Putting you into the shoes of a quirky little mining robot and plopping you into a tiny town with three other eccentric automatons, SteamWorld Dig feels like it's been built using parts that will be familiar to anyone who's played the likes of Terraria or Spelunky. But while you'll be mining precious minerals and exploring deep dark caverns, will this latest underground escapade have you wishing for a permanent subterranean residence – or will it make you want to claw your way back to the surface?
As we've already mentioned, the old mining town that protagonist Rusty finds himself in is initially home to just a handful of other robots, and it's through them that you'll find the game's methodical flow. You'll descend into the depths, grab as much ore as you can carry, and then climb back up to the community so that you can sell your chunks of rock and use your earnings to purchase new bits of equipment. Even after the most dismal attempts to dig deep into the ground, you're still likely to come home from the adventure with a decent haul, and it's this constantly rewarding gameplay loop that makes the title very difficult to put down.
There's a plethora of bits and pieces to buy and upgrade, from your trusty pickaxe which can be made stronger and tougher, to deployable lanterns that can illuminate the darkness. At first, you'll need patience as you embark on numerous uneventful short trips to gather enough cash so that you can nab important upgrades, but make enough intelligent purchases and you'll soon be rolling in robo-dollars. As alluded, you'll need to give thought to what you're buying, because the release doesn't feature any sort of respawning resources. Mine something, and it's gone. Likewise, this means that you'll be digging your own path through the Earth, and it's this design choice that forces you to make quick decisions based on your current situation.
Do you mine directly below your feet in order to avoid an enemy that's stumbling around in a nearby cavern, or do you dig straight into the opening and see what riches are buried within the walls? There's a certain sense of peril as you navigate your own custom route that isn't too dissimilar from the sensation of racing through a level in Spelunky, but here you're allowed to take your time, assuming that you're prepared to travel back to the surface when your lantern's light goes out.
Indeed, the more time that you spend down below, the dimmer your only portable source of light becomes, meaning that it's important to know when you should start heading home. Although you won't ever find yourself in complete darkness, light plays a crucial role in seeing your surroundings, be it an ore deposit or a sleeping creature buried in rubble. Some players will no doubt be put off by the strict limits to exploration that are enforced by the need for illumination – especially when the nearest exit is minutes away – but like just about everything else in the game, your lantern can be tweaked so that it burns for a longer amount of time.
Despite the fact that you're all but forced to settle for quick stints of discovery, actually navigating your self-made labyrinth feels great thanks to tight controls and smooth platforming. Rusty can jump across gaps and hop his way up walls, and as you delve further into the somewhat short campaign, a slew of other abilities are opened up to you. Each of these techniques are introduced steadily, keeping traversal feeling fresh while also acting as ways to gain access to new areas. Progression doesn't quite fit the Metroidvania formula, though, as you'll generally be journeying downwards, rather than traipsing back to previously blocked off locations.
When it comes to combating the creatures that you'll encounter during your travels, it's usually best to find a peaceful way past the menace without getting turned into a pile of scrap metal. Some enemies can easily be dispatched with a few swings of your pickaxe, but others will take whole chunks of your health away if you let them get too close. It's best, therefore, to utilise your surroundings. Depending on the type of foe that you come across, you may have the option to lure them into a newly dug hole, drop a heavy slab of rock on top of them, or let them trigger a trap like a TNT barrel or a set of spikes. Much like hollowing out your own path, you'll need to stay sharp when deciding how to approach each new adversary, and this can lead to some surprisingly memorable encounters, particularly when you're able to flawlessly execute your carefully constructed plan of action.
However, just because there are terrors lurking within the depths doesn't mean that SteamWorld Dig carries the same ruthlessness that Spelunky possesses. Your only penalty for death is the loss of your current inventory of minerals and a chunk of change, and an upgraded Rusty can take a fair few hits before he's out for the count. Gameplay in general also isn't nearly as hectic as Mossmouth's reflex-based madness, and when all's said and done, the robotic romp may actually prove to be a great alternative for those seeking a more accessible experience.
Perhaps surprisingly, the title tries its hand at puzzle elements, too. Over the course of your adventure, you'll stumble across numerous pre-made caves that house platforming or mining challenges, and usually reward you with a stash of goodies for your trouble. You may be tasked with finding a way past a gang of baddies, for example, or you might have to dig a tunnel in such a way that it collapses and creates a new route. Some of the puzzles can be deceptively tricky, but they help break up the monotony of mining your way through block after block of dirt nonetheless.
Our only real quarrel with the game is that finding your way back to town can become tedious, especially during the opening hours. Sprinting and hopping your way back through the countless shafts that you've created in order to reach a ladder or a teleporter can really start to grate, particularly when your latest excursion has been cut short by a careless fall or an unlucky encounter with an enemy, and you're left with a smidgen of health. Getting yourself into such a situation promotes the cautious attitude needed to succeed, but at the same time, repeatedly trudging through the same areas doesn't quite gel with the pick-up-and-play nature of the release.
Speaking of which, SteamWorld Dig feels right at home on the PlayStation Vita because of this. Its quirky art style and colourful visuals really pop on the smaller screen, while its silky smooth performance ensures that it's one of the best looking downloadable 2D titles that we've seen in a while. There's no doubt that the release looks great on the PlayStation 4 as well, but because there's no cross-save support, we'd recommend spending most of your time on the portable platform, where the game's addictive quality shines thanks to the ability to play while on the move.
With its catchy Wild West soundtrack and rustic good looks, SteamWorld Dig saunters onto PlayStation platforms with confidence. Its aesthetics will charm you, but it's the game's tight platforming and addictive sense of progression that allow it to mine its way into your heart. While we wish that Rusty's expedition lasted a little longer and didn't require quite as much backtracking, there are still plenty of reasons to sink your pickaxe into this little gem.