After 2 years of staggered releases on assorted platforms, SteamWorld Dig finally comes to an Xbox system. An indie darling, does the gameplay translate well to the next-fen consoles? Let's dig in to find out.
Reviewed On: Xbox One
Platforms: Xbox One, PS4, Vita, PC, Mac, Linux, WiiU, Nintendo 3DS
Developer: Image & Form
Publisher: Image & Form
Release Date: June 5th, 2015 (Xbox One)
The art style for SteamWorld Dig is clean and painted, taking heavy influences from Steampunk and familiar western tropes. The consistency of the graphics wavers when it comes to the background and foreground elements however, with the detailed backgrounds in the gameplay areas clashing with the rather spare foreground elements in an off-putting way. It doesn't hinder gameplay in any way, but may cause a few moments of disorientation or confusion.
The HD port for the Xbox One runs smoothly, with little to no framerate hiccups or glitches to speak of, even with lots of explosions and effects occurring. The graphics synchronize rather effectively with the gameplay elements, and there were only a few instances where I had to ponder what a specific item or square was supposed to represent.
The gameplay of SteamWorld Dig is easily its strongest feature, borrowing heavily from the rogue-like genre and the addictiveness of digging for ore in Minecraft. As you dig through the depths of the mines and acquire various upgrades from exploration and the various vendors, you will start to feel a giddiness that can only come from a superbly designed title. Light puzzle elements and incredibly smooth controls also power this experience.
The gameplay is strategic, in the ways that you contemplate the paths you will need to dig to avoid enemies and acquire minerals, and awesomely kinetic, as the escalating upgrades will empower the player and up your movement speed. There is a minor quibble in the implementation of the lamp mechanic; why do you have to go to the surface to replenish your lamp when a) there are plenty of lamps underground that could be used to replenish your light like you do with your water tanks and the scattered puddles and b) your resources are limited and spending them on a teleporter just to replenish your lamp can induce frustration?
That quibble aside, there was a genuine sense of elation when I upgraded to the point where I was double jumping, digging through dirt squares at obscene speeds and power punching enemies off of steep precipices. There's enough depth here for anyone to be satisfied, even with the short length of around 5-6 hours.
The story is definitely this game's weakest feature. You play as Rusty, a robot who inherited a deed to a mine from his Uncle Joe, and he wants to learn the reason why. As you progress through the game you will meet a few shop-keepers who will distribute lore as you earn upgrades and progress through the depths of the mine. The way this lore is distributed is so haphazardly implemented that I accidentaly skipped through loads of it and still got the general gist of the story. Your uncle was mysterious and mysterious things happened in the mine, yeah, simple enough.
Suddenly, there's a boss and the game ends afterward on an unsatisfying cliffhanger. That's literally how the story progresses, vague lore dumps and a weak sauce boss reveal. As stories go, this is no Dante's Inferno.
The music for this game borrows heavily from Ennio Morricone's iconic western themes as a building block, but mostly follows the modern soundtrack trend of lots of musical details that blend together into a generic mass for different levels. While you may remember being vaguely impressed by the odd chord progression that goes a different direction than anticipated, this is not a soundtrack you will be recalling with affection.
The Sound Design for this game is less invisible, with the character-driven voice effects for the characters standing out the most (and with one character's "voice" being grating enough for me, and likely you, to rapidly skip through his "dialog"). In gameplay terms the sound design does its job, rather effectively when it comes to the SFX for your digging and jumping implements, and you definitely won't feel the need to turn down the volume in your headset when playing the game. There are a few moments of jarring SFX or sound loops going wacky, but they shouldn't cause more than a moment's distraction.
As a work, SteamWorld Dig falls short of being a definitive statement. It has the gameplay chops to compete with its Terraria and Minecraft inspired peers, but it lacks the thematic cohesiveness to make it a major entry. The story does drive the gameplay by scattering power ups (and their accompanying lore dumps) throughout the depths of the game world, but it fails to add any sense of the awe or mystery it wants to project. The music and art style have moments where they mesh, but I can barely find a thematic justification for the steampunk elements alongside the grand sweeps of Ennio Morricone-inspired music. The cohesiveness of this game definitely falls apart under close scrutiny.