To say SteamWorld Dig 2 is built on a sturdy foundation is an understatement. The original SWD was hard to fault without resorting to nit-picking. With this in mind, Swedish developer Image & Form must have found themselves in a fortunate position when it came to this sequel’s pre-production.
With few criticisms and complaints to rectify, they were presumably free to focus on improving every aspect that made the original a joy to play.
So, how do you improve on something remarkably close to perfection? Simply double down on the good stuff. It’s immediately apparent that production values are far more lavish, boasting sharper, more richly detailed visuals, and ambient lighting. The storyline is more heartfelt too, with robotic cowpoke Dorothy (Dot) out to discover the whereabouts of Rusty, the likeable lead from the original SWD. She’s soon joined by Fen, a powerful glowing orb of light who’s rather fond of destruction. But in a good way – excavating is Dorothy’s forte, after all.
A lead on Rusty’s whereabouts brings Dot to El Machino, a mountain town sitting directly under a sprawling complex of mines and caves. After being hit by a mysterious earthquake the mine is back to being clogged with dirt, and no time is wasted getting back into the swing of digging and drilling for riches.
Dot starts her quest to track down Rusty with an assortment of crude but effective mining equipment. That’s to say, it’s slightly more advanced than the tech Rusty started out with. As such, the opening hour feels like far less of a slog. Dot later gains the kind of upgrades that Rusty could have only dreamed of, lending a whole new set of skills.
Upgrades and new items unlock at such a rapid rate that it’s uncommon not to return to the mine without a bigger backpack, improved pickaxe or similar. This adds a wonderful sense of progression, almost making self-improvement the central theme.
With every new upgrade – purchased using the various riches excavated from the mine – the further Dot can descend. The townsfolk of El Machino are eager to assist in her quest, giving pointers of where to head next, and so there’s never any confusion as to which direction to start digging. Warp tunnels make reaching the surface an effortless pursuit, and there are plenty of distractions along the way.
These mostly take the form of challenge and puzzle rooms, all of which have a neat nostalgic feel – if you mess up and destroy accidentally certain blocks, you must exit and re-enter the room to reset the puzzle. Trial and error is occasionally called for, but overall, each puzzle room is a delight to solve. Box shoving, switch flicking, precision platform jumping, and tricking enemies into doing your dirty work – all these bases and more are covered.
The reward for beating a puzzle room is usually a cog, used to unlock a perk via a workbench back at El Machino. Artefacts can be found, too – these well-hidden objects can also be traded in when back at the town, unlocking valuable rewards. It’s worth exploring the surrounding mountain ranges for riches, as the game’s Metroidvania-nature allows access to previously unreachable areas.
Not only is the gameworld far larger, with an intertwining temple to explore around the halfway mark, but it’s also much more varied too. A glowing underground forest – complete with giant bouncy mushrooms – and a lava-filled domain prevent a dominance of brown hues. Going back to the springy mushrooms for a moment, enemies are susceptible to what’s around them – it’s possible to set off huge, vastly amusing, chain reactions that set off explosives and send boulders tumbling, uncovering a wealth of riches and bestowing a hefty XP boost in the process. Crushing enemies under heavy rocks, a la Namco’s arcade classic Dig Dug, remains a curiously inviting play mechanic.
While much of SteamWorld’s structure remains unchanged – a simple yet compelling gameplay loop of mining, selling, upgrading, and descending further – it somehow manages to feel just as fresh as before. This is a game that constantly rewards players for going off the beaten path, rather than punishing them. A game that’s based around speed-running – with a fully-fledged ranking system in place – but one that actively encourages players to take their time and play at their own pace.
Finding a certain area a little too tough? Head back to an earlier zone and search for spoils you may have missed, all in the name of making Dot that tad more robust.
Although the 7-hour runtime (approx.) may still prove too short for some (the original clocked in at around 3 hours, we should note) you can easily add a couple more hours onto that total to see absolutely everything. It’s such a lovingly crafted experience, with a memorable musical score and delightfully eccentric characters, that you’ll doubtlessly want to start the adventure anew at a later date, possibly taking a different approach or path. It certainly caters for returning adventurers.
For a third time in a row – with SteamWorld Heist being the second – Image & Form has managed to create something a hair’s breadth from perfection. Few other studios can boast a record of accomplishment as luminary as theirs. It truly is something for the Swedish studio to be proud of.