Real Talk By: Zombie Zac
In SteamWorld Dig 2, developer Image & Form have managed to refine its unique blend of free-form mining and quirky rpg action while also walking back on some good design decisions from the first game. Right away we are reintroduced to Dorothy, a steampunk robot (who was an ally in the first game) and through boring text bubbles the goal of rescuing Rusty is explained. Yes, the characters talking back and forth are presented in little text bubbles and no I didn’t find it charming like most Nintendo games— I mashed through them trying to not lose my excitement. Rusty, the original protagonist (who went missing at the end of SteamWorld Dig), now looms large over the adventure. In fact, Rusty was a cooler character than Dorothy— not that it matters much— but right off the bat, I was kind of ‘meh’ about playing as her. Needless to say, I like the game but I have some issues with it. Let’s dig a little deeper (I’m sorry, but not sorry).
The gist of the game is the same from the first go ‘round. You dig down below the surface and collect materials to sell back up at town while fighting a variety of enemies, solving puzzles, and platforming. With coin and collectible cogs, you can choose to buy or upgrade gear and expand abilities. SteamWorld Dig 2 goes further in this department than before and expands on the abilities, giving you more ways to build your character. At the end of the day, there won’t be drastically different builds from one person’s experience to another. Abilities more or less are minor enhancements that help you speed up mundane tasks and give you a bit of an advantage while exploring. Think dig faster, collect items from further away, lose less when you die, hold more materials in your bag than normal. It would have been cool if there were wildly different ways to play the game based off what you invested in. Maybe I drill with lasers, or I’m an explosives technician, or how about I can possess enemies and have them drill for me or fight on my behalf. Instead, the abilities play out much more like adding layers of convenience to a game that didn’t really need it.
In one of the more disappointing changes, the levels are no longer randomized. In the first game, each time you started over, everything was new again, with your experience being in some ways unique to you. It felt more akin to games like Terraria, or Spelunky in those ways. Image & Form have decided to lean further towards the Metroidvania influences and I feel this is the weaker aspect of the series. In SteamWorld Dig 2, randomness has been thrown out for a more meticulously handcrafted world and while this leads to some more “Wow” moments, it also reinforces that the level design just isn’t anywhere as good as a Castlevania or a Metroid. In those games, we explore gorgeous castles, and complex alien terrains, with surprises around every corner. In SteamWorld Dig 2, while the terrain is more varied and vivid than its predecessor, the game environments still feel oddly confined by its grid-based design, and cool vistas are cramped before they can have any real ambiance.
That brings me to the combat, which is primarily a combination of simple melee and projectiles. It’s not that exciting. If the focus of the game is less on the materials, and carving your own unique world, then let’s give Dorthy some more flexibility on par with an Aran or a Belmont. The fighting just isn’t interesting. It’s not outright bad, but its definitely not in the same league as the games it’s influenced by. That’s not to say that it isn’t still fun to dive deeper and deeper into the ground and to blow up some baddies, but it always feels limited not your imagination, but by the lack of tools given to the player. The puzzles all have very rigid ways you must solve them as well, leaving little to no experimentation in completing them. This makes it all feel at times a bit paint-by-numbers. Dig to a specific point, solve a puzzle in a specific way, go to the town and pick from a few possible upgrades, rinse repeat.
While aspects of the game can be repetitive, its always fun to dig and bring back a good haul of some rare crystals and gems. Even though the abilities themselves aren’t game changers, it does feel good to drop back down below the surface more powerful than you were before. And what feels really good is playing on the Switch. It has got to be the best way to enjoy SteamWorld Dig 2— but regardless of platform, the best way to play is in short bursts. I suppose you could sit down and do a four-hour long play session, but at a certain point, it just feels like you’re plowing through the game and not letting it breathe. There are no substantial deviations from the core gameplay to distract you or to allow the main objective to refresh itself a bit, and that hurts extended play sessions. Because of that, you’re almost always progressing towards Rusty, just hammering away at dirt and stone and constantly warping back to home base to sell. It can feel like busy work. Taken in smaller doses, the world is inviting, the gameplay providing a quick sense of reward. Couple that with a clear map and fast travel system and no matter how long you’ve been away you can jump back in.
I do miss some of the survival aspects from the first title that have been streamlined in this process. Immediately out of the gate the game wants to flash on the map where to dig all the time, cutting all the mystery out. Thankfully, you can turn that off. But there are other things too, like when you siphon water it doesn’t deplete, meaning you can be as reckless as you want with your water based abilities, and always have endless refills. That wasn’t the same in the first SteamWorld Dig, where stumbling upon a mini underground pond was in some ways more rewarding than treasure. I also didn’t have to worry about managing my light radius around me as much, which made exploring less dangerous— I upgraded the light almost immediately and never felt the pressure of coming back up from the darkness. Add on to this the fact that the music is really repetitive, to the point where I end up turning it off altogether and put the TV on in the background or listen to my own music. While everything looks nice enough, the 2D art style still feels a bit “Internet Flash game” to me and I wish they had gone with a more polygonal look to make the environment feel more substantial.
In closing, I realize this review probably reads pretty bad. But I’m not going to give it a ‘bad’ score. In fact, I would argue that for the right person, this is one of the better games available on the Switch eShop right now. Especially for $19.99. Unfortunately, I just didn’t really jive with the changes in the formula. And all this digging starts to feel lonely. How much fun would this be with a second player? Huge missed opportunity. So in the end, each design change felt like it was just aimed at making SteamWorld Dig 2 more accessible, not more interesting. It felt like it was designed to be much more entertaining from the start and have far less of a buildup to your powers— but I like that feeling in games when you start with next to nothing and rise above it (or in this case, dig below it— ha ha). I wanted a wider, more daunting, more mysterious world to dig into, and instead, I got a calculated, streamlined new coat of paint that’s missing some key components that I felt made the series unique. If you haven’t played the first one, you’ll likely have a more pure experience with SteamWorld Dig 2. Hollow but fun, SteamWorld Dig 2 carves its own place on Nintendo’s eShop, but doesn’t dig deep enough to distinguish itself from its predecessor’s ideas.
SteamWorld Dig 2 Gets:
3 out of 5
+Addictive to dig
+Better upgrade and ability options
+Good value for price
-Upgrade and ability options don’t go far enough
-No more world randomization
-Repetitive combat, soundtrack
-Lack of player experimentation with puzzles
-Graphics still feel a bit “Flash Game”