Thursday, 13 March 2014

Steam World Dig

Steam World Dig: A Fistful of Dirt isn't the game I thought I'd be playing. In my head I'd envisioned a game about finding your way through the environment and creating well structured mines. Confusingly, it doesn't seem to be the game its creators still think it is, judging by this interview with Image & Form's CEO Brjann Sigurgeirsson. Mr I'm-not-even-going-to-try-to-spell-that-again seemed very interested in talking about the story which never felt like the focus of the game. You step into the shoes foot pieces of Rusty, a steambot/graverobber who arrives in the ghost town of Tumbleton to claim his uncle's mine. Exactly how steambots can have families is never expanded upon. It turns out that Joe's died in the mine. In the middle of an empty room. Which, truth be told seems a little suspicious. Since Tumbleton's entire economy seems to be built around the mine, you take over the head mining duties. As the game progresses, Rusty explores the increasingly technologically advanced layers deep in the mine, uncovering what's left of the human population as well as powerful technology that is suspiciously easy to find. While the story and setting is engaging enough I would never call it the focus of the game and it can easily be ignored. In my opinion, the real story of the game is not Rusty's character development (which there is precisely none of) but Rusty's power development. What new weapon or ability you'll unlock next and how it will change the game are the twists that keep you playing. 
The bulk of the game involves steaming, wait, no .... digging, I knew it was one of the words in the title I couldn't remember which , working your way up and down the shaft to see what stuff you can bring to the surface hang on.... Along the way you encounter what I'm calling challenge mines which either contain one of the necessary powerups or valuable resources such as orbs. Unlike the main shaft, these rooms aren't randomly generated. These chambers often challenge you to get to a certain point without fencing yourself in and a closely resemble the game I thought I'd be playing. Steam World Dig is a game about exploring, speedruns and going from a relatively weak robot to a force of destruction in the space of seven hours.
While seven hours may seem short, the game is clearly geared towards repeat plays and that seven hours is expertly paced. The time spent between obtaining each new power is just long enough to get the fun out of the previous one as well as suck your mind (bear with me on this one) so that it can later be blown when you unlock the new power. Even something as simple as the steam jump (a charge jump) feels like a revelation after working without it for so long. The one misstep is the TNT ability which I found to be of little use. I suspect it was intended to be used to kill enemies, but in practice its throwing arc was too slow and short. This brings me onto my first problem with the game, the enemies.
The games assortment of armadillos and Golllums reminded me of the enemies in classic Zelda games, which I've never been able to see the appeal of. Defeating most of them involved twatting them with the pickaxe until one of you dies. The challenge mines sometimes provide you with a clever way to defeat enemies, and later enemies can influence their environment in ways that can benefit crafty players, but in general they're a frustrating drain on your health. Of particular annoyance are the Creeper-esque enemies that show up later in the game. Once they see you, they fly toward you and explode soon after, in a way that seems hard to escape.

These enemies are quite easy to deal with using the powerups obtained as the game goes on, but these tools are constrained by a water meter that even with upgrades feels a little to small. This constraint frustratingly limits your ability to act as the force of destruction I mentioned earlier. This is odd considering that the games other attempts at resource management all work quite well.
As I've alluded a number of times earlier, but am only getting around to discussing now because of a lack of planning the game is clearly designed with repeat plays and speedruns in mind. Tutorials or long dialogue sections are never forced on you and the game tells you how long it took you at the end of the credits. Sadly, all this thought seems to have been wasted, as the only way to do a speedrun seems to be by (would you believe it) doing everything quickly, rather than approach the game from a different mindset. After my first thorough play I decided to try to prioritise dig speed over other traits and quickly dug myself into a hole (literally). If you don't take the time to collect the orbs, the game becomes very difficult very fast.
This relationship between patience and difficulty is another miner geddit? concern with the game.If you take your time, dig around enemies and make frequent returns to the surface deaths become extremely rare but the game becomes quite monotonous.
One of the game's critics is the site God is a Geek, who rightly call out the game's wall jump as being an overpowered tool that discourages careful digging in all but the challenge mines. He and others have said that they really like the graphics, and while I thought they were nice they seemed oddly blurry whenever Rusty wasn't in motion. They also rightly praise the soundtrack and 3D effect.
Now let's take a look at what other detractors said. From WiiUbrasil:

A picareta é a sua ferramenta inicial e usá-la é instantaneamente recompensador. O som do instrumento batendo na rocha e as rachaduras que vão se propagando pelo material até que ele se quebre propocionam um retorno imediato e satisfatório para a ação realizada. Da mesma forma, quando Rusty tem acesso a uma perfuratriz, o ronco do motor é fundamental para que a ação de cavar seja atrativa e se mantenha assim durante o jogo. 
I'll be honest, I don't know what that means, but I know their score of 60 is wrong.
SWD is good, the main shaft lets you see how powerful you've become, the challenge areas provide puzzles, though it must be said the former wears out its welcome at times.


Why would they advertise their low population?

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