SteamWorld Dig

SteamWorld Dig.  It sounds like the way a Beatnik would describe visiting Valve’s offices.  “I’m heading to SteamWorld, ya dig?”  But actually, it’s a 3DS game by indie studio Image & Form.  I was told about this game (well, warned would probably be a better description) from a few readers.  “Hey, if you like Miner Dig Deep, you’ll love SteamWorld Dig!”  Others compared it to Terraria, which is an epic-sized bad comparison.  Terraria is a world-building game with time-sinky elements.  Miner Dig Deep forgoes any semblance of story or point and focused on the time-sink stuff, for maximum narcotic effect.  SteamWorld is more like that, only with some minor Metroidvania elements thrown in.  Of course, I like Metroidvanias more than world-building games, which meant that SteamWorld had the possibly to hook me in like a 19th century sailor in my first opium den.

Set in a robotic version of the old west, you play as a dude whose father died and left you his mine.  You go into the mine, dig up minerals to sell for money to buy upgrades with, which you use to dig up minerals to sell for money to buy upgrades with, repeat this about one hundred times, and that’s the game.  The core gameplay is so close to Miner Dig Deep that I’m really curious if the developers of SteamWorld had played it or not.  We’ve got a bet going over here regarding that, with bets taken on the following responses.

A. “Yes, we loved it.”

B. “We’ve never heard of it.”

C. A dismissive smile followed by walking out of the room like a boss.

I’m not allowed to say which one I’ve got money on, because apparently my chums consider that cheating.  Hopefully the developers will C to it that we get a proper answer.

Yul Brenner is like "Psssh, whatever, already done it."  Shut up, Yul.  Get back to showing up in my dreams and telling me not to smoke.

Yul Brenner is like “Psssh, whatever, already done it.” Shut up, Yul. Get back to showing up in my dreams and telling me not to smoke.

Anyway, the comparisons to Miner Dig Deep can safely end now.  Image & Form have greatly improved the formula by adding platforming and rudimentary combat.  I was skeptical how well this would work, since the controls in Terraia for jumping and combat were a bit flaky.  I guess that’s why I was so blown away by SteamWorld.  It has some of the best platforming mechanics that were not made by Nintendo that I’ve seen in quite a while.  The jumping elements become second nature, making distances easy to get a feel for.  You never feel like you have to course-correct to avoid under-jumping/over-jumping.  And the wall-jump mechanic couldn’t be easier.

The controls aren’t perfect.  You can’t jump and dig, so getting minerals above you is a chore.  Also, for a game that has a lot of enemies, the combat is flaky and lacks appropriate oomph to it.  The pick-axe is a fairly-unsatisfying offensive weapon.  It can be upgraded into a more combat-ready one, but to be frank, I thought the upgrade was too expensive and I never acquired it.  Midway though the game, you pick up a “steam-powered punch” that I found to be a much better way to take on baddies.  But, for the most part, I just avoided fights and stuck to mining.  The time-sinky, hypnotic simplicity of digging up various types of minerals and resources, plus the arbitrary upgrading of my items, is what kept me going.  And it kept me going with a smile on my face.  And drool collecting around my lap.

I’m also not convinced they made the best use of the whole Metroidvania thing.  The game is separated into three “worlds”.  Tippy-top upgrades are found by digging until you stumble upon a door, which leads to a platformer/maze section.  And the end of each of those, you’ll find an upgrade to the robot that allows him to jump higher, fall further, throw punches, etc.  It’s all very linear, with backtracking only necessary at the end of the game.  Part of this is the whole mining thing only lends itself well to going one direction: straight down.  It’s hard to do the open-world thing this genre is famous for when your chosen theme presents fewer options than a light switch.  And SteamWorld takes no risks, which is a shame because all the mechanical parts are in place to have allowed some experimentation.  I guess I should offer kudos for resisting the temptation to have all the platformer/adventure clichés such as an ice level, a fire level, etc.  But, when I reached the end of the game and realized things were being wrapped up, I was genuinely shocked.  “Wait, that’s it?  Three mother fucking levels?”  Not one of which was the slightest bit inspired.  It’s kind of surprising to me that they plan on sequelizing this in short order, because it sure seems like they ran out of ideas quickly here.

"#5 on the Leaderboard? And my agent told me I was a fool for turning down Pixar. HA!"

“#5 on the Leaderboard? And my agent told me I was a fool for turning down Pixar. HA!”

I certainly don’t mean to imply that I disliked SteamWorld Dig.  It’s, as of this writing, the fifth-best indie game I’ve had the privileged of playing for Indie Gamer Chick.  For all it does wrong, it sure does a lot right.  Fluid platforming controls, satisfying play-mechanics, and a sense of progression despite the grindy, time-sinky nature of it.  I would probably still give the Best 3DS eShop game nod to non-indie Pushmo, but SteamWorld Dig comes close.  Probably the highest praise I could offer it is this: if someone had handed me this game, and I knew nothing about it going in, and I was asked who made it, I would have said “Nintendo” without hesitation.  I can think of no greater complement for an indie developer, that a title of theirs could be mistaken for a first-party Nintendo game.  Well, actually, nah.  I probably wouldn’t guess this was a new first-party Nintendo game.  I mean, Nintendo coming up with a new IP?  Ha.  Snort.  Chuckle.

Steamworld Dig logoSteamWorld Dig was developed by Image & Form

IGC_Approved$8.99 (not sure if that’s a sales price or not) wonders how long until Namco digs up Dig Dug for this whole new mining-game crazy in the making of this review.

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

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escapeVektor

Alright, so this is awkward, but I didn’t like escapeVektor on the Vita.  Apparently I’m the only person in the entire world who didn’t, so I guess I should explain myself.  Often, when I dislike a popular game, I’m asked “what did you expect?”  As if I hold every game to such unreasonably high standards that nothing can possibly please me.  My honest answer is “all I expect is to have fun.”  If I don’t get that, I don’t give a game a pass because it looks good, plays well, and has a nifty concept.  If a game bores me, I say so.  And escapeVektor bored me to fucking tears.

This is one of those rare times I wish I had bought the 3DS version of a game.  I bet it would have looked pretty cool in 3D.

This is one of those rare times I wish I had bought the 3DS version of a game. I bet it would have looked pretty cool in 3D.

Going off screenshots, I figured it would be similar to Qix.  Watching it in motion, I figured it would be a little like Pac-Man.  Once I started playing, I wished it had been closer to those games.  At least they were fun.  Here the idea is you have to guide an exceptionally slow-moving ship around a grid, filling in all the lines, opening up either an exit or more lines, which open up different exits.  Along the way, a variety of enemies tries to kill you.  There’s a storyline involved, but with any game like this, I wonder why they bother.  Even with the admittedly pretty visuals, this is an old school maze game, straight out of the Pac-Man craze of the early 80s.  It needed a story about as much as quail need bulls-eyes on their wings.

Oh, but it does have a storyline.  One that pops up between levels and utterly refuses to shut up.  You’ll get past a difficult stage, all full of enthusiasm for a job well done, anxious to kick the ass of the next stage, and then the story rears its ugly head.  Some tripe about a guy stuck in a CPU.  It’s not intriguing in the slightest, and its presence was about as well received by myself as a bout of standing-quadriplegia that hits the moment you answer the door to Jehovah’s Witnesses.

Seriously, please stop talking. I'm trying to play a game here.

Seriously, please stop talking. I’m trying to play a game here.

After a while, the game does get faster.  You get boosters that allow you to zip around stages and avoid enemies.  And the game throws a few more twists at you, like tailgating enemies, electrified gateways, and more power-ups to fight back.  But, for me at least, it never stopped being boring.  Part of that is due to a moderately large design flaw.  You know how pretty much every maze game ever made does this thing where if you die, you don’t have to start the level over from scratch?  Like in Pac-Man, if you die with only two dots left in the stage, you get to replay the stage, with the board exactly how you left it?  Probably so as to avoid tedium?  Yeah, well escapeVektor doesn’t do that.  Imagine going through a sprawling level, heel-toeing your way through a gauntlet of enemies, only to run out of bombs with five feet to go from the exit and getting caught by a random enemy, or a bullet from a turret.  Guess what?  You get to replay the whole level over again.  I didn’t find Vektor’s breed of gameplay all that exciting to begin with.  In some later levels, turning the game off entirely seemed like a better option towards rehabilitating my dull day.

There probably should be more reasons why I disliked escapeVektor, but I honestly can’t think of anything.  I have to admit, as a critic, it’s kind of tough to say “I didn’t like a game and I’m not totally sure why.”  I mean, I like these type of games.  I liked the art style.  I thought it controlled pretty smoothly.  I guess I should like it.  Everybody else does.  It’s being thrown 8s out of 10s, 9s out of 10s, or 4s out of 5s by pretty much every other rinky dinky critic alive.  I told a friend “I seem to be the only person who doesn’t like it.”  He said “that doesn’t surprise me.”  Typically, when I’m the one voice that says “meh” in a crowd of cheers, I get accused of trolling.  I try to avoid trolling indies.  It’s bad for the soul.  In the case of escapeVektor, I genuinely thought it was boring.  You might.. hell, likely will, disagree with me on that.  But I assure you, my “meh” here is my authentic opinion.  When I troll, I go after the easiest targets, like any self-respecting troll does.  Like ancient Sega properties that actually do suck but their fans don’t realize it.  Speaking of which, NiGHTS was $2.50 on PSN this week.  Yep, that’ll do.  That’s what I love about Sega.  It’s like having the barreled fish hand you the gun.

escapeVektorescapeVektor was developed by Nnooo.  Which is ironic, because that’s the sound I made every time the story crept up again.

$7.99 (normal price $9.99) wants neo-retro developers to seriously ponder whether or not Golden-Age coin-ops would be considered classics if players were interrupted between each stage by unskippable text or cut scenes in the making of this review. 

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