The people over at Swedish development studio Image & Form are a sneaky bunch. They have brazenly managed to sneak what is clearly the music from Metroid Prime in to the title screen of their game, they have worryingly managed to sneak some sort of highly addictive narcotic substance into the gameplay, and they have confusingly – and brilliantly – managed to sneak a brave new take on the Metroidvania formula into a game that, at first glance, could be mistaken for very safe, traditional iOS fare.
Happily, this game is actually incredibly fresh and unique. The premise alone has given me the opportunity to put together one of the greatest combinations of words I’ve ever written for TNE. You see, it’s a Wild West Steampunk Robot mining game. Yeah. Just take that in for a moment. A very brief cutscene opens the game to find your character, Rusty, heading to town to take over your recently deceased robot uncle’s mine. And from there, it’s straight into the action. But what kind of action is it? Well, there’s a lot of mining! You’ll find yourself heading into the mine, digging up chunks of ore, returning to the surface and selling said mineral commodities in order to purchase new tools and abilities which will then allow you to dig deeper and extract more valuable elements. On the surface of it, that sounds quite a bit like an iOS game, but in the caverns below, the game reveals its hidden depths.
In fact, right from the start, the game displays the kind of level design that may well have been ripped straight out of Super Metroid. As you enter the area where you collect your first power-up (Pick-axe / Morph Ball) you realise that you can’t get back out, at least not without learning how to use your new-found ability. The fact that Image & Form even attempted to follow such a design template is testament to their ambition; that they mostly managed to pull it off is testament to their sizeable talents. The game progression is also handled a lot like Super Metroid, as you gather new abilities that, little by little, transform you from a bumbling axe-swinging rookie into a super-agile robot badass. The controls are incredibly tight. I mean, ridiculously tight. There are a handful of neat mechanics, such as the way in which your running speed affects the vertical height of your jump, that all come together to make traversal an absolute joy.
But it’s the area which you will be traversing – descending and ascending the ever-growing mine shaft – that is the real ace up this game’s sleeve. When you first enter the mine, it is mostly made up of solid rock. About 95% of this rock can be hacked, drilled and blasted away to reveal tunnels and crevices, but the kicker is this: by clearing out patches of rock and earth, you are effectively creating your own map. You could go about systematically destroying every tile in the immediate vicinity, but you must remember that what goes down must come back up, and if your over-enthusiastic mining leaves nothing but a deep empty cavern, you will leave yourself no path back to the surface. It’s such a fiendishly brilliant concept that encourages lateral thinking and forward planning in the early stages, and even lets you set your own difficulty. Do you think you have the skill to use a short run-up to gain enough speed to do a high jump, change direction in mid-air, and execute a perfectly timed wall-jump off the side of the overhang above? Yes? Ok then, you may remove that rock that was your safety net. Just make sure you’re sure before you swing that axe.
The pacing of the game is nothing short of masterful. You will be taking it slowly in the early stages, planning your route carefully, but towards the end of the game, as you become more confident in your growing array of abilities, you’ll be zipping about the screen, double-jumping like nobody’s business and hacking through the rock with wild abandon at about 5 times your original speed. Again, it is reminiscent of a Metroid title: you know that feeling when you revisit an area after acquiring the Space Jump and Screw Attack? Yeah, it’s like that. There is even a little (hint: not quite enough) required backtracking when newly-acquired abilities will allow further progress through particular chambers. I understand that it wasn’t really possible to implement this gameplay mechanic into the main mine shaft area (due to the ever-downwards progression and the create-your-own-map nature of the area) but they could at least have included some more side-rooms…
There are three distinct areas in the game: the initial mine shaft, which doesn’t hold too many surprises save for the occasional ostensibly fossilized creature breaking free from its rocky resting place to attack you; the long-buried “old world” which is home to some sort of zombie enemies (perhaps the last remnants of human civilization) and other environmental hazards; and a surprisingly awesome ‘final act’ area that doesn’t need to be spoiled here. All three areas are very beautifully realised, with some great artwork in the backgrounds and the creature design. Disappointingly, there is almost no 3D effect in use whatsoever. I think this is only the second 3DS game that I’ve played with the 3D off, because having it on really doesn’t make any appreciable difference.
The environments really do look great, though. The lighting adds to the experience, but the music is the thing that really sets the mood. The deeper you go, the more serious the atmosphere becomes, with a light classic western inspired theme in the first area giving way to a more sinister and foreboding theme as you enter the final stages. The game’s difficulty and story both follow this same pattern too: the seriousness of the plot begins to reveal itself at the same time that the enemies and hazards start to pose an actual threat. I have to say, I’ve been very impressed by Image & Form’s ability to take all these elements and put them together as one cohesive work of art; it leaves the player with the very satisfied feeling of having experienced the whole of a thing, the “complete package.” Yes it’s quite a short game, yes it’s quite an easy game, but there is definitely the incentive there to come back for a second play-through.
Steamworld Dig is a definite highlight amongst the already-high-quality offerings of the 3DS eshop. It is a game that adds up to more than the sum of its parts (beautiful graphics, fantastic music, super-tight gameplay) by virtue of the fact that every element is so perfectly integrated into one cohesive whole. I could say more, but this is one rare gem that you really need to uncover for yourself.