A pickaxe-wielding robot cowboy? What's not to like?

The 2D platformer market is booming, not just on handheld  but also for PC and console gamers looking for some old school fun. It’s been a solid year for genre with titles such as Guacamelee, Rayman Legends and Rogue Legacy, but none of these great games feature steampunk robots in a Spaghetti Western setting.

SteamWorld Dig does.

A runaway hit earlier in the year on the 3DS, it’s now gracing bigger screens on PC via Steam.

Robots in the Old West is a risky juxtaposition, but one that works beautifully in SteamWorld Dig.

From the facial closeups as your protagonist Rusty approaches the town of Tumbleton, to the whistling orchestral theme music, to the title screen slogan of “A fistful of dirt,” it’s obvious that Swedish indie studio Image & Form are fans of Sergio Leone’s movies. Robots in the Old West is a risky juxtaposition, but one that works beautifully in SteamWorld Dig. Tumbleton’s colourful robot characters all squawk at you with a kind binary-based gibberish (subtitled in English – for humans) and are your go-to vendors for trading treasure, gameplay tips and upgrading your kit.

Rusty is travelling to Tumbleton to claim the mine belonging to his estranged uncle. Upon arrival you fall through the ground to discover your uncle’s corroded remains, hoist his pickaxe and start swinging at the dirt around you. By mining a few (or a lot of) buried gems and exploring the underworld, you may just be able to save this almost-ghost town from the tumbleweeds.

SteamWorld Dig underground

Down, down, digging right down.

The Good, The Bad And The Rusty

Like in the 1982 arcade classic Dig Dug you spend a lot time digging in SWD. Every square dirt brick will crumble under your tools, save the impenetrable bedrock that marks the boundaries of your mine. Technology upgrades are found throughout the depths Metroid style, giving you helpful manoeuvres such as the super jump and tools like the drill, which lets you bore through the hard stuff and quickly vapourise the looser dirt.

You are also tasked with micromanaging a few resources. Water is needed for the super-jump and operating the drill and is quite rare in the underground caverns. In the earlier stages it’s a matter of inconvenience, but running out of water can soon mean the difference between progress and pushing Rusty’s self-destruct button. Doing so will return and rebuild you back in town with half of your coin purse charged as a repair fee.

But the one meter that always creeps up on you is your light. Rusty needs to replenish his light source on the surface to illuminate his surroundings as he ventures towards the centre of the Earth, and though the regular trips to the surface may sound labourious, they rarely are. Once your light is out it’s incredibly difficult to navigate the mines, so you either have to feel your way back up to the surface, use your wild card in the form of a purchasable teleporter or self-destruct and work your way back down to where you left off.

If you let your light, water or life meter run out at any point, you’re pretty much screwed.

Toys aside, the gameplay revolves around careful planning of your excavation route as you mine deeper and deeper. You are able to wall jump from the start, allowing you to ascend long vertical shafts, but careless or haphazard drilling can land you underneath some very inconvenient overhangs. The temptation to push just a little further, filling your pouch with more goodies as you attempt to make it to the next milestone is always there, but doing so can leave you stranded with a wealth of loot and cash that you’ll need to sacrifice. If you let your light, water or life meter run out at any point, you’re pretty much screwed.

What transpires with SWD is greater than the sum of its parts. I couldn’t put my finger on exactly what hooked me about the game, but the wild west intro was a good start. A cowboy robot protagonist that respawns in full-service saloon run by a buxom robot madam? The post-apocalyptic technology discovery? The bottle-smashing alcoholic zombies? It’s a joy to see all the elements working together so harmoniously and while not being a randomly the generated Rogue-like levels seen in Spelunky, you do get lots of replay value from being able to build your mine network a different way every time. You choose how to shape each level, giving you the freedom of expression rather than just following corridors. There are a few subtle yet hilarious easter eggs to be found, but it doesn’t over do them the way some indie games do.

SteamWorld Dig is not wholly original, but it’s also not a dreary derivative so often seen in the 2D platformer genre. The controls are not quite as tight as Super Meat Boy, but are still impressively precise and definitely better with a gamepad. It doesn’t have the resource intensity of Don’t Starve, but it provokes just enough stress to build suspense. Add to that an Eastwood-like persona to the hero, incredibly vibrant art in an underground environment and rewarding milestones and you have one of the best Steam buys this year.

A review copy of SteamWorld Dig was provided courtesy of Image & Form. The game was reviewed on PC.

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