SteamWorld Dig 2

Full disclosure: I met some of the people working behind the scenes at Image & Form in 2013, and over the last four years it’s grown to be one of the studios in Indieland that I admire the most. It’s safe to say that I consider their lead developer, Brjánn Sigurgeirsson, to be a good friend. I love to shoot the shit with Brjánn and debate on a wide range of game design topics. Brjánn and his team are a really remarkable group of developers.

But being friends with me doesn’t mean a developer gets a free pass to my heart. Actually, in a lot of ways it’s worse for them. It means I have a direct line to them when stuff about their work annoys me. There’s a developer named David Walton that did a game called Wyv & Keep. It was originally on XBLIG but after monkeying around with it for a couple of hours I realized it wasn’t ready for prime time. So did he, pulling it from the marketplace and saving it for Steam. Eventually it found its way there, but when I fired it up I realized the map system was unsatisfactory. At this point I, to put it delicately, blew a fucking gasket and got him on the horn to cuss him out for over an hour. And mind you, I didn’t even write the review for the game. And this is my friend. You developers who think I’m a little overly harsh, hey, it could be worse. You could be on my Christmas Card list.

I was all set to ask which member of Image & Form was going to volunteer to be sent to the gulag for re-education as punishment for water levels, but those are kept thankfully small. Aww nuts.

When I first fired up SteamWorld Dig 2 and started gawking at the graphics, my social media followers were taken back. “Um, yea Cathy, they changed the style. Where’ve you been?” Well, I’ve been here. But that doesn’t mean I have to watch trailers for games. Trailers are about creating awareness and, most importantly, hype.

Hype.

You know, that thing that game critics shouldn’t get for games. Because it’s not our fucking jobs. I know that you’re probably accustomed to critics behaving like cheerleaders or salesmen. Some of them will have small complaints about games but choose not to include them in their, sarcastic airquotes, “reviews” because they’re afraid that might hurt the game’s sales. Hopefully you realize that’s not the way things are supposed to be. Critics are supposed to evaluate, not talk you into a purchase.

Sure, some trailers are unavoidable. Over the last five years it’s been hard to not catch trailers for Cuphead (yes you pushy fuckers, I’m reviewing it next). But when Brjánn told me they were sequelizing SteamWorld Dig, I told them “great, let me know when it’s out.” They might be my friends, but I have responsibilities as a game critic. I already liked SteamWorld Dig. I already liked SteamWorld Heist. It’s safe to say my enjoyment of their previous efforts already moved my expectations for their future games past neutral. It’s thus my responsibility to make as much effort as possible to not further engage in activities that might contribute to further expectations. Such as watching trailers. Or getting blown by them. That’s one you might want to write down, Gamespot.

So why did this end up, as of this writing, #4 on the IGC Leaderboard? A big decider for it not competing with Axiom Verge (and it didn’t, not even close) was there wasn’t enough new stuff when you backtracked. Every time I ran back to a previous section in Axiom Verge, it seemed like there were several new items I was only able to reach with the latest items I had picked up in the previous stage. In SteamWorld Dig 2, such instances are rare. And even when I did find new hidden sections, it was far more common that I could have accessed them the first time around and simply missed them. Lesson learned: if you’re making a Metroidvania, backtracking should be every bit as fun and exciting as fronttracking. Wait, is fronttracking a thing?

So yeah, I wasn’t aware that they updated the graphics style. Which is nice. Hey, I can actually tell the different robots apart now. That puts them one-up on Michael Bay if nothing else. I also wasn’t aware that my chief complaint about Dig and Heist had been addressed: ditching the randomized levels. Now, I’m not a total hater of the idea procedural generation. But the type of genres it lends itself to tend to be faster-paced. Spelunky, for example, would not be as good or memorable if it had hand-made stages. Among other things, what would I be able to blame for my complete and total ineptitude at it? A gypsy curse? I’ve blamed my height on that, my epilepsy, the 2016 NBA Finals, and Red Dead Redemption 2’s delay. Really, that dog just ain’t hunting anymore.

And while randomized levels aren’t always a good idea for fast paced action-platformers (looking at you, Cloudberry Kingdom), at least the claim that it adds “endless replay value” is something a developer can slap on a marketing blurb without their pants catching fire. And my friends at Image & Form know something about that, presumably while putting out each-other’s eyes with noses of incrementally increasing lengths, the big liars. They claimed with a straight face that the previous SteamWorld games “were never the same game twice.” Well, that’s true in the sense that no game of solitaire is the same game twice either. Really, it’s the same fucking game everyone else is playing, only the stages are determined by the invisible computer lottery. Cute novelty, don’t get me wrong. But in the process Image & Form gave up something. No, not their soul. I’m pretty sure Nintendo got that in 2013 when Dig released on 3DS. No, what I’m talking about is they lost a certain elegance of design.

Let’s face it, the adventure games that stick with us the most tend to do so not because of characters or plot or items or weapons or bosses or soundtracks or any other universal gaming variable. Level design is the X factor. A game can be good but not remotely memorable, and it comes down to the level design being less than spectacular. It’s why people talk about Ocarina of Time to this day, but the mechanically evolved Twilight Princess barely makes the discussion. It’s why I enjoyed my time with SteamWorld Heist, but my brain had deleted the reasons why about ten seconds after I finished my review. Because it’s a game that created really good parameters to be shuffled about randomly by the AI, and did so probably better than any game ever had done so, but that’s still not as good as finely designed hand-crafted stages. For all the flaws we humans have, we’re still more creative than computers. Take comfort in that the next time IBM is laying waste to dorks on Jeopardy!

As often as you’re forced to return to the town to cash in your loot and buy upgrades, there really should have been more to it.

The Image & Form guys had to hear me bitch about this for years. The thing is, I fucking knew they were capable of better. And with SteamWorld Dig 2, they proved me right. Every section is hand-designed and I’m completely blown away by how well it was done. It’s been about a week since I finished it and I’m still marveling at the expansive, labyrinth-like worlds and the cleverly designed rooms found therein. This is spectacular level design, the best ever seen in anything that can be considered part of the mining game craze. Now granted, mining is merely the framing device. Dig 2 is a Metroidvania that replaces whips or guns with an axe. But every single nook and cranny of the setting is polished to a mirror-shine. It makes exploration such a joy. Hell, it makes grinding a joy. Grinding. That thing that makes lesser games feel more like second jobs that you have to pay for. In over fifteen hours, I never once felt bored. I never once felt lost. Sure, there were times I was fairly certain I had managed to access areas I wasn’t actually supposed to be able to be in yet but that’s fine. Even the most tasty meals leave you belching, right?

So yea, I guess I need to offer kudos to Image & Form on the whole level design malarkey. But when I get their attention I’d probably ask them why the variety of enemies leaves a lot to be desired. There’s a striking lack of variety, which each world only featuring a very small handful of enemies. Some are cool, don’t get me wrong. Many of them can be used to chip away at the surrounding environment to help with the mining, and most are worked into at least one puzzle at some point. But come on, Image & Form! You’re creative people! Surely you can come up with more than this! Hell, maybe you should devote your now defunct randomization software towards making more baddies for your games. You might as well get some use out of it.

Come to think of it, I never once was killed by a single enemy or boss, with one exception. There’s a section where, with no warning, SteamWorld Dig 2 went off its medication and suddenly became a survival horror game. It was jarring, it was unexpected, it was legitimately frightening, and it was fucking awesome. Suddenly, I went from carefully plotting my pathway to running for dear life. Well, after I paused the game to change myself, that is. I figured this was the climax of the game, but then the section ended and those enemies never showed their faces again. The fuck? What the hell was that? Maybe they were fans of the Smooth Criminal music video, where everything just stops for a minute for absolutely no fucking reason, only this wasn’t stupid. But otherwise, I found the bosses and enemies to be mostly toothless, even on the normal difficulty setting.

Oh, I died. Quite a few times actually. But I owed that to my own carelessness. I was crushed by more rocks Giles Corey and became so paranoid about it that my left thumb developed a small twitch in anticipation of more to come. Of course, the occasional environmental death was offset by the dozens of times that entire sections of enemies would kill themselves before I even saw them on my screen. At one point, I scooped up over 20 (!) pieces of ore off the ground that presumably had been blown out of walls by enemies that blew themselves up before I had a chance to fight them. I would like to think they saw me coming and decided to die with dignity rather than be humbled by me and my mad skills. Stop laughing.

I caught word that one of the reasons Image & Form moved away from randomized levels was me, be it my reviews of their work or the numerous handfuls of solidified poo I threw through their windows. A lot of people don’t understand why, if I love certain games, am I so critical of them? Ain’t I worried that my critiques might turn more people off than they turn on? Well, no. Because my job isn’t to convince anyone to buy a game. It’s to share my opinions and let you, the reader, decide if that sounds like something you want to buy. If you have to be talked into it, I doubt any one writer will be enough to sway you one way or another. Love the site or hate it, there’s a reason why Rotten Tomatoes is so big.

So when I say that SteamWorld Dig 2 is a really great game with amazing level design, not enough enemies, and is easier than stubbing your toe in a house of mirrors after the power goes out, really, is anyone choosing to buy the game based on that? Probably not. The dirty little secret of game reviews is that most people who read them already know what they think about games and are either looking for different takes than their own opinion, or looking for affirmation that their opinion is shared by others. But in Indieland, reviews are more than just food for thought. Many developers use them as a guidepost for what they can do to improve. That’s why a critic should hold nothing back. Because any developer worth their salt strives to get better, no matter how much acclaim or awards they get. Look at Image & Form. Two games that won universal praise, and yet, they yearn for more. And that’s why I value my relationship with them. Not because they care what I, as Cathy Vice: fan of their work, can say nice about their projects. It’s what I say as Indie Gamer Chick: Game Critic, that they can do better, that catches their attention. I’ve spent four years spamming their inboxes telling them all the many, many ways they’ve fucked up their stuff and should have known better. Who knows, maybe they’re better today because of it.

If I wasn’t free to do that,  I wouldn’t want to be friends with them. But I am, and I’m grateful for that. And my readers deserve to know that and weigh that against my opinions.

End of disclosure.

So yea, SteamWorld Dig 2 is pretty good.

SteamWorld Dig 2 was developed by Image & Form
Point of Sale: Steam, Switch, PlayStation 4/Vita

$19.99 noted that this is one of those awkward sequels so good it sends the original plummeting several spots down the Leaderboard despite having done nothing wrong in the making of this review. In this case, it would have been in the #11 position but fell to #21 by its sequel being that much better and consequently the original being harder to recommend now.

Review copies of SteamWorld Dig 2 were provided for PS4 and Steam. On September 26, 2017, Cathy purchased a copy of SteamWorld Dig 2 to assure she had paid for a copy. All games reviewed at IndieGamerChick.com are paid for out-of-pocket. For more on this policy, check the FAQ.

SteamWorld Dig 2 is Chick-Approved and ranked on the Indie Gamer Chick Leaderboard.

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About Indie Gamer Chick
The most read Xbox Live Indie Game critic in the world.

4 Responses to SteamWorld Dig 2

  1. GamingPicks says:

    Played the first one but never finished it and I still have to play Heist. This seems better, so I will give it a chance as soon as possible, I really like playing this kind of games. Nice review, thank you!

  2. GamingPicks says:

    Sorry, I finish previous comment too early… It’s nice to read the part about your relation with Image & Form and Steamworld Dig, really interesting. And I’m also the one that will probably enjoy more hand-designed levels. And it’s great to find objetive game reviews. Thank you!

    • You found no such review here. All my reviews are subjective personal opinions. There is no objectivity in any of them.

      • GamingPicks says:

        Probably I haven’t chosen the best words. I wanted to say that reviews aren’t influenced even if you’re close to a development team and I really appreciate your reviews for being personal, that’s what I look these days. Thank you!

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