SteamWorld Dig 2 marks a first for Image & Form’s beloved franchise. The game is not only the first true sequel to one of their SteamWorld games, it also provides a direct link that begins to connect the original trio of titles. Dig 2 literally starts where the original Dig ended, and the credits roll mere moments before the start of Heist.
Like the SteamWorld games that came before it, SteamWorld Dig 2 takes place in a post-apocalyptic world where humans have been driven underground and mutated into inarticulate monsters. The robots they left behind now live peacefully on the surface, only venturing underground for valuable resources.
It is a wacky premise, and not one that survives under careful scrutiny. The world and characters are charming though. You can tell that Image & Form know their stuff when it comes to crafting good steampunk.
A Robot on a Mission
The player controls Dorothy (who goes by Dot), a little robot who is looking for her friend Rusty. Fans of the franchise may remember that Rusty, the hero of the original Dig, suffers an unfortunate accident at the end of his adventure, so he never returns to the surface and no one knows where he is. Dot hears a rumor that Rusty was last seen in a nearby town called El Machino. She journeys to the town in hopes of finding a clue, but her arrival coincides with the emergence of some terrible earthquakes. These tremors frighten the town’s inhabitants, to the point that none of the robots want to venture back down into the nearby mine, much to the chagrin of the greedy mayor. He gives Dot permission to search for Rusty in the mine, on the condition she also look for gold, crystals, and all manner of sparkly rock and bring them to the surface to generate revenue.
She is quickly joined on her quest by the small blue sprite named FEN, long before he becomes the robotic ally of SteamWorld Heist’s Piper. FEN is easily my favorite character in the whole game. At the start of SteamWorld Dig 2, he joins Dot on a whim, hoping her adventures will satisfy his psychopathic fascination with explosions and mayhem. In return, he helps Dot map the caverns she explores and provide waypoints to her objective.
The two companions clash for most of the game. Dot is a kind-hearted and responsible robot. She is quick to call FEN out whenever he starts suggesting something murderous. The two’s banter provides most of the humor in SteamWorld Dig 2, as well as the game’s most charming moments as they begin to settle their differences and become close friends. The game gets a little too sappy for my tastes near the end, but Dot and FEN’s friendship is the highlight of an otherwise bland story.
Diggin’ For Some Sort of Plot
SteamWorld Dig 2’s story does a huge disservice to the world that Image & Form have created. Outside of FEN, the charismatic characters that Dot meets are mostly regulated to little more than quest givers. New allies conveniently have the exact piece of information that the player needs to progress upon meeting, and enemies are so stereotypically evil it is comical. There is one betrayal that took me completely off guard, but even it is not used to its full potential. The game did little to make me connect to the character, or convince me that they and Dot had forged a genuine connection. Most of my surprise over the betrayal sprung from the shock that this character I had written off was actually going to play a pretty significant role in the story.
SteamWorld Dig 2 does have one absolutely fascinating turn of events a little over halfway through its campaign. It temporarily mixes up the game’s entire formula and forces the player into a position where they must flee, instead of fight, for survival. It is very stressful and, honestly, a little scary. Unfortunately, without knowledge of the other three SteamWorld games, most of the ramifications of this particular story element will be lost on the player. Disappointingly, the game does little to dive into what exactly Dot experienced. However, the disappointment is quickly overshadowed by just how much fun this particular part of the story is to play (or make it any less cool), and the temporary transformation adds a sinister theme to an already stellar formula.
Minecraft, Meet Metroid
Outside of that one element, most of SteamWorld Dig 2 is a mixture of mining simulator and Metroidvania platformer. I love it. The player spends a good deal of their time digging underground. A lantern keeps the darkness at bay, but the fuel runs out quick. Dot will have to make repeated trips to the service to refill, or try to blindly navigate the depths filled with creatures that want to make Dot a pile of scrap. The same tools that Dot uses for mining can also be used in combat. Initially only being able to dig and melee enemies with a pickaxe, Dot eventually adds explosives, a jackhammer, a grappling hook, and a jetpack to her arsenal. These upgrades are hidden in machines scattered throughout the world, and Dot will have to battle numerous enemies, platform through puzzles, and explore strange caverns to find them all.
While digging, leaping, and battling through the mine, the player will encounter different types of valuable metals and rocks that they can bring back to the surface in exchange for cash. This cash can be used to upgrade the gear that Dot finds. Want to dig faster? Upgrade the pickaxe. Want to spend more time in the mine? Upgrade your bag to hold more resources or your lantern to hold more fuel. These materials are lost if Dot dies, regardless if it is from falling down a deep hole or being slain by a mini boss. Just like the amount of fuel Dot has for her lantern, players will have to keep track of the contents of Dot’s backpack, and weigh the value of continuing onward towards greater rewards at the cost of losing everything.
All of this is very much the same as the original SteamWorld Dig, but this sequel adds two new game elements that help set it apart. First, the mine beneath El Machino never changes. In the original Dig, the mine was procedurally generated, and players had to adapt to a new mine every time they descended. This time around, the mine has been structured like a Metroid game. It makes the mine feel more like a dungeon that the player is slowly mapping out and exploring. Second, Dot can find these golden gears scattered throughout the map. Some are just hidden somewhere in the world, but most are found in small caves that dot the mine. These caves act as self-contained puzzles, with a gear at the end of each. These gears can be attached to Dot to give her unique abilities. Some are pretty simple, like making all the treasure around Dot glows so that it is easier to find, while others radically change how the game will play, like making Dot have double the attack power but half the health. These gear abilities add some welcome variety to SteamWorld Dig 2, allowing players to customize Dot to fit their play-style. I wanted my Dot to be more combat focused, so I used the gears I found to give her higher attack, the ability to deflect long range shots, and spiky armor that damaged enemies that got too close. Gears can be unattached and reattached at will, so players are free to experiment with different abilities whenever they return to the surface.
Caught in a Loop
This game would have really benefited from some sort of auto save feature. Any time I died to a boss, the game would force me to walk back up to the boss room, down the hallway towards them, and then sit through the same intro cutscene all over again. Implementing an auto save after those cutscenes, or just giving players the option to skip these conversations entirely, would have saved me quite the headache.
More than once, dying to a boss would convince me to put the game down for a while, because I did not want to sit through the same conversation all over again. Holding down the A button may speed things up, but there was always a good 15-30 seconds of filler between death and being able to try again. That is way too long for the player to wait when they have just died and are only concerned with giving the fight another go.
Full Steam Ahead
SteamWorld Dig 2 truly shines when it embraces its Metroidvania inspirations and has the player digging through dungeons, solving puzzles, finding resources, and acquiring awesome new powers and abilities. The story could be much better though, and certain puzzles and bosses suffer from the lack of a more forgiving autosave feature (something that players have come to expect from their games).
I finished my first play through of SteamWorld Dig 2 in just under 6 hours. I had died 47 times, earned a total of $6194, and discovered a mere 20% of the game’s many secrets. I was honestly surprised. I could have sworn that I had mapped every inch of the catacombs that encompass the depths of SteamWorld Dig 2’s world. To have only seen 20% does not seem possible. Time to jump back in. Now that I am done with the story, I can dig to my heart’s content.