Steam­world Dig 2

PC, PS4, Switch, Vita


De­vel­oper/pub­lisher Im­age & Form For­mat PC (tested), PS4, Switch, Vita Re­lease Out now

Be­yond the ob­vi­ous draw of new toys and trin­kets, the real joy of a good Metroid­va­nia is found in the mo­ments where you’re jour­ney­ing blind; where your des­ti­na­tion is known but the way there is not. There’s a mo­ment in the back half of Steam­world Dig 2 where you’ve al­ready ex­plored quite some way, and you’re set a fa­mil­iar ob­jec­tive: to find three sim­i­lar ob­jects at three very dif­fer­ent lo­ca­tions. The map opens up, and a trio of small Xs mark the spots you need to reach – points which re­veal, to your grow­ing de­light, that you may have come pretty far al­ready, but there’s still much more of this fas­ci­nat­ing space you’ve yet to visit, and plenty more se­crets buried within.

What sep­a­rates Steam­world Dig 2 from its peers – and this was also true of the orig­i­nal – is a stronger sense of hav­ing made your own way there. Of­ten in this type of game, you fol­low a cir­cuitous route, but be­yond the odd side path lead­ing you to hid­den pick-ups, there’s ba­si­cally one way to get where you need to go. Here, you’re given the tools to (lit­er­ally) carve your own path, to bur­row off in dif­fer­ent di­rec­tions should the whim take you. To a point, your tun­nelling is nat­u­rally con­strained, with im­pen­e­tra­ble chunks of thick rock main­tain­ing a bound­ary. But this is a more el­e­gant, sub­tle form of gat­ing, en­sur­ing that you can’t ex­plore to the map’s ex­tremes from the off and help­ing con­trol the pac­ing. You don’t have to­tal free­dom, but it’s a con­vinc­ing il­lu­sion, and that’s enough. It is, nec­es­sar­ily, a bit of a slow starter, though that’s hardly atyp­i­cal of the genre. Be­sides, there’s a sat­is­fac­tion in­her­ent in the process of steadily chip­ping your way down from the sur­face. Im­age & Form gives a master­class in feed­back: you’ll feel a brief jud­der in your hands as a tile yields to your pick­axe, the repet­i­tive click, click, crack pro­vid­ing a calm­ing back­ground rhythm. And it’s all the more sat­is­fy­ing when you’re fully tooled-up: a jack­ham­mer arm may take a few sec­onds to whirr up to speed, but once it’s go­ing, you’ll eas­ily power through rows and col­umns of rock. Later, you’ll un­lock a jet­pack that, com­bined with a new abil­ity, lets you quickly burn through soft earth – and sud­denly those early, ten­ta­tive steps feel like a long time ago.

New pro­tag­o­nist Dorothy’s sub­ter­ranean jour­ney be­gins as a res­cue mis­sion: she’s hop­ing to find poor Rusty, the orig­i­nal lead who was buried in a land­slide at the first game’s end. Mean­while, omi­nous rum­blings have spooked the lo­cal towns­folk and Dorothy be­gins to sus­pect these two events might not be un­re­lated. Just as Dorothy can head in un­ex­pected di­rec­tions, so too does the story, tak­ing in dooms­day cults, toxic jun­gles and a brief, mod­er­ately scary se­quence that dou­bles as an un­ortho­dox stealth sec­tion.

Else­where, Im­age & Form is mostly con­tent to riff on ex­ist­ing ideas, though there are mo­ments of de­light in even its more fa­mil­iar plea­sures. Its hook­shot feels great, zip­ping you across gaps when an en­emy is in pur­suit and up to ceil­ings when the floor gives way be­neath you, or you mis­judge a jump over a poi­son pool. And there’s a sticky bomb which can blow up ore pock­ets over­head when care­less dig­ging has left them oth­er­wise in­ac­ces­si­ble, or to det­o­nate rows of oth­er­wise im­pen­e­tra­ble blocks once you’ve lo­cated the one where the fault line be­gins.

In fact, lit­tle in Steam­world Dig 2 is truly per­ma­nent, and many things can rep­re­sent threat and op­por­tu­nity at the same time. Haz­ards can be ex­ploited: fall­ing rocks can crush birds and bee­tles, while toxic drips can erode tiles to open up pos­si­ble es­cape routes. Sim­i­larly, new kit can be dan­ger­ous. Dig­ging care­lessly with the jack­ham­mer can ruin your care­fully-plot­ted path back up; mis­judge the arc of a grenade and in­stead of de­stroy­ing an en­emy you might just ag­gro them and their friends.

There’s usu­ally a rea­son to stray from your cur­rent ob­jec­tive, with caves and se­cret ar­eas hold­ing cogs which can be in­vested in a wide range of perks at the town’s work­bench. You might beef up your ar­mour, for ex­am­ple, or dou­ble-up your pack space to fit two ores in a sin­gle slot and thus max­imise your yield from each trip down. Few, in truth, are truly trans­for­ma­tive, though one late abil­ity which lets you fire those sticky bombs in mid-air is a god­send for one par­tic­u­lar set­piece. Unique blue­prints are earned by trad­ing spe­cial arte­facts, though these are worth seek­ing out as much for the amus­ing flavour text, which in­dulges the de­vel­oper’s fond­ness for pop-cul­ture nods and jabs.

Of­ten the process is more en­joy­able than the re­ward. By turns, these grot­tos con­tain gen­tle en­vi­ron­men­tal puz­zles, gauntlets of ar­rows and burst­ing cacti, and the odd plat­form­ing set-piece. There’s one es­pe­cially per­ilous climb where solid ground is at a pre­mium and spongy plants are both hin­drance and help: land on them and they’ll bounce you higher, but they’ll also dis­solve the plat­form once dis­turbed.

There are times when Dig 2 chal­lenges you in less in­ven­tive ways: ar­eas where it sim­ply in­creases the den­sity of en­e­mies and haz­ards and ex­poses the lim­i­ta­tions of com­bat. There’s one mo­ment of frus­trat­ingly counter-in­tu­itive de­sign, and while the game’s cli­mac­tic en­counter is ex­cit­ing, the abun­dance of health pick­ups feels like a clumsy mea culpa for at­tacks that are nigh im­pos­si­ble to avoid. Oth­er­wise, this is an­other ter­rific genre piece from one of the most con­sis­tent stu­dios around, and the clos­est Im­age & Form has come to the mod­ern clas­sic of which it seems ca­pa­ble. For now, this gifted group of Swedes will have to con­sole it­self with the knowl­edge that, in the same month as Sa­mus Aran’s much-her­alded re­turn, it’s made the best Metroid game in years.

There’s a sat­is­fac­tion in­her­ent in the process of steadily chip­ping your way down

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