Sometimes it’s the most monotonous tasks that are the most interesting. Sure you can try to dress it up with fancy themes or unique visuals styles but in the end we don’t mine ourselves silly because we’re a steampunk orc made of voxels digging to create power cubes, we mine because mining is oddly and perversely interesting. That’s kind of the underlying gameplay concept behind SteamWorld Dig, yes it is dressed up in weird Steampunk Cowboy Robot colours, but in the end it’s just a game about mining and that is strangely enjoyable. I’m not sure I can really explain why the hours I’ve spent destroying blocks in Dig’s deep underground were fun but they were and in the end that’s all that really matters.
So the premise here is that you are a young robot prospector who’s come to town to take over the derelict mine of your recently deceased Uncle Joe. The place is in disrepair but the locals say that at his end your Uncle almost lived down there and the strange legends of the old world and their lost technology are said to lie down there with him. From there though that’s kind of it, the story is very hands off, a quick set-up and then it just leaves you to dig and explore. This works though and makes for a pleasantly solitary experience as you traverse the underground popping up only to resupply and have a light chat with the locals.
Gameplay also shares that very hands off attitude; the game gives you places to go and puzzles to solve but you’re the one who carves your own path to those things. Basically the game just gives you a big pit of various kinds of dirt and says “what you’re looking for is in that vague direction, dig.” It all works though, and digging ever downward, breaking off from the path you’re establishing to try out challenge rooms or dig out minerals becomes a fun experience that blends a feeling of discovery with a good sense of control. Those minerals I mentioned make up the upgrade system of the game, collecting and selling them nets you both cash and experience and each level unlocks more upgrades to buy. There’s a good pace to the upgrades in this game, they come heavy but consistently and just as you’re about to clean out the store you’re bound to get another level and unlock more to buy. They all seem useful too but not overtly so, it’s always another minute of light on your lamp or the ability to chip away dirt just a second or two faster; it makes the progression feel very natural and smooth. Aside from that though you’re kind of just digging, I mean sure there are some platforming challenges to conquer and enemies to fight but none of that stuff feels all that special and most of it can be completely ignored with good digging. It makes for a very focused game that I ended up getting really sucked into and kind of zen-ing out on.
Presentation-wise it has a very DS game look to it, some very cartoony but good-looking sprites against a goofy thematic world, very reminiscent of a lot of Wayforward’s stuff, specifically the Shantae series or Mighty Switch Force. I will say the art could maybe look a little sharper but they do some cool stuff with background layers when you’re mining. Ironically though I never really saw a ton of difference with the 3D on, the background certainly phased back a bit more but not drastically enough to matter. Sound wise it’s as you would expect , the occasional twangy guitar or banjo riff and standard western sounds; it all works mind you, just nothing about the sound design really sticks out in my mind as memorable.
Steam World Dig is very much a game that knows what it is about; it wants you to dig, it wants its mechanics to complement your digging, and it wants to make that process fun and overall it succeeds in that goal. While it could stand to be a bit more visually and aurally interesting, the open-ended style of both the gameplay and the story make for a refreshing experience that truly is what you make of it. So for a nice tight little package of excavatory fun, Steam World Dig gets a 4 out of 5 stars.