I've liked SteamWorld ever since I first played the original SteamWorld Dig on the Nintendo DS. I also love city management sims. So, the idea of mixing the latter into the former sounds like a peanut butter and chocolate endeavor to me. Thankfully, my suspicions were right. SteamWorld Build offers that exact experience of robots in the dusty old West and thoughtful city management. It even includes some mechanics of SteamWorld to keep things interesting!
Racing against time
The premise of SteamWorld Build is simple. A robot caravan has been traveling the wilds of an unforgiving desert. The planet is apparently on its last legs and these robots want to get away before their world finally gives up the ghost. Thankfully, at least one of the robots can mysteriously sense old world technology. Another of them is a robotic eye that can talk and sense its surroundings, knows about the tech, and claims said tech can help the robots escape their fate on the dying world. It’s a nice extension of the story so far in SteamWorld and almost immediately gets you on your way.
You choose one of several maps to work with in SteamWorld Build and can grow a town that can facilitate the adventures to find old world technology. This, too, is a pretty great extension of SteamWorld's previous delves into mining and the riches below our feet. In previous SteamWorld games like Dig, you’d venture into the underground, dig up whatever precious recourses you could carry, and take them back to the surface where you’d upgrade the town you were in. SteamWorld Build actually manages to follow a similar formula.
You place your residential worker buildings, supply them with amenities to make them happy, and slowly expand the technology you have and the resources you can gather and utilize. However, it isn’t long before you open up a mineshaft and management in SteamWorld Build becomes more complex. In addition to managing the aboveground town, you also go below and build the facilities to safely mine the depths. That includes recruiting miners, prospectors, and engineers, as well as building the workshops and facilities that will help them. You also have to build support structures to keep them safe from cave-ins, bridges to help them cross chasms to further ore veins, and more. What begins as a pretty typical city builder, quickly becomes multi-faceted management of a city of robots above and a mine that has the resources they need beneath.
All of this is helped along by a vibrant art style where you can see your workers and citizens bustling in real time. It also has a delightfully chill soundtrack that keeps the good vibes going as you figure out how to balance your society and mining efforts. It’s worth noting that while SteamWorld Build’s first map is a wild west-style desert in line with the universe's common aesthetic, there are several maps to choose from, each with their own theming and challenges. I particularly liked the Fossil Park map with the palm trees, volcano, and dinosaur bits scattered about.
Deeper and deeper
As mentioned above, management in SteamWorld Build is a multi-layered affair, and somehow, this game manages to incorporate a lot of previous SteamWorld game mechanics and concepts into that design. You have to keep your above town happy so that your robots will supply cash and go to work. That means not only making sure they have homes, but also markets, repair shops, clean water, and further amenities, which your robots will brave the mines and collect resources to build, just like the robots in SteamWorld games of old. Meanwhile, you have to build industry around them, creating forester buildings that cut down trees and wood shops that process the logs into planks. Every time you reach a town milestone, a new facet emerges that you have to utilize and manage to get to the next.
As you grow your town, you'll also find a need for engineers, and that’s where an interesting dynamic comes into play. You gain engineers by getting the resources to outright upgrade one of your worker shelters to an engineer shelter. The catch? Your resident workforce is limited by the residential buildings you’ve built altogether. That means converting a worker building into an engineer building takes those workers away from your pool to be engineers as well. After that, it becomes an interesting balancing act to keep the pools of workers and engineers stable so your town runs smoothly. You even end up getting even further tiers of citizenry to balance into the mix later!
Underground, you also have a balancing act to perform when managing your mining. You need miners to break down the rock around you, open paths, and carve out precious resources. Prospecters will mine specific veins and deliver the resources to the surface. Engineers will build machines that can automate vein mining processes. Finally, guards will keep your workforce safe from aggressive enemies that lurk in the deeper depths of the mines. The balance is that you have to build workshops for each of these forces to populate them and each workshop takes up its own space. As you open up the mines, you can fill them with more workshops and become more efficient, but it really makes you think about the limited space you have down there. It’s also interesting that SteamWorld Build found a way to incorporate the creatures of the depths from older games into play and make you figure out how to use your limited space to keep them at bay.
One of the most interesting points of SteamWorld Build is that nearly all of it works in real-time. That can be both bad and good. I happened to notice that sometimes I would have waves of my robotic citizens becoming unhappy. After a while, I realized it was because deliveries of important resources from the mine or shops to warehouses were running slow, creating sporadic moments of dissatisfaction among my robots that impeded my progress. I wasn’t sure what to do about this short of rearranging my whole town, which felt tedious with everything I built at the point it was happening. Thankfully, if you either want less or more challenge to your experience, SteamWorld Build has easier and harder difficulties, and even a sandbox mode where money doesn’t matter and you can just build as you please.
Grab your pickaxe and blueprints
Ultimately, SteamWorld Build was a lot of what I like about the original IP and city simulations. It smartly mixes concepts from throughout the SteamWorld series into your management such as mining and monster control. Between overseeing the mines below and the town above, you’ll have a lot on your plate trying to make sure all the robots are happy and safe as you dig deeper and deeper to find the tech you need to escape the planet. That said, it’s a good blend, fit to please anyone who likes SteamWorld and city builders alike. Make sure your robots are oiled and happy and they’ll gladly venture into the unknown where mysterious discoveries await in this unique city sim.
This review is based on a digital PC copy supplied by the publisher. SteamWorld Build comes out on PS4, PS5, Xbox One, Xbox Series X/S, Nintendo Switch, and PC on December 1, 2023.
- A good mix of city sim and SteamWorld lore
- Mining management adds something unique
- Solid array of upgrades and progression
- Various difficulty levels to adjust the challenge
- Sandbox mode if you just want to have fun
- Decent soundtrack as you work and manage
- Resources move in real-time, sometimes creating supply issues
TJ Denzer posted a new article, SteamWorld Build review: Boomtown
This makes me happy. The StreamWorld universe is such a treat.