I hate to admit it, but I rarely check the Nintendo 3DS eShop for new releases. It simply hasn't given me much to cheer about, so I was a bit surprised to hear noise about a little game called SteamWorld Dig from Image & Form, perhaps best known for the iOS strategy title Anthill.
So what it is SteamWorld Dig all about? Well, it's part Spelunky and perhaps even Dig Dug, mixed with platforming, lovely design, a nice progression system (somewhat Metroid influenced) and a sweet little narrative. Basic old school appeal with a nice shiny surface.
Rusty is a steambot. Now, it seems these steampunk flavoured robots are the only thing that survived some sort of apocalypse and Rusty is called out his uncle's old mining digs. Apparently the uncle is gone, but he's left his riches buried for his nephew to find. The story isn't really much in focus as it's mainly told through the environments and chatter with the other steambots on the surface. The deeper you dig the more treasures you collect and the dangers naturally increase as you descend. Much like dwarves, steambots apparently tend to dig too deep.
There is a really charming air about the game. The steambots and the enemies down below are well designed and there is an understated almost muted tone to the game that results in a mellow atmosphere. The fact that SteamWorld is designed as a platform or universe from which more games will come (the first one was SteamWorld Tower Defense for DSiWare) in the future is promising as this is a world I'd love to return to regardless of what the next game will look like.
The basics are easy enough to get accustomed to. You hack your way through layers of increasingly hard materials looking for minerals to sell (and thus level up your character and unlock new equipment to buy). As you do this the mining town on the surface grows as you uncover more and more secrets your uncle left behind for you. As you expect you find/unlock new abilities - steam punch, drill, double jump, and so on. There is a nice economy in place for using steam punch, drills and steam jumps as they consume water so you're faced with deciding whether you'd like to increase your water capacity or your health bar. My gut choice is to always go with health, but when you find yourself in a hole you've dug and your only way up is a steam jump, then you may find yourself regretting that decision (but you can always self-destruct and respawn at the surface leaving your current loot behind (in a sack to collect later) and forfeiting half the money you were carrying.
Enemies can be avoided, dealt with directly or indirectly (through using the environment to your advantage or perhaps a stick of dynamite). The platforming takes some skill, especially when you've blown up a few too many blocks and you need to wall jump/double jump your way back up again, but it never gets frustrating.
The game is very addictive in nature. Over the course of a weekend I found myself continously returning to the game for short chunks of gaming where the lure of the next discovery kept me coming back. There are naturally secrets hidden away and some that you have to come back to as you've unlocked new abilities. However, I would have loved more secrets and possibly even randomised minerals/dungeons, but alas, there is still plenty to keep you busy. I'm also not sure that adding a treasure detecting device midway through the game was a positive as it took away some of the exploration element.
There really aren't any 3DS specific features to be found in SteamWorld Dig. Sure you can use the touchpad for some menu options on the lower screen, and there is 3D support even if it doesn't make much of a difference on this sort of 2D title. However, the ability to always see the map (on the lower screen) is very convenient and certainly helps with the pacing.
For a downloadable title SteamWorld Dig is a decent size one. It took me just under ten hours of gameplay to settle the score with the underground, but I suspect a second playthrough would more than cut that in half and if you're more daring than this reviewer (i.e. don't return to the safety of the surface as much) you can probably play through it way quicker on your first try. Sadly there doesn't seem to be much incentive to replay the game and I would have loved a randomised element to the loot and the layout of the levels as it seems the perfect fit for a game of this nature. Nevertheless this is certainly a game worthy of a closer look and a great reminder that it pays to check out the Nintendo 3DS eShop a bit more often. SteamWorld Dig is as full of charm as they come.