stronger pickaxe or faster drill to get through the earth as it gets harder to break the deeper you go, or a bigger backpack to fit more goodies in, or even just a longer-burning light all go a long way towards mounting a proper mining expedition.
The mine is cleaned out in the usual style for this type of game, which combines exploration, excavation, and some light platforming in a way that’s far more fun than it may sound on paper. You dig through squares of dirt and rock searching out ore, but your time in the mine is limited by a circle of light that gets smaller and smaller as Rusty’s lamp burns through its fuel. The light lets you see what’s in the ground, whether it’s ore, a sleeping monster, or just harmless earth, and when it runs out it’s time to head back to the surface and cash in no matter how empty the backpack may be. Turning in ore has two effects- instant cash to spend on upgrades, and the total take earned throughout the game levels up the town. Merchants get in new stock and eventually new townsfolk open up shop, selling even more powerful upgrades. You’ll never have enough cash to empty out a store, though, and this can lead to some tough choices in the upgrade path. Skimp on dynamite to get that new lamp, or forget both for now and pick up a better drill and pickaxe? If you’re obsessive about cleaning out the mine you’ll be able to afford everything eventually, of course, but making the best choice for right now can be surprisingly tricky.
Once the decision has been made it’s back to the mine and the next excavation, introducing dirt and monsters to the sharp end of the pickaxe and searching for the next new ability. New skills are found in sub-mines, little doorways clearly marked as interesting places to explore. Some doorways lead to puzzle rooms with lots of high-quality ore as a reward, but the doors with signposts have steambot upgrades like a dash move, the drill and rocket punch abilities, shock absorbers so long falls don’t cause damage, and more. By the time Rusty gets to the deepest depths he’ll be a fully tricked-out steambot who can dash and double-jump anywhere he likes, so long as the laser fire of wall sentries and charging kamikaze-bots don’t swat him from the air. The cheap garbage of near the top of the mine gives way to much nicer and more valuable goodies deep down, and it’s all but impossible to pass by a deposit without seeing what it is. Thankfully nothing disappears, so if your backpack is full the ore sits there until you come back, so there’s no penalty for indulging your curiosity on the way back to the surface.
SteamWorld Dig is a fantastic little mining game, filled with charm and as satisfying to play as any game in its genre. Rusty is a fun steambot to control, and the platforming and traps that take advantage of the upgrades he earns as he journeys deep underground do an excellent job of adding variety to the digging. If there’s one drawback it’s that when the game is over, it’s 100% complete, with no new game plus or new characters to play as, no Hard mode,
and the mine isn’t randomized.
Update- So the mine is randomized somewhat, as it turns out. There’s no one true path to the end that you can practice over and over again to perfect your speed run times, because ore and cave locations won’t be in exactly the same place. They caves have to be in the same order to give new abilities out properly, of course, and because the caves are puzzle rooms nothing inside them will change from one play-through to the next, but for the 95% of the game you’re not in a cave it’s all randomized within certain parameters. Apologies to the fine game makers of Image & Form for getting that one wrong.
SteamWorld is an interesting place to visit and it seems to hold plenty of stories (this is the second game set there, the first being SteamWorld Tower Defense; maybe calling the SteamBots the “robotic master race” as they killed hundreds of humans wasn’t the best marketing), and even after the seven hours it took to complete, I wanted to explore it a bit more. If the worst thing to say about a game is that it’s hard to say goodbye, it’s done its job well. There’s a lot of good mining in the depths of SteamWorld Dig, and it stays fun from the basic beginnings to its chaotic ending. It’s not a bad little journey for a steambot that didn’t have a pickaxe to call his own when he showed up in town.
Version Reviewed: PC