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