It’s perhaps an understatement to say that the Nintendo Switch has been a hit with independent game developers. If the recent buzz surrounding “Nindies” during this year’s PAX West isn’t evidence enough, we only need to look at the eShop itself to see just how successful 3rd party games have been on the console.
There are plenty of reasons these games receive attention on the Switch: space between major Nintendo releases, or having an established fan base from other consoles. Still, the most obvious reason is simply the quality of these indies themselves. Our reviews of Wonder Boy: The Dragon’s Trap, Severed, the Azure Striker Gunvolt: Striker Pack and plenty more paint a pretty clear picture: the Switch is absolutely bursting with indie gems.
I’ll leave the obvious jewel-based segway aside, and simply say that SteamWorld Dig 2 earns a place among the indie greats on the Switch, perhaps even leading the pack. It’s a delightful, addictive adventure that is at once approachable and deceptively immersive. If digging for treasure in a bot-filled westworld wasn’t your business before, it should be now.
SteamWorld Dig 2‘s visual style discards the pixel art common among indie games on offer right now, opting for a clean, high resolution 2D aesthetic. The choice is obvious to veteran fans of the SteamWorld series, but whether you’re familiar with Image & Form’s mining saga or not, it’s hard to deny the impact of the team’s direction.
The game’s various zones are beautifully drawn, with great lighting and animation effects that make the world feel alive, even when you’re deep below the surface where you’d not expect much more than dirt. Light is a key element of navigating the tunnels you dig through the world, and as your lantern burns down the world closes in around you, creating an increasingly claustrophobic effect.
Lighting is executed particularly well in SteamWorld Dig 2. Zone with luminous mushrooms and enemies feel lush and mysterious, and you can practically feel the heat from lava or the sun in key areas. The game’s light highlight the world in really wonderful ways, heightening the sense of danger, and adding realism to an otherwise cartoonishly colorful world.
Color certainly pulls its weight here as well. The game’s home city and its inhabitants feel unique and whimsical in pastels that pop against the desert background. Temple’s are uniform and mysterious, but not drab or over-embellished. The aforementioned underground mushroom forests feel lush and vibrant, all thanks to the clever implementation of color and the high resolution textures the game provides.
It’s a stunning package overall, and while the animations and garbled character “voices” are somewhat more simplistic, they don’t detract from the impressive package the game presents. In both handheld and docked modes, the game runs at a smooth 60 frames per second in 1080p, and it’s hard not to get pulled into the world as you dig deeper into the depths.
The game’s soundtrack is perhaps the least memorable aspect of it’s presentation. While it certainly didn’t pull me out of the game, it didn’t do much to enhance the experience, either. Tracks are appropriate to the setting; whining harmonicas and mournful guitar work highlight the city and dusty plains, while ominous tones accompany the darker depths. Still, I found myself really hoping for just one track that might stick in my head, or get my pulse racing during a challenging moment. It felt like the composer made sure the music matched a theme, but not enough was done to understand the emotion that players might experience at a given moment.
SteamWorld Dig 2 ‘s delightful presentation wraps around one of the most exciting action-adventure games I’ve encountered in years. It’s a game that speaks to the team’s experience building this type of game, and crafting this particular world. It recalls memorable adventure games from early Nintendo consoles. I have no doubt SteamWorld Dig 2 would have found a hallowed spot on my shelf beside the likes of Super Metroid, Mega Man and Kirby.
At it’s core, SteamWorld Dig 2 is simple: dig down, grab loot, haul it back up to sell. It’s a gameplay loop that served it’s predecessor well, and informed every other aspect of the game’s story and world. As the game layers other mechanics onto of this base, the true appeal comes into focus.
Digging serves to procure cash for valuable upgrades, like the tried-and-true increase in hearts and energy (water, in this case…this is “Steam” World after.) Scattered throughout the world are stations that add new tools to your arsenal, such as speed-boosting boots or a water-powered bomb gun. Gathering gems and resources let you improve every aspect of your character, which in turn unlocks upgrade cog slots that further modify and customize your gear.
Image & Form has done a fantastic job here of giving you enough options to let you prioritize mechanics you like without introducing the stress of “optimizing” your gear for specific encounters. It’s not so stripped down that you have access to everything, but it’s by no means overwhelming. I felt just powerful enough to take on most things I might run into, but not so strong that I was willing to leave precious resources behind in the mines.
Perhaps a less obvious, but more important, aspect of digging is the reality that you really can forge your own path through the game. There are very few pre-dug tunnels, and for most of the game it’s up to the scrappy hero Dot and her luminescent companion to carve their way through SteamWorld‘s fast underground.
It’s a clever approach to classic level design; I found myself constantly looking for the most optimal digging routes. Those that would not only give me the surest path to my objective, but would also net me the most loot and still be a reasonably quick hike to the nearest travel point. Steam-powered chutes are scattered throughout the mines, so you’re not always doomed to climb to the surface, but these points aren’t always in the most convenient spot, so you’ll have to dig efficiently.
There’s somewhat less to say about combat in the game. Tools made primarily for digging can also be used to damage enemies, but Dot is not necessarily a battle-bot at heart. Your trusty pickaxe is a primary weapon as well, but bombs damage enemies and even the environment can altered to drop rocks on enemies or dunk them in water or lava. It’s a fine system, and one that doesn’t break the pace of exploration, but it felt somewhat secondary. Boss fights were usually more focused on positioning than reflexes or strength, and I often found myself willing to forego the XP and potential resources enemies might drop rather than take them on.
Still, the lack of polish and focus on fighting isn’t necessarily off-message for the game, as Dot’s character doesn’t really center around her as a warrior, and sidekick Fen’s penchant for violence is more of a comedic reprieve than a call to arms. It felt rewarding to sidestep fights at certain points, and I rarely found myself truly spoiling for a fight.
For me, perhaps the most surprising aspect of SteamWorld Dig 2 was the subtle but purposeful focus on building a world, and telling a story. It’s the kind of experience I rarely anticipate from action-adventure games, especially those that feature a key element like mining. Often when games like this do feature a story, its woefully simple and leaves very little of the rest of the world to consider.
SteamWorld Dig 2 picks up after the events of the original SteamWorld Dig. Dorothy McCrank is on the hunt for Rusty, who disappeared in the wake of the first game’s climactic final sequence. Along the way, she encounters an earthquake that plunges her into a mysterious underground temple, where she encounters a harmless remnant of the first game’s antagonistic Vectron. Upon making her way to El Machino, she finds that earthquakes have been terrorizing the city for some time, and sets off into the mine’s to suss out Rusty’s whereabouts and the source of the quakes.
It’s a simple set up, but as the game progresses it branches out in surprising and engaging ways. Rarely did I find myself anticipating plot turns or the end result, and the pacing didn’t feel rushed or spread thin. The writing is simple and the overall tone is perhaps not as grave as events might warrant, but characters were relatable and fun without feeling annoying or insincere. Perhaps most importantly, the game does well to catch up players who may have missed other entries in the series. Players familiar with SteamWorld Dig and Heist will likely get a bit more from this sequel, but it’s by no means a requirement.
Dot can strike up conversation with most denizens of El Machino (and beyond) as well. Many of these encounters do a lot to flesh out the world beyond the story itself, so if you’re looking to understand what really turns the gears of SteamWorld, it’s worth taking the time to chat. Fen adds a good layer of context to some of the more ancient areas of the game as well, chiming in with tidbits or the occasionally darkly sarcastic remark.
You’ll also find artifacts hidden throughout the world that give some small insight to how things were “before.” These artifacts have other purposes as well, as some of them require solving a challenging puzzle or meeting certain requirements to gain access to them. A certain professor in town also offers coveted blueprints if you collect enough of them, giving you access to rare enhancements for your gear.
All of these aspects come together to make the world feel more alive and vibrant than it necessarily needs to be to carry the game’s core mechanics. To be clear: that’s a very good thing. It speaks to a development team that’s invested in bringing players into their world; hoping to connect players to something that can carry on when all of the gems are mined and all the weird dirt-bugs smashed to bits. Plus, Image & Form has confirmed that aspects of SteamWorld Dig 2 tie into the events of 2016’s SteamWorld: Heist, weaving an even stronger connection to the larger series.
The Bottom Line
SteamWorld Dig 2 has all the moving parts of a truly unforgettable indie Switch title. The core campaign is long enough to satisfy, but not so much that fatigued players are barreling toward its end. It offers enough incentive to explore without threatening to bury under vast options. Its world is beautiful without overt stylization; endearing but not patronizing.
While it doesn’t take advantage of many unique Nintendo Switch features (HD rumble is included, but not heavily explored,) SteamWorld Dig 2 feels great both in the dock and in handheld mode. It’s great as a relaxing, low stress wind-down at home, and reliable as an engrossing time sink on a lunch break or a train ride. Nintendo’s 3DS was a great home for the original SteamWorld, and I’m happy to see that tradition continued on the Switch.
SteamWorld Dig 2 is available now on the Nintendo Switch eShop, and it’s certainly worth the price of admission whether you’ve played earlier SteamWorld games or not.