I don’t know if I can remember a series of games as varied as that of SteamWorld, and certainly not from an indie studio. Since 2010, each entry into Image & Form’s steampunk cowboy robot series has been an entirely different genre and approach to game design, keeping only a familiar aesthetic and sense of humour as the link between titles. SteamWorld Tower Defense, Dig, and Heist, primarily designed for Nintendo handhelds as far back as the DS, have been marvelous, mysterious and bizarre titles from the off. With their first true sequel, SteamWorld Dig 2, the studio appear to have done something just as revolutionary as with their first three titles: keep an existing game design, rather than start from scratch.
SteamWorld Dig 2 sees the player control mining robot Dorothy, exploring a series of mineshafts and trying to determine what happened to previous series protagonist, Rusty. Dorothy, armed initially with only a rudimentary pickaxe, must explore a series of mineshafts. Attacking loose squares of dirt creates new pathways to explore and exposes buried treasure, which when banked can be used to purchase new mining tools and upgrades. The mines are fraught with danger, from various critters to falling rocks that must be avoided. There’s a definite whiff of classic arcade titles like DigDug or Boulder Dash to the design. On the surface, it’s pretty simple: Dig, collect treasure, return to the surface before you die.
In actuality, the difficulty ramps at such a pleasantly steady rate that by the time you unlock new mining tools and are fighting tougher enemies, the game has done a pretty brilliant job of making sure you are trained and ready to complete whatever challenge is sent your way. Various hidden relics and upgrade gears give the player a reason to search high and low through levels to ensure they uncover everything they can, and most can only be found with a smart use of the tools available.
By gating some upgrade points behind these secrets and navigation puzzles, Image & Form do a masterful job of encouraging the player to look high and low, and to work out exactly how each tool works. By the time the game reaches its conclusion, the platforming skill required is quite demanding. However, with intelligent design principles, Image & Form have made sure the player has all the tools necessary to learn how to best their foes.
The SteamWorld series has always found a home on Nintendo handhelds, and the Switch version of SteamWorld Dig 2 is exceptional, and clearly designed with the console in mind. There is a vibrancy of color and music that’s simply outstanding, and once again demonstrates that terrific art design will always shine, even on lower powered hardware. The controls are intuitive and tight, and by encouraging players to delve into the mines and return with hoards of jewels before death, most runs aren’t particularly long. This makes for a perfect handheld game: precise enough to be playable anywhere, pretty enough to stand out, and fast enough to allow for a quick blast while on public transport. I love playing it on the Switch.
SteamWorld Dig 2 isn’t the longest game, and though there are a handful of new ideas sprinkled throughout its length, it definitely bears more than a striking resemblance to its predecessor. That said, it has been four years since the original, and I was more than ready to play some more. A good sequel has a difficult balance to uphold. On the one hand, it should double down on what made its predecessor great; enhancing nostalgia with new and improved mechanics to elicit joy. It must also act as an introduction, bringing new players into the fold and showing them what they missed out on the first time. SteamWorld Dig 2 manages to sail cleanly in between both points, acting as a fantastic introduction to new players, and a welcome new challenge for returnees.
Above anything else, SteamWorld Dig 2 is a gorgeous, challenging platformer that does more than its fair share to differentiate itself from its contemporaries. Even if it edges a little closer to its predecessor than you may hope, there’s still more than enough new to keep you entertained until the credits roll.