[REVIEW] SteamWorld Dig: A Fistful of Dirt (Switch)

The prequel to the sequel you got first, but came first. Ya' dig?

The Nintendo Switch now houses both its third game from publisher/developer Image & Form Games and its third SteamWorld title.

SteamWorld Dig: A Fistful of Dirt isn’t the first in the SteamWorld line, though it did cleverly fuse gameplay mechanics from a few different genres which shined noticeably to spawn one of the best sequels and games to date, SteamWorld Dig 2, which released in 2017 with very high praise. In order for that to happen, greatness had to have been culminating somewhere. Simply, one must not overlook A Fistful of Dirt. It’s worth your time and is even half the price of Dig 2. It’s shorter, but steaming with the same charm.

The only sun you’ll see. Often.

Ka-chink!

Beginning in the steampunk western town of Tumbleton, players take charge of a metal-minin’ cowboy named Rusty whose hat and red neckerchief keeps him looking pristine. Being that it’s his first visit there, the current town folk have the smallest bit of confidence in a newcomer to take over the mine after Rusty had received the deed given to him by his Uncle Joe. Due to an accident, Rusty finds his remains and his pickaxe which immediately kicks off the entire adventure to dig for answers. SteamWorld Dig is very much a metroidvania style game with its own twist. It’s all about subterranean scavenging with a sweet gameplay loop that rewards your efforts and kindly lets you get back to making progress. The town above will need resources to have a functioning economy and grow its residents and that’s where Rusty comes in doing all of the handiwork. In doing so, he also slowly reveals what his uncle had left behind. Much of the game is directly involved with mining your way into and out of trouble. As Rusty finds minerals, such as ore and gems, he’ll need to sell them in town for some coin in which he is able to spend in there as well to earn upgrades. A tin can can only hold so much shiny beans, so he’ll be constantly visiting the surface and back down again. It’s work that is fun and is definitely not a chore to do especially since SteamWorld Dig is generous with checkpoints to which you can immediately travel to and from without having to always make the trip back up from your lowest known point on the map.

Choose how you want your progress to be efficient.

The underground scene is some laser show.

The colorful HD art style will have already caught your eye, but the characters you meet are all distinct with their own animated personality. Dorothy (or Dot) is the one who you sell your loot to. She’s professional, but laid back. Cranky runs the shop and his dialog as well as his stern shakiness fits him all too well. Depending on what your current level is, he’ll have new items and improved items for you to purchase. You need to meet a selling requirement in order to achieve the next level rank and that bar gets slightly higher each time. As your town grows, other residents will appear who are also merchants. SteamWorld Dig allows you to map any of the actions to any another button on your controller, but the default settings as good as is. That handy pickaxe does more than just break loose dirt. It’s Rusty’s primary melee weapon which never breaks and can only become stronger. Through the course of the game, Rusty will earn a few different weapon upgrades he can swap between. The segmented elements on the interface, which play a key role everything you do, start off low in number and additional slots can be earned. In order to optimize your earnings below, players can choose what they wish to upgrade first, provided they have the coin. Do you want to cause more damage to blocks faster or do you wish to get extra slots to carry minerals in order to maximize your payout the next time you visit town? It’s entirely up to you. If you have the cash for either of those at the same time of purchase, well that’s even better. You may be a little short of an upgrade that you know you’ll get on your next visit, so saving up and not making a purchase right away may be what you’re looking for. What’s great here is it will adhere to the player. You will definitely come across enemies, but you also have the choice to bypass most of them if you’re proficient in your digging so skipping out on damage output and instead getting bigger pockets is just an beneficial. It’s worth noting that all of the pickups will remain where they are even if you return to the surface so you don’t have to discard an ore of lesser value for one with a higher value right then and there, but the game does a good job of tempting you to pick it up. Should you die, you begin again in town, but your entire loot will be placed in a grab bag where you last perished.

This mine is mine!

Catching air in town is more than just selling and buying; it refills Rusty’s lamp. Emitting light in a radius, the lamp’s meter is the only one that slowly runs out on its own. Just visiting the surface is all it takes for it to replenish. The lamp plays well with the feeling of how much progress you most likely made. It’s not a major worry when fuel runs out because it doesn’t get completely pitch black, but unless in certain lit areas, seeing the blocks around you is guesswork so mindlessly chipping away at walls or floors might get land you on spiked traps you didn’t see coming. There are rock blocks at you absolutely cannot destroy and their own objective is to comply with gravity. Standing under one as you hack away the dirt under it will be lights out for Rusty. Parts of the underground world also have pools of water. Once Rusty gets his first upgrade that requires steaming, he’ll be able to collect some and have upgrades become available. As you collect water, you will see the pool of water slowly shrinking until you’ve reached the maximum amount you can hold. The number of upgrades to earn are found in caves. These are separate rooms you can enter within the underground and they usually involve solving puzzles. They also hold optional secret paths to find which will earn you some rewards. There’s one particular easter egg is worth seeking.

“I have the higher ground”

Part of the addiction in the SteamWorld Dig series comes from eliminating blocks in your own way. You get to choose which direction to create a path and you can get creative for the most part. It’s sort of like doing your own minimal level design within the game itself. Since enemies vary from heavy & powerful to immobile but with projectiles, how you choose to interact is some leeway. As you tread the territory you destroy, you familiarize with it and the subtle feeling of “I did that” lingers. Breaking things, picking up treasure, wall jumping, using other abilities you’ve found constantly while exploring is satisfying. Tie that in with the sound of your pick-ups, cashing them in for coin, leveling up, chipping away at rock with your drill, etc only enhance the experience. The soundtrack sets the tone, too. A bit of calm western, a hint of fallout, and mysterious technology can be heard.

Seeing upgrade machines is electrifying.

SteamWorld Dig: A Fistful of Dirt set the foundations for what became of its sequel. As it stands on its own, it’s a good game. It just goes to show with little budget, a passionate indie team can do wonderful things. There’s not a thing that SWD does that it doesn’t do well. Only that it’s not as refined and long as its sequel. It’s about a good 6-7 hours for first time players and those hours are sweet. It sounds and looks great in handheld mode. Pretty much perfect in that regard. You’re able to change the interface size so icons are more visible. The touchscreen functions to change such settings. My only gripe is not that there isn’t any HD rumble utilization which would be great, but that there’s no rumble at all. The game was a blast when it first launched without it and it still is today. Classic indie gem.

Summary
SteamWorld Dig: A Fistful of Dirt may not be good as SteamWorld Dig 2, but it's still good. Getting to know the characters and even having different moves is enough to warrant playing it if you haven't already, but it's fun anyway. If this game is your introduction and you are into the metroidvania genre, you will also enjoy this. It has a pacing that never dulls and you're constantly being rewarded. It's about time you dig in.
The Stellar
  • Addicting gameplay loop.
  • Charming characters.
  • An art style to dig.
The Lesser
  • No rumble.
8.7
Pretty Good
Gameplay - 8.75
Visual - 8.5
Audio - 8.5
Value - 9

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