Some games you play through casually, enjoying the scenery. Some games, you devour, unable to control yourself. Games you end up having dreams about. That's what happened when SteamWorld Dig 2 got its claws in me: I devoured. 10 hours later, I've 100%'d the game, yet still find myself turning it on and clearing away a few of the rock formations left, hoping there will be something else to do.
I can't remember why I never tried the original SteamWorld Dig, other than casually brushing aside the art style. It reminded me, in a bad way, of Newgrounds-era Flash games. That's not a good reason to dismiss a game, but hey, I'm guilty of worse. SteamWorld Dig 2 arrived at an interesting time. The impending arrival of Metroid: Samus Returns had me itching for a Metroid-style game, but honesty, I'd rather play everything on my Switch these days, and I wasn't even sure where my 3DS was. By the time I was done with it, SteamWorld Dig 2 did more than scratch my Metroid itch, it satisfied it completely. (I'll just wait for the inevitable Samus Returns HD.)
Though a sequel, you don't need to know anything about what happened in the original; I sure didn't. You play Dorothy, one of the supporting characters in SteamWorld Dig, as she searches for Rusty, the previous main character. For whatever reason, he's disappeared, and it quickly becomes clear Rusty's disappearance is related to some nasty earthquakes that keep bothering the nearby town. It's a game extremely light on plot, but the world building does enough to give your actions weight. You do want to know what happened to Rusty, even if what you're really interested in is finding more secrets buried in the caves.
Though you gain new equipment over the course of the game, your main way of interacting with the world is digging with a pickaxe, clearing away rocks and attacking enemies. The thump-thump-thump of the pickaxe has a satisfying, calming rhythm that works in concert with the indescribable pleasure of watching a map slowly fill out, one tile at a time. (I get the same feeling playing Picross 3D.) Some rocks take several hits to break, others contain treasure. Though enemies respawn, rocks do not, so you need to be careful about the path you're carving; you might accidentally remove the ground beneath you or block off areas. Digging is about exploration as much as it is about building platforms; the path you're creating forward is most useful if you're able to go backwards, too.
If you screw up a path, it's fine. You can warp to a prior checkpoint or find gear that provides Dorothy with increased mobility. Over time, gear allows Dorothy to poke around previously inaccessible parts of the map, where most of the secrets hide. The thump-thump-thump of your pickaxe is soon mixed in with a whooshing of a jet pack and the satisfying click of a hookshot connecting with a piece of rock offscreen, saving a long fall. Your blunt (but effective) way of navigating the world is replaced by a character that, quite often, never touches the ground.
Besides mentally mapping a path through the game's seemingly endless caverns, you're also tasked with another balancing act: how much you can carry. Upgrades cost money, and you earn money by dragging crystals and other rare items to the surface. You cannot carry an infinite number of gems, though you can significantly upgrade your satchel, drop gems you already know aren't worth that much, or invest in beneficial perks, like one that gives you a portion of a gem's worth, even if you discard it. Gems are returned to a town vendor, and the only way back there is by dying (wherein you lose some gems) or finding one of the many travel pipes.
Inventory management usually elicits a groan from me, but in SteamWorld Dig 2, it works as part of a larger series of risk/reward gambles the player is making.
Don't take that to mean SteamWorld Dig 2 is a difficult game, though. It's not! Well, sort of. While the game doesn't ask you to pick between difficulties, a harder mode is hiding in plain sight. If you choose to try and find the game's secrets, especially if you choose to find them all, you've essentially flipped on SteamWorld Dig 2's hard mode. The most vexing combat, platforming, and puzzle sections are all squirreled away in the game's hidden tombs and while they were, for me, the most satisfying part of playing SteamWorld Dig 2, you do not have to engage with them. Streamlining the story, with a handful of secrets along the way, will take you about four or five hours. If you want to do everything, it's basically double.
Anyone that's read my work knows that I'm not someone who finds achievements, trophies, and other in-game badges to be, on their own, a reason to go above and beyond in a game. With that in mind, SteamWorld Dig 2 is worth 100%'ing. Like Nintendo's recent Mario games, the designers kept their sharpest ideas for these areas, a reward for the dedicated. Moreover, the act of finding each secrets is its own reward; more often than not, the pathways were hiding in plain sight, producing an endless series of delightful a-ha moments.
(Though I was able to track down 99% of the game's secrets on my own—invest in the perk that makes hidden walls sparkle—I have to thank Steam user Demajen for producing a useful map that sweep up the last few bits.)
I'd also like to formally apologize for dismissing the game's art, whose aesthetic is pervasive among the other games SteamWorld Dig developer Image & Form produces, years ago. OK, yes, it still remind me of 90s-era Newground Flash games, but it absolutely works in motion.
Outside of an extremely difficult (and optional) challenge mode, I've exhausted everything you can do in SteamWorld Dig 2. And yet, all I want to do is play more SteamWorld Dig. There are still some blocks I need to clear in that underground temple. Tearing them down might not do anything, but the thump-thump-thump brings a smile to my face. So, back to digging.