Gameplay loops are central to most games. Practically every single game comes built in with some kind of cause and effect system. In Mario you complete levels to advance further and unlock new levels. In Minecraft you climb the next hill in search of new horizons and vistas to track down materials for crafting. In Bloodborne you slowly crawl your way through the world dying over and over and over and over again until you finally get strong enough and learn to progress. SteamWorld Dig 2’s core gameplay loop is so finely tuned and brilliantly constructed around the various mechanics and systems that it makes for an addictive, essential experience.
Full disclosure: I never played the first SteamWorld Dig. I own it, having bought the SteamWorld Collection along with SteamWorld Heist on Wii U, but I’ve never played it. While this is a direct sequel to the first game it builds on the first in a way that doesn’t leave those who missed he first in the dark.
True to its name, this is a game about digging. You and your trusty pickaxe make your way through mostly vertical levels (you are making your way down for the most part but maps are fairly large and varied, including plenty of digging to the side). You have a number of limitations though. You can only carry so much loot, your lantern has only so much oil and your health may start running down. As a result you’re incentivised to play the game in quick, smaller chunks. You dive down under ground, digging everything in sight until you get your fair share of loot (or darkness encroaches) and you return to the surface to upgrade your character. Digging almost becomes a puzzle as you want to make sure you don’t accidentally cut off your route to dig your way to certain sections of the map. You chart your path through the world and if you cut something cool off in the process, that’s on you – plan better next time (or come back later better equipped).
That’s the incentive to explore and grab all the jewels and valuables you can get your hands on – every single thing is upgradable. You can power up your pick, get stronger armour, add oil to your lantern, add skills an abilities (using gold as well as special cogs you find that allow for full customisation regarding what kind of character you want to play as (and can be removed and reapplied at will so there’s no fear that you’ve created a character you feel trapped by)) as well as the various different bombs, drills and other tools you unlock to assist you along the way. That loop – dig, loot, upgrade, repeat – is so simple and brilliantly executed that you always want to do just one more run. One more loop. One more upgrade. One more little area that you haven’t quite explored yet. The more you play the more you upgrade the more you want to experiment with what you just upgraded. All the game’s systems click in unison in a way that feels extremely satisfying.
Movement is essential to the game. At the beginning you’re quite limited. You can wall jump to make your way back where you came but that’s about it. As the game progresses however your movement options explode offering opportunities to move back through places you’ve already been in new ways, allowing you to access areas you could previously only see rather than get to while also opening up new puzzles. The game is stuffed with small puzzle rooms reminiscent of Breath of the Wild’s shrines that usually put certain movement or puzzle solving mechanics through their paces. They can be fiendishly tricky at times, especially given many of them come with bonus secrets that give that little extra bit of challenge, but they show the depth and application of Dig 2’s movement options. By the time you reach the latter stages of the game and you can whizz your way across the map, it becomes clear just how well the progression curve is balanced and how abilities that seem like they’d break the core digging puzzles seamlessly blend to create a superb whole. The only real drawback is the combat feels entirely inessential outside of a nifty final boss battle that brings all the mechanics together.
The music is great, the characters are fun and memorable, there are some legitimately tense and terrifying sequences (that I have no problem admitting scared the hell out of me in public on the bus at one stage), the game is beautiful to look at with gorgeous lighting effects, the story is simple yet effective – and yet even if none of that were true the core gameplay is so strong and so brilliantly realised that SteamWorld Dig 2 would come with a hearty recommendation regardless. All of that is true however, and what results is not just one of the best indie games of 2017 but one of 2017’s best games full stop. SteamWorld Dig 2 gets 9.5/10.
SteamWorld Dig 2 is available now for Nintendo Switch, PS4, PlayStation Vita and Steam. Reviewed on Nintendo Switch.