SteamWorld Dig 2
The original SteamWorld Dig was defined by its rewarding progression loop, fun exploration, and steam-powered cast. As a mining robot, your job was to excavate resources, then spend the money on items and abilities to make you even better at excavating resources. That simple, addictive formula still applies to SteamWorld Dig 2, but developer Image & Form Games has tightened the screws and polished the chassis, resulting in a sequel that feels like an upgrade in every way.
You control Dot (formerly a side character), who is searching for Rusty (formerly the hero) in a machine-populated version of the Old West. You don’t need experience with the original to enjoy this sequel; though a story plays out in scattered scenes, SteamWorld Dig 2’s narrative serves primarily as an excuse to send you into the mine near the desert town of El Machino. The characters are fun and their dialogue is entertaining, but the loop of digging, upgrading, and more digging is what makes the experience so engaging.
Like other games that follow in Metroid’s footsteps, SteamWorld Dig 2 limits your power and mobility at the beginning. Dot can basically only jump and swing her pickaxe, but that’s good enough to start hacking through the dirt. You fill up your limited bag space with the valuables you find by digging (fighting enemies along the way), then take a trip back to town to cash in and buy better gear. Hold more resources with a bigger bag, function underground longer with more lantern fuel, or chop the ground quicker with an improved pickaxe. I had trouble choosing among the array of available upgrades, because each one has a noticeable effect on your efficiency and profit. This cycle had me hooked, and I would often take “just one more trip” down into the mine to hit the next tier on a piece of equipment.
Once you buy basic upgrades with your earnings, you also open up additional augmentations that you invest in with cogs. This is a brilliant and flexible system that introduces a new world of experimentation. Since cogs are refundable, I enjoyed toying around with abilities in different situations. For instance, when I was dying frequently in one section, I put cogs into an ability that allowed me to keep some resources I had collected (rather than losing them completely) upon death.
The cog mechanic also puts some great aspirational upgrades on the horizon for players; I couldn’t wait until I upgraded my bomb enough that I could fire it in mid-air, since I knew of several hidden areas that ability would open up. Depending on how you allocate your cogs, you might be able to hover indefinitely in mid air, walk across lava, and automatically identify secret blocks. Beyond the simple thrill of getting stronger and stronger, I enjoy how this extra layer of upgrading gradually removes the barriers that prevent you from exploring every nook and cranny of the large map.
Your expanding arsenal is good for more than just digging deeper. You encounter various puzzle caves during your expedition, and these often require you to use tools like your grappling hook and bombs in unexpected ways. Sometimes success is a matter of problem-solving, and other times it’s more about whether or not you have the right upgrades. The puzzle caves are usually brief but clever, with cogs and/or collectibles as your typical reward, which made me systematically seek out and clear these fun diversions.
My biggest criticism of SteamWorld Dig 2 is the combat. Exploration and mining have lots of depth, but when you throw bad guys into the mix, the experience gets shallow. Your damage-dealing options are limited, and most enemies have predictable patterns and too little health. Fighting feels more like a nuisance, since it slows you down without being challenging or interesting. The same holds true for the handful of boss fights; even though they function just fine, the encounters feel perfunctory. Dodging waves of fireballs while you wait to hit an exposed weak spot doesn’t fit naturally with the rest of the gameplay framework.
SteamWorld Dig 2 is impeccably paced, with new powers and options opening up just when you were getting comfortable with your current loadout. The world is fun to move around, the characters are charming, and the process of gradually increasing your efficiency is airtight. Even with some lackluster combat, more intuitive controls and focus on mobility make it even better than the original. For a series all about digging down, SteamWorld Dig 2 is a clear step up.