It isn't often that a game starts as a 3DS title and then gets ported to home platforms. Two of those instances occurred with games from big publishers: Capcom with Resident Evil: Revelations and WB Games with Batman: Arkham Origins Blackgate. The third company to take this route is independent developer Image & Form, who brought its surprise hit SteamWorld Dig: A Fistful of Dirt to PC. Now it's decided to give some love to Sony platforms, as the game was recently released to both the PS Vita and the PS4.
SteamWorld Dig is set in a Wild West where robots rule. Rusty has been asked by his uncle to come to the town of Tumbleton to take over the mine that he owns. Rusty reluctantly complies and discovers his uncle had just passed. He takes it upon himself to continue the mining operations, help to bring the town of Tumbleton back to prosperity, and uncover a few secrets along the way.
After a brief introductory level where you find the remains of your dearly departed uncle, you're introduced to some basic game mechanics before you're let loose on your newly inherited mine. Here, Steamworld Dig takes on a formula made popular in titles like Terraria and Super Motherload. You're presented with nothing but dirt, and you must use your pickax to dig around the mine to unearth valuable gems and minerals. There's no limit to how far you can dig down, but your bag can only hold so much loot, and your lamp has a finite amount of fuel. Once it goes out, you can't see what dangers lie ahead. Once this happens, you have to return to the surface to receive a free, automatic refill of lamp fuel. You can trade in the minerals you collected for cash, which can then be spent on better pickaxes, bigger loot pouches, or health refills. Travels between the mine and the surface will be frequent, and even though you can move quickly and have a quick wall-jumping ability, the constant traveling can become monotonous. Luckily, the game does several things to alleviate this feeling.
For one thing, the mine layout is pretty interesting. While the mine is decently sized, the developers decided that instead of making the mine physically deeper, they would give it depth by adding several different caves instead. Some of the caves are small but hide elements necessary for game progression. Others are optional but hide secret treasures. There's even a separate cave system that players can explore that's roughly the size of the initial mine. The world is well architected, and it's large without feeling overwhelming.
The second element that works in the game's favor is the addition of combat. As you explore the mine, you'll meet some enemy creatures ranging from armored turtles with launching spikes to deformed humans who sometimes wield dynamite or sludge-filled bottles. The bestiary is rather small, and combat can be avoided altogether, if desired, but it adds some variety to the gameplay if you want a small break from spelunking. It also means that the presence of a final boss won't be as much of a surprise as it was in Super Motherload.
SteamWorld Dig introduces the player to a gradual feed of new gameplay elements in the same vein as Metroid, and this is accomplished in a variety of ways. The most apparent is in the shop system, which lets you upgrade all of your tools or obtain new ones to help in your excavation quest. The mine contains several different power-ups that you can obtain, including sprinting, double-jumping and a rock drill. The mine is structured in such a way that you can return to earlier sections with these new powers to open up more areas and get even more minerals. There's also the leveling system that appears once you turn in these minerals for cash. Just like a standard XP system, converting more minerals into money means leveling up, which unlocks more abilities and upgrades that you can purchase. These unlocks are paced well, so an average of three trips to the surface occur before you see or get something new. As a result, the game constantly offers something new, and that entices the player to go down for one more trip.
The game is a nice little mix between an excavation title and a standard platformer. The adventure feels fine on a home platform where you can devote large chunks of time to do some power-leveling, but it feels equally at home on the PS Vita, where the game structure fits nicely into brief gameplay sessions. It is a short quest that can be finished in a day or two if you're dedicated, but there's never a moment that feels like it's dragging on. It has an uncanny sense of respecting time, making the brevity a good attribute instead of a bad one.
The only major complaint that can be levied is how there's nothing else to it once you've completed the game. Unlike other titles in the genre, this is a single-player-only experience, so you don't have the pleasure of sharing it with friends. There are no branching paths, either, so there's only one ending to see. The placement of ore is randomized, but the upgrades are in the same order all the time, so there's no chance to see how the game would play out if upgrades were provided in a different order. Unless you're trying to get all of the Trophies, there's not much of an incentive to play it twice, beyond the desire to relive the journey.
On the 3DS, the presentation was praised as being very clean and a shining example of the system's capabilities. It speaks volumes to the quality of the original incarnation, as the only real improvement to the PS Vita and PS4 versions was making the game scale properly. The colors for both the backgrounds and characters are bright and bold, and the animations are smooth. The use of lighting is impressive, as the color gradient changes depending on how far away it is from a light source. The circle of light that shrinks as the amount of lamp fuel dwindles is a great visual effect that almost eliminates the need for an actual light fuel meter. As for the audio, the voiced gibberish is endearing, and the sound effects come off just right. The music has a nice Western vibe, and it transforms into something a little more sci-fi-ish near the end, but it never overwhelms and fits perfectly with the rest of the presentation.
SteamWorld Dig is another title that has received the cross-buy treatment, but unlike most games in this program, it doesn't support the PS3. With the architectural differences between the PS4 and the Vita, players might expect the games to be vastly different, but the differences are rather minute. Touch-screen support is in for the Vita version, but it's simply an alternate means of issuing commands. The graphics are the same on both platforms, with the game running at a buttery smooth 60 fps. The only thing the game doesn't do is support cross-save, so going from the Vita version to the PS4 version means starting over. As a bit of a consolation, the game supports Trophies on the separate platforms, despite both platforms sharing the same list of Trophies.
Despite its brevity, SteamWorld Dig: A Fistful of Dirt is an enjoyable title. The premise may initially seem too simple, but the constant feed of tools and power-ups, coupled with speedy platforming, prevent the player from becoming bored. The mix of exploration and combat is blended well to the point where new additions don't feel out of place, and the only lament is how there's not much else to the game once you've finished it.
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