Platform: 3DS (eShop, £7.99)
Developer: Image & Form
Publisher: Image & Form
The 3DS faces a major problem this year, in that there are simply too many great games to play on it and nowhere near enough time to do so. With Animal Crossing: New Leaf dominating most of our free time all by itself, attended by the likes of Fire Emblem: Awakening, Mario & Luigi: Dream Team Bros, Monster Hunter 3 Ultimate, Luigi's Mansion 2 and The Denpa Men 2 just for starters, Nintendo's handheld has ruthlessly spoiled us with so many excellent time sinks that either work or sleep has to suffer. I choose the latter. At least we've now got some time to catch our breath and work on the backlog before Pokemon X & Y makes an entrance.
Oh wait, no. Here's another great 3DS exclusive, and it only costs £7.99 to boot.
SteamWorld Dig stormed out of left field last week: announced during a fairly uneventful Nintendo Direct presentation and released immediately after Satoru Shibata finished speaking. If you bought it on impulse, you'll have already descended into a compelling robotic steampunk world of superbly-crafted exploration and subterranean spelunking, brought to life with excellent visuals and soundtrack. It's a little like Spelunky and Metroid had an impossible baby who was subsequently raised by Sergio Leone.
If you haven't then you should probably go and download it now - or at least stick around long enough for me to explain why.
As Rusty the robot (a blindingly obvious Clint Eastwood/Man With No Name homage), you've arrived at the ramshackle shanty of Tumbleton to take over an old mine, but discover... wait for it... hidden depths. Yes. See, I wasn't joking about the lack of sleep. Realising that the abandoned shaft is in fact brimming with untapped potential, you'll descend into its depths to carve out riches, improve the town and perhaps discover that the mythical "humans" - whatever they are - aren't quite so mythical after all. Story and context is present but never obtrusive, fleshed out in brisk muscular dialogue and environmental details, ensuring that gameplay is always front and centre.
SteamWorld Dig takes a while to get up to speed, introducing you its core mechanics at a manageable clip. On a basic level, Tumbleton is underlain by a staggeringly deep randomly-generated tunnel system, absolutely stuffed with mineral resources, hazards, traps and beasties. From a side-scrolling perspective, you'll explore the sprawling warrens, using an array of mining equipment to smash destructible scenery blocks and access new areas. Plenty of varied foes, from dangerous fauna to degenerate sub-human troglodytes, will keep you on your toes, while there's a wealth of gems, minerals and loot to fill your coffers. Beyond the enormous main shaft, plenty of optional puzzle chambers and hazardous sub-rooms are ripe for the plunder.
Carrying capacity, torch fuel and even water supply (you're steam-powered, remember) is limited, so you'll need to frequently return to the surface and restock. Doing so grants you access to an ever-expanding store, new abilities to purchase, tools to equip and new faces to meet as the town becomes more profitable. It's a two-way cycle, with revisits gradually increasing the depths you can reach and unlocking ever more powerful tools. Which results in deeper crawls and more resources. Which means better tools... and so on. Thankfully lower levels boast teleporters that can return you to the surface when discovered, saving you lengthy and tedious crawls back into daylight. As mentioned, the constant improvement of the Metroid series meets the compelling exploration of Spelunky and the scenery manipulation of Terraria, all wrapped up in a robotic Western.
It's nothing we haven't seen before a hundred times, but SteamWorld Dig works so well because familiar ideas have been implemented on a near-perfect level, making the experience feel vital and new. Beyond superbly responsive controls, new abilities and equipment are introduced through gameplay and learned via experimentation, not doled out to us in heavy-handed tutorials. It's an absolute joy to discover new ways to field equipment you've had for ages, perhaps trapping enemies in place with fallen blocks, or creating shortcuts back to the surface. Everything you accomplish in the main shaft is permanent, even down to trapped foes and dropped resources, making subsequent visits intensely satisfying as you circumvent previously impossible situations with new toys. At it's core, the primal thrill of getting just a little bit further every time is absolutely intoxicating.
I'm also amazed that even though the main mineshaft is randomly generated, it feels curated in terms of thoughtful trap and teleporter locations. This almost never happens.
Presentation is magnificent. In a far cry from some of the gritty and grainy eShop games out there, SteamWorld Dig has clearly been designed with high-definition assets, from the superbly detailed backgrounds to sprites that retain their clarity even when you get your eye in. Stereoscopic 3D is pleasingly subtle when activated, picking out platforms and letting you use it for long periods without eye strain or headaches. To top it off, the excellent soundtrack is worth its own mention, and evokes (if not gleefully rips off) the Spaghetti Western atmosphere brilliantly. My only gripe would be that a little more humour in NPC interactions would have been nice - and perhaps some more NPC interactions at a basic level - but again, the focus is very much on delving deeper underground.
Longevity ends up being heavily dependent on how much of a completionist you are. I personally clocked in at just shy of the nine hour mark, but numerous optional objectives and the 'just one more loot run' gameplay could conceivably last you an extra two or more hours on top of that. However, if you speedrun, I've seen reports of four hours from my peers. To coin a phrase: the more you put in, the more you'll get out... and regardless, it's all more than appropriate considering the £7.99 price tag.
Plus, remember, it's randomly-generated.
- Superb exploration gameplay in a massive randomly-generated environment
- Thoughtful and compelling upgrade system
- Sharp and detailed presentation, cohesive Steampunk Western aesthetic
- Slow start
- Perhaps short on genuinely new ideas
The Short Version: SteamWorld Dig is one of the best 3DS eShop titles available to date, and one of the best 3DS games of what has already been a sensational year. Saddle up for Steampunk spelunking, pardner.