Game review: Steam World Dig 2 for Steam

Before getting to the review, I should apologize for being so late in posting. The review was in Word, ready to go on Friday of last week, but I got distracted with Dark Souls II. I realized I’d never used a halberd or any polearms, so I figured I’d just dip in to see how they are. Long story short, I’m just about done with the base game boss fights up to King Vendrick, and now I’m debating doing all the DLCs or just going at Nashandra and her two guards to get that pre-DLC experience. But  let’s forget that and look at this week’s game.

I bought Steam World Dig 2 a little while after its initial release based solely on the fact that I’d loved the first game and wrongly assumed it would be more of the same. At the time, my hands weren’t in great shape, and just the tutorial boss was enough to bounce me right out of the game. But I’ve been doing pretty good health-wise, and I just finished a couple harder games, so I thought I’d give this a try again.

The thing is, I got pretty close to the end of the game before realizing I’d invested in the wrong skills, and I had to start over again. So this review is based on two different impressions of the game, the first where I didn’t know what I needed to do to progress, and the second where I knew and just did the thing like Zhu Li.

Part of that first impression is because as new abilities are unlocked, they aren’t really explained well. After failing to climb one moderately short distance, I had to YouTube the segment to see that the grappling hook button can be held down to cling to surfaces, allowing me to ride out the gusts of wind. There were other impasses, but each time, all I needed was ten seconds on YouTube to gain clarity because the game doesn’t do a very good job of explaining the new tools as I got them.

In fact it was watching another YouTube runner that I saw I’d been maybe four meters from a cut scene and kept dying because I had four health hearts, and that dude had ten. (Which, you have to admit means I was doing great to make it so close to the end of the game on a fraction of the available health pool and having no clue of what I was doing.)

But in that second run, I knew where I had to go, and what order of upgrades to prioritize. So while the first run was full of frustration and confusion, in the second I was able to make much faster progress, even though I was moving slower to pick up more minerals to sell and pay for upgrades. I just played the game better with some knowledge that should have been provided, but wasn’t.

Alas, once again, I’m getting ahead of myself. Steam World Dig 2 is a sequel following after Rusty the prospecting steambot defeated Vectron the…robot equivalent of the Borg. He’s since gone missing, and his friend Dorothy has gone searching for him, arriving in El Machino, where Rusty was last seen entering a mine. He never came back from that first trip.

The makers of Steam World games have a clear idea of what art style they like, and they mold it to the game style they want to adapt. The first Steam World Dig was kind of a chill game centered around exploration and resource management, while the second is more like a Metroid-lite. They’ve also done an RTS with their robots in space (I finished it, and already have a review in the queue) as well as a fusion of card game and RPG. (Steam World Quest: Hand of Gilgamech, which I already reviewed.) For any flaws they might have, you have to give them credit for knowing what they like and managing to deliver good games with their own signature house style.

The first impression of this second Dig with Dot is that it’s pure classic Metroid. After all most new abilities are found in pods that mimic finding Chozo statues in Metroid. However, the main deviation is that there isn’t a whole lot of backtracking to use those new abilities. Instead they clear the way forward to new areas, and there’s few roadblocks because the tools you need to progress have already been unlocked. There are some optional side dungeons that might require backtracking after getting a different ability, or at least upgrading an existing ability to be more efficient, but those dungeons aren’t vital to completing the game. They just award cogs, which are used to further strengthen their related abilities. (Which can also be bought in town from a vendor, so again, not strictly vital to completing the game.)

So what abilities are there? Well, Dot gets a dash in the tutorial, allowing her to reach the boss. Once defeated, the boss, nicknamed Fen, will join Dot and become her map. He’s also like that annoying fairy in that Zelda game, so on the second run, any time the game said “Talk to Fen,” I skipped it unless I was in a new area I hadn’t seen before.

Let’s see…after that, the abilities were a lamp that has to be bought from the shop, a sticky bomb that runs on water power, a jackhammer arm for breaking though tougher sections of the mines (and also runs on water, bringing back that resources management aspect from the first game), a grappling hook, and an upgrade to Dot’s pickaxe that imbues it with fire. (This has very limited applications in the closing moments of the mid-game, and doesn’t really do much to improve the damage it does to enemies.) There’s another upgrade to allow Dot to charge a sticky bomb and turn it into a more powerful grenade. (Which doesn’t stick, but the more powerful blast can rip through walls that the sticky bomb is too weak to damage.) Then after a very annoying chase with Evil Robots. Dot gets the jet pack, and that’s when the game finally decides to go all in on backtracking.

What’s funny about this part is that I had to return to the tutorial area, and I spent five minutes looking around before finally seeing a wall that could be opened with the jackhammer arm. I didn’t even know I would be backtracking until the game explicitly told me it was time to do so. What followed from there was finding the secret passage in three biomes and slogging a long, long way to find three MacGuffins that would trigger the big showdown with the final boss. (Which I’m not spoiling, so you’re welcome.)

By the way, that last boss was a huge pain in my ass, with overly long phases of invincibility where all I could do was try to dodge volleys of bullet hell while searching for heart containers to stay alive. Then I had to find the One Right Pixel to stand on and volley back one of the boss’ mega attacks to break their shield and give me a few seconds to hit them with Dot’s pickaxe. If I missed the window to volley the shot, or I failed to reach the boss while they were down, it was right back to another round of Dodge, Heart, Pray.

Also, before I get to the final verdict, I need to talk about how much of a pain it is to play the game the way it’s meant to be played. The first time around, given that I was mining for resources, of course I went in for upgrades to my pickaxe, backpack, and lamp. I need those to carry more stuff, and to just see the area before the lamp burns out and I’m forced to return to town to refuel it. This was what the first game was all about until the one and only boss fight, so I was literally playing the game the way the first game had trained me to play.

But in this second outing, I should have been spending almost everything in armor first, adding more health hearts to make the boss fights and enemy attacks less stressful. I mean, I shudder to think how I would have felt about that final boss if I’d arrived on my first run with four hearts. I’d have been creamed, and then cremated.

But because of that need to prioritize health over everything else until the mid-game, Steam World Dig 2 makes all that necessary resource gathering more tedious. The lamp is constantly running out, making it impossible to see what’s available to mine without returning to town every few minutes. Even if I find an area rich with minerals, I have to keep returning to town because the backpack’s starting capacity is so small. Then there’s the pickaxe, which requires more swings for every level of depth passed in the mines. It makes everything right up to the middle of the game a chore, and these are chores you can’t skimp on, or else the rest of the game gets WAY harder.

But eventually, once I was allowed to spend points on other abilities, the game finally allowed me to really have fun with it. I got a pickaxe upgrade that added XP boosts for killing enemies with it, and another that dropped some cash for enemy kills. That proved real useful in paying for upgrades across the board, and with more health, I wasn’t so stressed about taking on a trio of angry birds or a pair of beetles like I did on my first four-heart run. Oh, I also got a lamp upgrade that prevented it from falling below fifty percent light level, and that was a HUGE game changer, allowing me to focus on exploration instead of constantly running back to town to refuel the lamp.

There were other upgrades too, like killing enemies would restore health, or lamp fuel, or water for my bombs and jackhammer arm. The jet pack gets more fuel and the ability to cool while falling, so that was real useful. And like I said, this was where the game finally set me loose on its world and just let me play instead of doing my chores.

Which is why I arrive to the scoring filled with deeply mixed feelings. Had I scored based solely on run number one, this would have been a 2 star stinker. But I need to balance all of the second run’s mid-to-late-game fun with the very tedious busy work needed to get there.

This is what I’m talking about with the flaws of the Steam World games. They all suffer from the mindset of “It gets good after X hours.” Like, I’m mostly retired, with a side job editing articles and blog posts. If I decide to strap in to spend four hours getting to that good build, I have the free time to invest in doing so. But if you’re a gamer with a full-time job and obligations in The Real World, maybe you don’t want to mess with that lost time.

I will say that the X in time sunk to reach the good part is generally much smaller for Steam World games. At most, they’re like twenty hours to finish, and Steam World Dig 2 only took me eight and a half hours. So yeah, I offer out a weak defense that it’s not as bad as needing to wait twenty hours for the game to get good. Whether you mind spending four hours doing chores to arrive to the joy of free play is up to you. I report, you decide, right?

So, even though I’m so deeply conflicted that I want to break policy and issue a half star, I’m going to give Steam World Dig 2 4 stars. It’s great when it finally opens up, so if you have the patience to wait it out, then by all means, give it a try. As an added bonus, all these games are pretty cheap, so you can play the whole series without breaking the bank.