Mining and gaming go together like bacon and cheese. There’s something satisfying and powerful about slamming a pickaxe into rock, and that’s before the shower of gems as the rock explodes. Minecraft, Spelunky, Steamworld Dig and Mr. Driller have served up satisfying examples, and now we have Cave Digger, which amps up the satisfaction with ludicrous tools like infinity gloves, chainsaws and nuclear bombs.
Cave Digger starts extremely low-key, and you wonder whether it’s better suited as a casual mobile game. You are a first-person miner in some kind of Wild West saloon, and you push a button to ride an elevator down into a mining seam. These mines are barely bigger than your character, as if you had fallen down a 3×3 hole in Minecraft. You get twenty seconds, and you mine as many gems from the walls as you can, pickaxing them to the ground and then manhandling them into the minecart in the centre. You get three lots of mines and three lots of twenty seconds, before you’re bumped to the surface and your cash is tallied. A shop runs along the edge of the elevator, so you can reach over and buy permanent unlocks and tools, making your next run even more lucrative.
We were mentally reviewing Cave Digger in our heads, imagining scores sitting around 2/5 and complaints of being a one-trick mobile game. But we were pleasantly wrong, as the game opened up into something far more interesting and ambitious.
The tools you purchase are outlandish and you soon find yourself lodging dynamite and sticky bombs into walls to watch the gems rain around you like confetti. Strategies start developing, as you weigh up using a drill and bucket to get oil (long-winded but rewarding) versus the chainsaw to get relics, which requires you to carefully saw along a dotted line.
The gold per run increases hugely, and you start seeing odd things happening in the cave. After purchasing a metal glove, magical gems start appearing in the walls, and you can socket them to create, well, an infinity glove. Snap your fingers and you become a god, looming over the planet and mining it like a rock seam. This is when we realised that Cave Digger was actually funny, and has some exceptional tricks up its sleeve. Keys appear for vaults, mushrooms give you hallucinogenic trips, and more that we should probably not spoil. And as you uncover secrets, you tick off ‘endings’ that are ludicrous deaths and happenings that reward you for exploring ‘what if?’ scenarios. You can view these endings and try to reverse-engineer them, occasionally making Cave Digger a physics-based puzzler that’s not dissimilar to Goat Simulator.
Eventually, the shop runs out of stock and you explore the Sci Fi/Wild West ghost town around you. This is where you realise that you were mining the tip of an iceberg. Not only can the town be explored and upgraded with the gold you’ve been generating, but there’s a train-track running through the town which you can hop on to explore more horizontal, rather than vertical, mines. Just like the many hidden secrets of the elevator shaft, there are bizarre nick-nacks here that will inevitably lead to a fantastic ending. Gold statues wait with mouths open, seeds litter the floor, and outhouses dangle over chasms.
It was no surprise to learn that Cave Digger began life on PC as the elevator shaft, then expanded its horizons with the train-track as DLC. The experience feels like a game and its expansion bolted together, which is not far from the truth. That’s not a complaint: Cave Digger is all the better for it, as the point when you feel boredom and start running out of content is when you’re greeted with a whole new game to play.
After your third or fourth train trip, the wheels do start coming off. Where the elevator shaft was a race against various limits – like time and the amount of space you have – the train trips have no limits. You can mine and gather to your heart’s content (you even discover a treasure chest pet called Chompy who hoovers up the gems for you), which means more gold for you, but also a creeping grind. Sure, things subtly change as you buy more unlocks, but the core remains the same: you pull your train up at a cave, you rinse it of everything that’s worth cash, and you move on. The price of the next unlock becomes increasingly steep and you realise that you’re going to have to grind ten runs to unlock it. Your future stretches in front of you, and it begins to look a little tedious.
Knowing when to put Cave Digger down is probably the biggest tip we can give you. The initial three hours, when the unlocks scatter around your feet and the game keeps opening out, are undoubtedly its best. If you duck out before the game feels like a trudge, then there’s a lot to love in Cave Digger. It’s funny, satisfying and eager to surprise you. Whether those few hours are worth the outlay of £12.49 is one we can’t answer for you, but it might be worth adding to a wishlist and waiting for a cheaper entry point.
Another caveat is that Cave Digger sometimes belies its VR origins. The distance from you to the rock is probably clearer in VR, where there’s likely more feedback that you are hitting or not hitting something with your pickaxe. Without VR, mining can feel a little splashy and ineffective. You will attempt to hit rocks near girders or similar, and you won’t quite be sure if you’re making progress or not, because the visual feedback is a bit lacking. The same goes for catching oil from gushes that are low to the floor, and chainsawing relics from sunken elements of the wall. Cave Digger could have been weightier and offered more reassurance for a player who’s trying to mine at speed.
Cave Digger is also not one for handholding. It won’t tell you which gems are better than others, nor will it tell you what you’re purchasing from shops. Everything in Cave Digger is ‘discovered’ by you, which gives the game a certain pioneering spirit, but it could leave people behind. At least the tools themselves have a helpful Y button that gives you prompts, but you suspect the designers were reluctant to even add that.
Ultimately, we had a whale of a time with Cave Digger on the Xbox, until we didn’t. The opening stages have that gleeful abandon that a lot of mining games have, as our pockets filled with gold and unlocks made us into mining deities. The game kept widening out to add more and more things to do and we were smitten with how generous it was. That generosity had to come to an end, though: as Cave Digger ran out of surprises, the feelings of grinding started to take hold. Treat these feelings as a canary and get out before they choke out the enjoyment, and Cave Digger becomes a glittering recommendation.