Friday, August 16, 2013

Review: SteamWorld Dig: A Fistful of Dirt

SteamWorld Dig: A Fistful of Dirt, is a blend of Metroid, Spelunky, and Dig Dug set in an Old West town populated by steam-powered robots, and it's just as good as it sounds. Priced at $8.99, this recent addition to the already impressive eShop selection has all the markings of a true gem. 

Set in a small town called Tumbletown, players are introduced to a robot named Rusty, who, having been called to town by his uncle Joe to claim the underground mine, finds himself crashing down into it as the ground collapses beneath his feet. Here he's greeted by an NPC named Dorothy who informs him that his uncle, who had been down in the mine for quite some time, had passed. After prying a pickaxe from his uncle's dead, rusty hands, the player is tasked with digging their way to a lever in order to free a path to the surface.

Tumbletown serves as the game's central hub, with entries to each level of the mine as they're discovered and a number of NPC characters with goods for sale. The various types of gem and ore littered throughout the mine can be sold to Dorothy for cash used to buy upgrades from NPCs like her dad, Cranky. As the total value of ore sold to Dorthy rises, so does the player's trade rank. With each level, a new upgrade is unlocked, and after enough levels, new buildings and NPCs are also added.

The central mechanic of SteamWorld is, unsurprisingly, digging, so anyone with an aversion to this particular mechanic should probably give this game a pass. Digging is sluggish to begin with, but becomes more streamlined as Rusty's gear is upgraded. The first comparison to Metroid can be drawn at the map system, which grows as the player explores the mine. While the size of the mine is limited, it's big enough to be a mystery worth exploring down to the last corner. (Warning: this game may cause otherwise stable individuals to exhibit severe obsessive-compulsive behavior.) There's a genuine sense of discovery when happening upon a cave or orbs, which are the other currency used in town. Players will have to think about each move when digging, as it isn't impossible to dig one's own grave, leaving no alternative but to self-destruct.

It isn't all casual digging though, as there are fossilized creatures waiting to pop out of the dirt whenever Rusty comes within radius. Deeper sections of the mine are home to humanoid enemies and even machines. (Is this how it will end for our species, buried beneath the earth while robots claim the surface?) Upon death, creatures will drop lamp fuel, health, or water. The limited lamp fuel creates a sense of urgency, challenging the player to dig as far or gather as much loot as possible before it goes dark. There's no real penalty for running out of light, but it does make it difficult to climb back to the surface and instills a sense of danger even if no dark-specific threats emerge. Health is important for obvious reasons. If HP drops to zero, all loot is dropped on the spot and half of the player's current money is spent on repairs. The dropped loot can be recovered however, which is huge considering there is a limited amount of ore in the mine. Finally, Rusty is able to convert water to steam for charged jumps, drilling through hard rock, and to launch his fist. These functions are a few of the secrets uncovered by Uncle Joe and left for Rusty to discover, but why? 

Steam wasn't always the hottest power source around. Legend speaks of an old world run on magical force called electricity. Old Uncle Joe kept goin' on and on about all this freaky tech down in the depths of the earth, but they just thought he had a few screws loose, probably from spending too much time down in that mine of his. But with Rusty's help, he's able to posthumously prove this technology's existence. SteamWorld  is like a reverse Cave Story, where instead of some mysterious "other world" residing on the surface, it's buried beneath miles of dirt. Each new upgrade serves as a new mechanic with which to further explore this old world while solving cleverly designed puzzles, much like the way Metroid's Samus grows her abilities by finding ancient Chozo statues. Rusty will need to be in peak fighting condition for an epic endgame boss battle.

SteamWorld Dig: A Fistful of Dirt will provide around five hours of enjoyment on the first run though, which is a little on the short side but it's a wholly unique, perfectly paced little game that never feels dull. There's also some replay value in the fact that ore locations are random with each new game, and given that so much time is spent digging around for ore, the game is well suited for speedrunning as players try to dig the optimal path to each objective.  And it seems to have gained some steam, prompting the folks at Image & Form to begin working on a sequel. This is a truly great game that should be downloaded immediately by anyone reading this. If you can't afford it then go donate some plasma, download this game, and play it through while you recover.

Released: 2013-08-08
Publisher: Image & Form
Developer: Image & Form


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