The SteamWorld franchise has been around since 2010, starting with SteamWorld Tower Defense for the Nintendo DSi. However, SteamWorld Dig made a longer-lasting impact, introducing us to its brand of randomly generated levels, platforming and mining in 2013. Image and Form Games wasn’t content to stick to the same genre, following it up with the excellent SteamWorld Heist, a turn-based strategy meets tactical shooter.
A return to platforming goodness seemed a given, and thus, we got SteamWorld Dig 2, a massively improved follow-up that offered a much tighter experience. However, lo and behold, the developer was off again in another genre, this time a deck-building turn-based RPG with a medieval fantasy twist in SteamWorld Quest. Why is this all relevant? Because SteamWorld Build once again ventures into a relatively untapped genre for the series – a city-builder with a twist.
“The world of SteamWorld has seen better days, and it’s only a matter of time before it dies out. Leading a group of robotic settlers, Jack Clutchsprocket and his daughter, Astrid, look to the stars for hope.”
This time, The Station of, er, The Station fame is the developer. I admittedly had concerns that SteamWorld Build was aiming for a completely different vibe that eschewed the older games’ quirky, space-western atmosphere. However, it capably delivers a SteamWorld experience through the guise of a city builder instead of simply plastering quirky robots into the genre and calling it a day.
The world of SteamWorld has seen better days, and it’s only a matter of time before it dies out. Leading a group of robotic settlers, Jack Clutchsprocket and his daughter, Astrid, look to the stars for hope. With the help of the mysterious Core, they set about building a town and investigating the mine for Old Tech, which turns out to be pieces of a rocket.
However, it’s clear that Core has some less-than-noble intentions, and with Astrid capable of hearing the Old Signal, which she describes as a sad song, there’s more going on than meets the eye.
Along with Jack, Astrid and Core are a motley cast of robots, from the greedy Gunn-Britt Gildenwire to the precarious Trader. My favorite is probably Clark Piston, an enforcer who says “Yep” to anything and everything, regardless of the situation.
“What starts as a quaint town quickly grows into a sprawling city, and suddenly, the Aristobots are moving in, demanding Waxing Shops, Diesel, Robo Cuisine and Hats, of all things.”
Each character brings something unique, but given the nature of the game, I missed that central protagonist who could serve as a narrative anchor for the experience. A believable robot that grew into an extraordinary hero you could embody and whose struggles become your own.
In SteamWorld Build, it feels like watching other characters’ stories unfold instead of actively experiencing them – which isn’t bad, given the strong voice acting. The characterization could be more nuanced, but the writing maintains a humorous, easy-going tone without losing the plot.
When starting, you only have a few wooden planks, a rundown train station and a shoddy mine entrance. Setting up several Worker residential houses generates income, and you can set about repairing the train station. You will need more Workers, which means more wooden planks, which means constructing a Forester to chop down nearby trees and a Lumber Mill to make planks. A General Store and Service Shop are also required to satisfy the needs of your workers, and from there, it’s one big spiral of upgrades, resource management and town planning.
The Workers also require Cactus Water and Charcoal to keep going, necessitating a farm and kiln. Eventually, you’ll want to upgrade them to Engineers, who can construct Tools for better Pickaxes. Their needs are even more complex, as they’ll require Spare Parts, purified Water, a Surveyor Office, a Saloon, a Burger Meister and much more.
“The mines offer more direct control to the player as you instruct miners where to dig, but you have to construct pillars to prevent cave-ins and bridges for crossing gaps.”
Everyone needs access to the train station, and Warehouses must be in place to manage the influx of deliveries for different establishments. What starts as a quaint town quickly grows into a sprawling city, and suddenly, the Aristobots are moving in, demanding Waxing Shops, Diesel, Robo Cuisine and Hats, of all things. Even they have their uses, though, helping to invest in Carbide Drills for digging tougher rocks in the mines and Steam Furnaces to boost the efficiency of nearby refineries.
From the outset, SteamWorld Build sounds like a robust but streamlined city-builder, but that’s only one part of the gameplay loop. After fixing the mine, you can switch to a randomized location with materials to mine and walls to knock down.
It’s a different dynamic, as you need to build quarters for Miners to dig through walls while adding Prospectors to manage materials like Scrap and Ironium. Mechanics are necessary for setting up machines that can automatically mine Scrap and Ironium, along with Dirty Water and Oil, for the needs of those up top.
The mines offer more direct control to the player as you instruct miners where to dig, but you have to construct pillars to prevent cave-ins and bridges for crossing gaps. Mined resources like Ironium and Scrap are returned to the surface, while Gold Nuggets can be used to hire more Miners, Prospectors and Mechanics. Of course, you also want to set up a Surveillance Station and a Radio Tower to search for rocket parts. Blueprints for new technology and chests with materials and buffs for the mining crew are also discovered if you look around enough.
“The station does allow for setting up trades and offloading any excess materials you have for money (or even trading for resources you’re short on).”
It’s very reminiscent of SteamWorld Dig 2, where you would return to the surface after mining materials and acquire upgrades to delve even further. In this case, the resources are a key part of the town’s progress, allowing for the development of Sheet Metal and Plastics. New facilities emerge as you complete milestones and the needs of your populace become more complex.
The train will also periodically arrive in town, bringing three new items to purchase. They offer benefits for buildings like levying more service tax at restaurants and saloons, expanding on a Warehouse’s simultaneous deliveries and much more (though you can only equip these items on one building at a time). You’ll often need Rubies, which you can discover in the mine, and heaps of cash to purchase them.
As appealing as this is, the offers can get pricey. It’s sometimes a toss-up between investing in your town and mine or delaying those upgrades to afford an item. Sometimes, an absurdly expensive item appears and it’s completely out of your reach.
The station does allow for setting up trades and offloading any excess materials you have for money (or even trading for resources you’re short on). Clicking on the random metal tumbleweeds that pop up periodically can also help, as they randomly disperse money, Tools, Rubies and other goodies. Still, some tuning to the item prices would be nice.
“Perhaps because of how streamlined the game can be, some quality-of-life features are sorely missed. Seeing how many types of a certain building you have is a little iffy.”
Of course, when you have a handle on everything SteamWorld Build throws at you, it goes all Dungeon Keeper. The second floor of the mine introduces enemies, from creeps that emerge when mining certain sections to giant worms that can eat your miners and mechanics. You’ll need to invest in an Armory for traps and turrets, hire Guards to protect your miners and much more. It’s a brilliant wrinkle to everything you achieved on the first floor, adding some hazards and obstacles now that you know how to find rocket parts.
You may think that SteamWorld Build gets overwhelming, what with a multi-faceted town and several floors of a mine to manage. Not only is it easy to pick up, but the overall pacing is very tight, gradually rolling out new features and mechanics before increasing the challenge or throwing something else into the mix.
On Balanced difficulty, while rearranging buildings to facilitate the ever-increasing population or exploiting other resources to make up for deficiencies, I rarely faced any problems. Sure, I immediately pushed to pause and swap over to a mine floor when the cave-in notification popped up, but more due to general paranoia than any immediate danger (don’t ignore potential cave-in threats, by the way).
Perhaps because of how streamlined the game can be, some quality-of-life features are sorely missed. Seeing how many types of a certain building you have is a little iffy. Instead of quickly highlighting them on the map or tracking them in a separate window, you click on, say, an Engineer Residential. This will highlight the buildings it has access to, allowing you to single out specific types. Problem solved, right?
“In terms of performance, SteamWorld Build is simply impeccable. The highest settings pose no slowdown as the city grows, the mine expands, and you switch between them with gusto.”
But what if you click on an Engineer Residential that doesn’t reach the Surveyor Office? Then you won’t know where the latter is. You can alternate between resource nodes like Ironium, Dirty Water, Oil and whatnot in the mines before placing a machine by hitting Tab, but can’t jump to the next building of the same type in town using a similar method.
Granted, it’s just another click on a building having its needs met, but a way to view a building type and how many of it exists, especially given how important coverage can be, would be appreciated. Hotkeys for different functions would also be appreciated. What if I want to immediately place some Worker Residentials down and upgrade them to Engineers? Or quickly select and cycle through different decoration types to spruce to place them around town?
Something as simple as independently selecting game speed and pausing instead of cycling between the three options feels rudimentary for a game like this. How much these omissions will matter depends on you – they amounted to minor annoyances instead of major hurdles during my playtime. At least when placing buildings, you can see their relative distance to the required needs and the coverage provided. The interface is also good at notifying you about issues without overloading the player with information.
In terms of performance, SteamWorld Build is simply impeccable. The highest settings pose no slowdown as the city grows, the mine expands, and you switch between them with gusto. Zooming in is also smooth and seamless, and while your various robot denizens don’t have teeth, they boast distinct animations and mannerisms. Your average Worker moseys down the street while the Delivery bots rush about, resulting in a constant buzz of activity.
“There aren’t many tracks that stand out on their own, like SteamWorld Dig 2. However, the soundtrack is still enjoyable enough, complementing the experience without wearing on you after extended sessions.”
The buildings are also beautifully animated, whether you’re watching a Cactus Water farm or the making of plastics, complete with unique sound effects. The complexity in architecture and character models isn’t going to rival the genre’s titans, but it’s in line with the franchise’s aesthetics while looking unique and appealing in its own right.
There are five different maps in SteamWorld Build, each offering some interesting details and themes. Depending on the points of interest, you often need to build around them, getting creative with the city planning, especially when the rocket construction site opens up. Still, I appreciate the dilapidated Drive-Thru with the big screen and the rollercoaster ride surrounding the monument with some very familiar faces.
As for the music, it has that Wild West twinge to it with mostly relaxed tones that don’t overpower the experience. Meanwhile, in the mines, there’s a buzz, a feeling that something is waiting past the next rock, and the music reflects that. There aren’t many tracks that stand out on their own, like SteamWorld Dig 2. However, the soundtrack is still enjoyable enough, complementing the experience without wearing on you after extended sessions.
“Despite some mild annoyances with the lack of hotkeys and the interface, SteamWorld Build is a worthwhile addition to the franchise and a pretty good city-builder in its own right.”
SteamWorld Build may not get as much attention with the year winding down. It probably doesn’t do anything you haven’t seen before, but it combines several interesting strategy planning sub-genres into a compelling whole.
The sheer robustness of the experience will appeal to different kinds of city-building fans, whether you want to challenge yourself and manage resources (especially since the toughest difficulty doesn’t refund materials on destroying buildings) or chill out and vibe to the story. It’s ideal for those who get a kick out of min-maxing and perfecting their cities and those who want to watch their residents go about their day, admiring their little quirks.
Despite some mild annoyances with the lack of hotkeys and the interface, SteamWorld Build is a worthwhile addition to the franchise and a pretty good city-builder in its own right. There were times I planned to sit down for an hour and progress steadily, and ended up immersed for several hours at a time, managing different needs and guiding Miners on their next expedition. Its action may not offer the same thrills as SteamWorld Dig or Heist, but the atmosphere and charm more than make up for it.
This game was reviewed on PC.