With portable gaming, context is everything. You’re often commuting, or doing something else whilst playing, maybe even both. In this environment, you need something to engage your brain, but nothing that will completely take it over. It’s why the big, epic games don’t translate well to the smaller screen. People don’t want it, and often developers don’t see that. But in the case of developer Image & Form, they know it all too well, and have created Steamworld Dig as a great slice of mobile gaming.
The game revolves around a dwindling robot town, built above a mine your uncle left you. It’s up to you to explore the caverns below, mine the jewels found within, and discover the secrets in the shadows. Think Dig-Dug, with RPG Levelling, that looks like a cross between Abe’s Odyssey and Braid. The art style is great, and the character design is fantastic. The enemies are a bit boring, but they play a small role in the game. The robot townsfolk spring up as the game progresses, each one offbeat and funny, filled with clever design and dialogue.
Developers looking for good examples of carrot-and-stick gameplay should take notes here. The game is fantastically paced in terms of items and abilities. There’s always something to do and spend your coins on. Just when you think you’ve mastered the cave, you stumble on a whole new area, giving fresh possibilities and shortcuts to keep you playing that little bit longer. It’s nothing especially unique in the genre, but I think it’s worth noting as it’s done so well here.
The upgrades and abilities themselves are also nicely balanced, too. Steam-powered drills and modifications require water, which can be found throughout pools and underground lakes throughout the game. Unlike other games, the water is limited. The pool will actually drain when you use it, making you dig further or make your way back to the surface. Steamworld Dig never stands still. Although empowering, the game always meets your new abilities with new challenges, preventing fatigue setting in.
When playing this game, I quickly realised that this game falls under the category of ‘inexplicable compulsion’. Games that take over you, games that swallow up hours of time, but you can’t quite explain why. I don’t know why I felt it was so important to make my Cow happy in Harvest Moon, or why I stayed up until 2am at aged 14 making sure the field of Turnips I planted on my Game Boy Colour grew perfectly. All I know is that at the time, that was all that mattered.
Steamworld Dig has this compulsion built into it. The game looks nice, and the story is good enough, but I didn’t care about revitalising an old Robot town. I just needed to get a larger bag, a stronger pickaxe, to go deeper into that mine. At the heart of the game is this compulsion, and one which serves it well as an addictive platformer for a portable platform.
Its premise is simple. It’s gameplay has been done before, but Steamworld Dig does it all solidly and with aplomb. This is what a Vita game should be. You can pick up the game easily, but putting it down is the real challenge.
Published by Image & Form