To what extent do the controls make the game? Just because a game can be ported over to another system, does it mean it should? This is what I pondered while trying out Cave Digger, originally released for VR systems by Mekiwi and out now for standard PC play on Steam.
Digging Yourself Deeper
Gameplay in Cave Digger is fairly simple. You start with just a pickaxe and an elevator to go down into a randomly generated mine shaft. Once inside, you have a limited time to mine the cramped walls, toss the ore into the bin, and see how much money you can earn.
As you play you can purchase new tools and upgrades to existing ones. Dynamite to demolish whole walls, saws to carefully excavate artifacts, drills to extract oil, and even an infinity gauntlet if you can find the stones for it. Each slightly adjusts the playstyle, but more on that later.
Eventually you gain access to a train, riding to various mining locations with an emphasis on exploring. It’s a lot slower and more methodical, with no time limit and hidden goodies to find. It’s a bit easier to get a huge haul on it, and it goes hand in hand with upgrading the mining town itself for some nice passive upgrades.
Of course, now we get into the downsides. See, this game was originally made for VR, and I’m certain this game was bound to be fun there. There’s no shortage of fun games that simply revolve around the joy of manipulating objects in virtual reality. Swinging a pickaxe, lobbing a stick of dynamite, grabbing an ore that pops out of the wall before giving it a casual toss behind your back, these all sound fun to do in VR.
On PC, however… it’s all just a mouse click. Grabbing things and using tools is always right in front of you, a set distance away. Not only does this make everything feel kinda samey and not very fun, but it also interferes with the gameplay itself. Using the pickaxe was often an exercise in frustration as I would need to find what precise orientation of my view would translate my ineffectual wiggling of the pickaxe into actually striking a rock. Picking up ore to put in the box was a laborious and dull task where I had to look down, grab the ore, look up to the box, put it in, and repeat for every little scrap I found… well, until the infinity gauntlet let me just vacuum it up, but that thing kinda breaks the game in all sorts of ways.
The train section also suffers a bit. It was fun the first time, finding hidden chests, doing some minor puzzles, finding walls of loot to plunder for all their worth… but the problem with slow and careful exploration is that it’s only fun the first time. I finished that, and then I was looking at the hundreds of thousands of dollars I needed for further upgrades and sighing in frustration. It was faster than going back to the mineshaft, but it was still just the exact same stops on the route every single time. It’s the worst kind of grind where you’re just doing the exact same thing without variation over and over again until you can unlock the next thing, which would be fine if the gameplay itself was fun… but it’s not.
The presentation and vibe are one aspect of the game I really liked. The graphics are nothing to write home about, just your usual 3D title level of polish. The music is pretty good though, mostly some vaguely western twangs of various levels of intensity, though after a few upgrades you have an option to change the sound system on the train to different “radio stations.”
Speaking of the radio, there’s a narrator of sorts who frequently comments on things you’ve purchased or how you’ve done on a run, and I really enjoyed the flavor he added. There’s a good amount of in-world “propaganda,” as they’re portrayed as news broadcasts to the general public about things the miners have done, and there’s some dark comedy in there when it’s clear that things actually going on and what the announcer is saying don’t quite match up.
Overall, I’d say this is a game that should have stayed on VR. There’s some decent fun here, but the act of controlling it with a keyboard and mouse is just not satisfying. It felt like I was trying to play with one hand tied behind my back, when I wasn’t fighting the system to get my tools to land where I wanted them to.
Review copy provided by Mekiwi for PC. Screenshots provided by reviewer.