The world of Metroidvanias has grown surprisingly more robust this year, whether it be indie hits like Dead Cells and Hollow Knight or even the return of Samus herself in the appropriately named Metroid: Samus Returns. It isn’t often fans of a relatively niche genre are treated so plentifully to quality releases, and I’m sure few will be surprised that Image & Form Games continue this trend full steam ahead. In a follow up to their much-appraised 2013 title, the studio proves again that they are capable of crafting a warm and inviting world in Steamworld Dig 2.
As many fans of the genre can surely attest, it can be difficult to put down an open exploration game once it has its teeth in you. The difficulty for developers is ensuring the experience of longform gameplay is smooth, satisfactory, and comfortable. Common annoyances can quickly become excruciating when repeated within a core gameplay loop in a game all about exploring zones multiple times with new upgrades and abilities. With that said, Steamworld Dig 2 falls victim to almost none of these issues, offering up a laser focused and compelling sprawl through caves, dungeons, and factories.
You play as a steambot named Dorothy who’s searching for the original title’s protagonist, Rusty, who’s gone missing. Along the way you meet the maniacally-minded companion Fen, who’s wrapped up in a cult-like organization hellbent on ending the world with their “doomsday device.” The story is minimal, but it does a good enough job of shuffling the player from one zone to the next, providing humorous writing that did just enough to get a few chuckles out of me. Sometimes I wished the game gave me a little more to work with as far as Dorothy’s character and motivations were concerned, but what’s here is well-written and serviceable.
The world you’re plunged into immediately feels lovingly crafted, from the wonderfully hand-drawn art to the perfectly atmospheric music which fluctuates between moody ambiance and full blown chillwave. The animations of the models are done in a squash and stretch style that feels smooth as butter, and the grunts and beeps of robots as they spill their mechanical guts to you are both pleasant and fitting to the game’s style. The color palette alone is striking enough to leap through the screen, especially when playing in handheld mode on the Switch. The whole thing is a feast for the senses, making even the most basic exploration a joy to behold.
The tools of the trade for exploring this world range from a basic pickaxe to grappling hooks, jack hammer arms and, later on, a much-welcomed jetpack. Interestingly, you can only use your digging tools while standing on solid ground, which means as far as moving dirt goes, it’s all downhill. This leaves the player with a unique blend of movement and level manipulation. I often turned to climb back up a tunnel I had dug only to realize I’d trapped myself below through my hastiness. It requires a little planning to make yourself a traversable level, and to nab all the lucrative gems on the way down, leading to a satisfactory journey every time.
While the original Steamworld Dig’s levels were procedurally generated, the sequel packs levels which are very obviously hand crafted and cleverly designed. Giant rocks can be used to smash enemies if you dig carefully, and passageways back up to the surface are (usually) easily managed through smart use of unbreakable blocks in the level design. This is especially helpful because once your bag is full of minerals, used to sell for coins to buy upgrades, a trip to town is necessary.
You’ll be running back up to town quite often in the early game, but this is later made easier by fast travel points (in the form of pneumatic tubes) unlocked by digging further into the depths of the earth. This creates an interesting gameplay design: when your lantern is running low and you’re full on goods, the decision to risk the climb back to town or keep digging in the dark to try to find a pneumatic pipe can be a difficult one.
Most of the challenge in Steamworld Dig 2 comes from exploring every nook and cranny of its levels for secret caves, which contain essential Cogs used to upgrade your toolkit further. These caves contain challenges which require a bit more thought than how hard you need to swing your pickaxe at an enemy before it dies. They’re clever diversions, always pushing your ability to problem solve with whatever tools you’ve been granted, and feel rewarding enough that finding and completing them never felt like a chore. In areas where the game does stumble, such as its barebones combat, it quickly pulls itself up by the pneumatic-powered bootstraps of style and sound exploration mechanics. Any specific annoyance I found myself experiencing subsided so quickly I cannot clearly recall it for this review.
Throughout its sparse narrative, my time with Steamworld Dig 2 was wholly enjoyable. Every time I found a new upgrade my head spun with possibilities, and I immediately wanted to go spelunking with it. This is absolutely a testament to the quality of this title, and what makes games of its type so great to begin with. Steamworld Dig 2 is front to back quality, and clearly a work of genuine love. While it isn’t exactly pushing the envelope as far as the genre is concerned, one would be hard-pressed to find a reason not to add it to their library.
This review is based on the Nintendo Switch version of the game, which was provided to us by Image & Form Games.
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