By John Walker on December 5th, 2013 at 5:00 pm.
We learned late last month that metroidvania-meets-Spelunky-and-other-stuff dig-em-up SteamWorld Dig, the 3DS hit, was making its way to PC. Today it’s arrived, on Steam, and I’ve finished it all over again. Here’s wot I think:
If you played SteamWorld Dig on 3DS, then yes, good news, this is precisely the same fantastic game but with far lovelier graphics. If you didn’t, then gosh, do I have a game to recommend to you.
SWD follows a smart, zeitgeisty recipe. Two parts Metroidvania, one part mining game, and a splash of roguelite platforming sensibilities. But rather than a cynical embracing of current trends, it then also manages to include something else: being brilliant.
You play as a robot, coming into a Wild West town to claim his uncle’s mines. After the advice of the town’s fantastic locals (who will also prove to be shopkeepers), you head underground, to see what’s what. And ‘what’ is your uncle, rather dead. So with a practicality that only a serious-faced robot can offer, you grab his pickaxe and start hitting stuff.
The game is very much about creating downward paths. The 2D game is essentially tiled, the ground made of square blocks, but oddly never feels that way – it always feels organic and free-flowing. There’s loose earth, stone, precious stones, impenetrable rock, and so on. Your pick will only manage the former, with other tools coming your way soon for dealing with the tougher stuff.
Those downward paths can prove quite crucial, since there’s a good chance you’ll want to retrace your steps. And it’s entirely possible to carve away at the game in such a way that you leave yourself unable to. That’s not a game over, in any sense – there are teleporters (both pre-placed, and ones you can buy and drop), and there’s an option to self-destruct, and be rebuilt up top while losing half your current cash. But those paths are permanent. As you explore farther, you open up new mines, perhaps five in total (I’m not best at counting), and retracing your steps isn’t something you regularly need to do. But at the same time, it adds a splendid element of care as you dig for treasures.
When you head back up top, you can exchange your mined goodies for cash, and then spend that on upgrades from an increasing number of store owners. These can be better tools, better versions of current tools, more health, and very crucially, benefits toward light and water.
Water is used for various special abilities and tools. Its limitations mean you can’t just go drilly willy nilly, or super-jumping everywhere. Finding pools of it is usually the best bet, standing in them and hearing the excellent slurrpiiscrlurpp sound as our hero soaks it in. Killing enemies can also yield a bit of water, but you’re taking a chance there, as they’ll also drop health, or light.
Light indeed – it’s the most important resource in the game. The longer you’re down in the mines, the darker it gets. And this is delivered extremely effectively. The screen begins gorgeously illuminated, and the gradually the darkness draws in around you, until you can barely see past where you’re stood. You can still play, but you’re risking destroying a block that supports a big mean droppy-down metal thing that’ll squish you, or walking off a ledge into a big plunge. So you either attack things to maybe get their odd drop, or you make a trip back to the surface to restock. It sounds like it might be frustrating, but it rarely is. It’s just another element to think about as you play, another reason to be careful.
Along the ways down, you find doorways to puzzle rooms. There are only maybe a dozen of them – it’s not the focal point of the game – but in these you’re set some very satisfying challenges to complete with your ever-expanding collection of abilities. The rewards are often floaty blue orbs which are needed to buy certain upgrades, or just some phat mineral loot.
So in the end, when I look at it, the game really is about digging for jewels, selling them, then digging for more jewels. And yet it never, ever feels like that as I’m playing. I’ve finished the game twice now, once on 3DS, and now on PC, and both times I’ve been absolutely hooked throughout. And it’s thanks to the incredibly subtle cleverness behind the design. As the game goes on, even mining itself becomes a more elaborate task, requiring forethought and care to get to the tougher places, without cocking up your route. The layout isn’t just blank sheets of rock to mine, but intricately crafted domains, as interesting as possible to explore.
Another design element that deserves celebration is how it very cleverly gets you to retrace earlier steps to pick up what you missed. You could do that at any time, but then the drive to keep moving forward is pretty strong. So when the game has you revisit a few specific challenge areas to reveal some surprises, along the way you re-explore places, now complete with a pile of extra skills. Everything is suddenly more accessible, and those places you messed up and couldn’t climb back up are now reachable. This is a game that makes you wait an agonisingly long time for the precious double-jump, but once you’ve got it, oh boy.
The PC realisation of the formerly tiny-windowed system is smart, and the transition doesn’t lose anything for missing a second screen. The new interface keeps everything tidily around the sides, and the map – while annoying that I couldn’t find a way to zoom out – sits sensibly top right and does a fine job.
A serious concern was my not finding a way to adjust the PC controls. The game, like Spelunky, makes more sense to play on a controller, and I did. But again, no options for moving the buttons about. That seems like a hefty oversight.
When it comes to resolutions, however, it’s the best possible world. There are no options – uh-oh. Except, run it in a window and you can then stretch and resize it to anything you want, and the game instantly conforms, and looks pristine. All games: do that please.
The result is a perfect transition of an already adored game, re-rendered beautifully for the PC. It never looks less than gorgeous, and the tiny details that were almost unappreciable on the 3DS can now be properly enjoyed. Like, for instance:
The few characters in the game are bursting with silly, pantomime personalities, foils for your silent, straight-faced champ, but they don’t nag or get in the way of what matters: digging for treasure. Perhaps most importantly, the controls are all but perfect. The 3DS build was rightly praised for having such absolutely amazing controls, every leap, hit and wall-jump feeling spot on. And the same is true here – it’s something easily taken for granted, as perhaps it should be, but it remains outstanding in its class. The “all but”? Oddly, just like the handheld version, it sometimes seems to misfire the double-jump on your first bounce. Not often, not in a way that spoils anything, but enough for me to hold back on giving it the “perfect” they’d want to quote on an advert.
(“‘perfect’ – John Walker, Rock, Paper, Shotgun”…)
It remains a joy. It’s calming, pleasurable, cute and tricky. It’s Spelunky for people who don’t like restarting all the time. But it’s also its own distinct notion, with its focus on progression over difficulty. SteamWorld Dig is a really lovely, very fun time. What a great thing for a game to be.