Dorothy idles by the welcome sign in El Machino, a hodgepodge mining town, population 105 rusted-out steambots, counting her spoils. The ground beneath her feet rumbles and groans with an unnatural ferocity, and she’d be fearful but for how casually the old junkers that built this place have come to accept the planet’s imminent demise. The shadow of a nearby rocket looms over the town, blocking out the light of a glorious sunset but offering the promise of a  contingency plan should it come time for this old rock to blow. She doesn’t have the heart to tell them it’s not big enough. But hope remains, because rumors tell of a red-scarfed miner who was seen passing through here not so long ago. And that miner just so happens to be a dear friend of hers.

It’s not natural. None of it.

For Dorothy, the pickaxe-swinging, bomb-lobbing, hook-shooting, rocketeering hero of SteamWorld Dig 2, this hope drives a quest that’s exponentially larger than that of its predecessor, the breakout hit that thrust developer Image & Form out of obscurity and into the limelight in 2013. And it’s not just the size that makes such a dramatic difference: Dig 2 showcases a developer that’s more confident than ever before, and that confidence has led to a sequel that’s leagues ahead of the original in every way that matters. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t miss the scrappy individuality of the original, but expecting a carbon copy of that modern classic would be selling short a developer that’s bursting with new ideas for surprising and delighting its fans. Which, at this point, I’m pretty sure is everyone.

What set the first SteamWorld Dig apart from the indistinguishable mass of Metroidvanias coming out of the independent development scene in the early 2010s was the trust it put in players to (literally) carve their own path to the bottom of its dirt-filled dungeons. There were milestones to conquer along the way, of course: bosses and the power-ups they guarded appeared at the same depth every time, ensuring a consistent difficulty curve. But the bulk of the adventure was different every time you played it, because no two maps were ever quite the same: the random placement of enemies, resources, and indestructible objects within each stratum ensured players could never blaze quite the same trail twice. This randomness infused SteamWorld Dig with a replayability unlike any open-ended platformer I’d ever played before, and it’s what’s kept me coming back to it time and time again.

Dorothy goes places Rusty only dreamed of.

Imagine my surprise, then, to discover that SteamWorld Dig 2 jettisoned that randomness entirely! This realization didn’t dawn on me immediately, though, because for the first few hours, SteamWorld Dig 2 feels strikingly similar to its predecessor. A familiar rhythm sets in: descend into the mine, gather up all the ore you can before your lamp runs out of oil, return to the surface, sell your loot to buy upgrades that allow you to dig just a little bit deeper and maybe withstand a few more monster attacks, then head back down and do it all over again. It’s as easy as ever to become lost in this pursuit, but as you delve deeper, SteamWorld Dig 2 opens up into something much grander. It’s a tale of friendship, sure, but also of finding common ground with those who believe their right to the bounty of nature is more inalienable than your own. It’s an astute commentary on the plights of our modern times: both hopeful about humanity’s drive to find solutions to our suicidal tendencies, and pragmatic about our ability to stop arguing with each other long enough to implement them.

SteamWorld Dig 2 is a smidge larger than its predecessor.

Now, you don’t have to read that deeply into any of this. It’s just a video game, right? But what makes this video game so special is that you can go as far as you’d like with it. That means reading between the lines of its narrative, or not. It means choosing whether (and how) to use the more than 50 equipment mods, which let you control everything from the damage your pickaxe deals, to the way you handle low-value ore that’s taking up valuable inventory space, to the way Dorothy’s body responds to the kick of a pneumatic wall punch. And it means choosing whether to follow the six-hour narrative straight through to its conclusion, or to map out every corner of the world instead, investing more than double the playtime to collect all of the ultra-hidden artifacts and unlock the punishingly difficult post-game challenges. The lack of randomization, as it turns out, doesn’t matter all that much after all, because even with its deliberately designed world, there’s endless variety in how you choose to play.

I started a second play through of SteamWorld Dig 2 recently, fully prepared to be disappointed by the fact that the dungeons were exactly the same as I remembered them from the first time. But that disappointment never came. The last thing I did in my first save file was collect the 43rd artifact, and the process of doing that led me to a deep appreciation for the nuances of the game’s physics—something that hadn’t even occurred to me during my playthrough up to that point. Now, in my new save file, I’m using that understanding to push the boundaries, climbing unclimbable walls, breaking sequence, and finding out just how far I can push Dorothy in her most basic form. The map may be the same, but the game feels all new. I should have expected no less from Image & Form.

A-Minus

 

 

 

Invisible Gamer’s review of SteamWorld Dig 2 is based on final Switch review code provided to us by Image & Form. The game launched on Thursday, September 21st, 2017.