SteamWorld Build Review
An accessible but somewhat repetitive management game with an underground twist
For developers, being able to explore a variety of genres can often be a luxury. Once you've found success with a franchise, it can be daunting and risky to take things into entirely new directions. But there are unique cases, such as the LEGO games, which thanks to their brand name have been able to explore a variety of experiences. Another such example is the SteamWorld series, from developers Image & Form. Since 2010, this series follows groups of robots that explore and adventure through post-apocalyptic steampunk worlds. Their travels have taken them through platforming, action/adventure, turn-based strategy, and metroidvania genres. The latest genre hop brings them to a city-management type game with SteamWorld Build, with new developers The Station at the helm.
SteamWorld Build has a brief and optional story to set the scene. You follow a group of steam robots that is adventuring across a planet, and looking to leave it and return to the stars. They have a robot with them, who says ancient technology buried under the earth has the materials they need to do so, and thus they establish a camp around a mine shaft and begin preparations. However, other than brief cutscene at the start and end, and a few brief conversations via character portraits, there's not much of a narrative to follow, and characters don't actually appear during the gameplay. For dedicated fans of the series, the story in Build takes place at the same time as SteamWorld Dig 2, and features some familiar characters.
The campaign offers five standalone destinations, which are basically slightly different looking desert style biomes. After seeing the story once, you can simply uncheck the box and not go through it again in the subsequent maps. Each map uses a square tile grid which dictates how buildings and roads can be placed. The camera uses a traditional isometric view, with decent zoom and free rotation, but fairly limited tilt. As you plunk down the first few dusty roads which are required to interconnect your humble mining town, next come the living quarters for the workers. Workers are the first of four citizen types that are needed to work in various industrial buildings, and whose demands must be met. Their happiness depends on service buildings, such as a general store, being within walking proximity. At full happiness, you get the maximum amount of workers per home, and tax income. These workers go into factories to produce various resources, and refine raw materials.
This basic city management gameplay structure should be familiar to any fan of the genre, and will remind players of games like Ubisoft's Anno. There is a notable line of separation between buildings that are producing/refining goods, and service buildings. The former can be placed in its own area outside of town, as goods only need to move between the various factories and production buildings, and then get stored in a warehouse. There is no requirement to be close to the consumers, unlike the service buildings, which use up those materials to keep the populace happy. The game has a fairly clear UI that shows how far the service of a building extends, and you'll need to design roads well in order to keep happiness high. There is some annoying micromanagement to ensure all housing buildings are within range of services, and two new road types help extend the ranges later on.
With the small town humming along, you will gradually unlock new buildings and citizen types – with Engineers coming next. The idea remains the same – these new citizens have more and different resource and service building needs than their worker predecessors. Not much changes with Engineers – and subsequently Aristobots and Scientists – as you will just have to place more and more new building types and chains of production to refine materials and deliver new services. Some of the later production chains require multiple buildings and resource types, so your industrial area can get fairly expansive. As in any city builder, you don't control any citizens directly, but their pathfinding is good and they adapt to new roads and take faster paths if available.
The trick is you can't simply start placing Engineer or Scientist housing – they are "levelled up" by upgrading the Worker houses, who need to be at 100% service satisfaction. Once upgraded, their needs change, which means the previous service buildings are no longer useful. So your choices are to relocate either the current or previous citizen types into their own areas, and expand the town in quite a segregated way. You'll be doing a surprising amount of building moves to accommodate the four citizen types and their unique needs and service buildings. Is there some kind of message here on gentrification and keeping citizen classes separate, or constantly pushing out the workers, or is it just annoying design? You decide. But as the town grows and population composition changes, there is still a need to float enough citizens of each type in order to keep all buildings operating, so you'll be expanding the city at least four times and sort of starting from scratch and going through the same motions of levelling up housing.
Resource refinement and production chains are a big part of the game, and to get those resources you'll need to delve into the mines. There are tons of different resource types in the game, but generally once you got a production chain going, they can be left alone. With the surface production humming along, you can switch to a view of the mines, which consist of three standalone levels with slightly different gameplay. Down here you will place living quarters on a square grid again, but these aren't buildings – they are flat surfaces that can be expanded one tile at a time. You'll need to build tiles for miners that will dig at your command, prospectors that gather raw materials, guards who fight off enemies automatically, and mechanics that construct automatic resource gathering nodes and defences. The more tiles you have for each of the four unit types, the more of them will appear – there is no connection to the citizen numbers on the surface.
With a few miners, who will do a few neat things automatically like reinforce walls and put up lanterns (purely aesthetic), you can instruct them to dig horizontally through dirt and other material types. Doing so expands the breadth of the mine, and reveals some raw materials that are either nodes for constant gathering by prospectors or one-offs that get picked up automatically. You will also discover gaps over which you need to place bridges, and walls that can't be cleared until you setup production for stronger pickaxes and drill bits. Your goals on each mine level is to trace a few glowing power lines, flip some levers to open the doors, and eventually find the ship parts which you need for the main goal of the game, to escape the planet. Clearing a level of a mine doesn't take too long – usually 30 or so minutes, as you simply drag a cursor and select all possible soil blocks to clear. The design is similar to an old game called Dungeon Keeper.
Just like on the surface with having to restart anew with different citizen types and their building needs, each of the three levels of the mines are separate; meaning you start with no miners and no living quarters. The two deeper levels introduce new raw materials as well as enemies, for which you need the guard units and defensive guns or flame turrets, but otherwise things don't change much. Once again you will need to find some levers to pull, and dig up the ship parts. You can also construct items like teleporters to zoom around the mine, conveyor belts to speed up production, and so on. While it's engaging to explore the mines and make your workers dig in multiple directions, it's not exactly complex. Also the mines are not overly large, and things like the radar (which reveals resources) are pointless, as you end up exploring the whole map in a short amount of time anyway.
All of this below-and-above ground construction requires lots of different raw and refined materials, but again the game is fairly decent at letting you easily identify where or how to produce them. There is definitely a lot of materials, from logs to scrap, oil and water, to end products like robo-burgers, art, and black powder, but it's not too bad when sorting through them all. This is a casual-leaning game; on medium difficulty, keeping citizens happy is easy and getting the materials needed is just a matter of time. If you're short on something, there is a train that runs through the map and arrives every 5 minutes, letting you setup ongoing trades for the things you are short on.
Cash is generally easy to amass, and placing buildings on the surface doesn't require any facing adjustment, as long as they are next to a road. Of course, there is a harder difficulty (as well as easy, and a free-build mode). You can delve into the details – such as fixing issues if any production buildings are getting their resources too slowly, but that's generally for perfectionists and does not impact regular play. To add a little more depth to production, you can get building items. These items can be equipped to buildings or down in the mines, and provide special bonuses, such as increased production speed, reduced workforce requirement, faster movement, and so on.
While the core of SteamWorld Build is definitely solid, there is a problem with repetitiveness. As touched on, just completing a single map of the campaign, players will be faced with numerous times where the sense of Déjà vu can set in. While expanding the city, you will have to relocate buildings all the time as you upgrade them to new citizen tiers, and place new ones down to start the process again. The three levels of mines have largely the same gameplay, with the slightly difference resource nodes and enemies, and having to start over from scratch on each level. You can also keep playing on your current map or try the free-build mode, but you will just get annoyed at the endless and unavoidable enemy attack waves in the lower two mine levels that cause constant alerts and message spam, so you just begin to zone out. And when you've finally made it, got all the rocket parts, fuel, and blasted off into space – the only thing left is to pick a new campaign map. Which, you guessed it, is just exactly the same experience with a different biome. After completing a single map, which only takes about 5-8 hours, there's just little motivation to do it all again. You get a Landmark building for each completed map, which unlocks a special bonus like faster train resupply time and free roads, but that doesn't change the experience enough.
The interface is fairly streamlined and functional, and it's easy to build the needed structures for different production chains. The low-res minimap isn't as friendly, but switching between the surface and three mine tiers is quick. The art style will be familiar to fans of the franchise, using a steampunk aesthetic for its robot citizens and buildings. Animations of the units and buildings are also on par with the strategy genre. There are no issues with performance or stability in our time with the game. The visuals aren't particularly demanding, but they work OK given the art style doesn't focus on realism. Sound design and music are a bit too basic, however. The game also throws up a lot of unhappy faces in the UI over buildings when they slip below 100% satisfaction, which seems like an unnecessary high threshold for a visual alert. You are also only allotted one save file per campaign map, which seems rather inflexible.
With new developers, the SteamWorld franchise expands into the town building and resource gathering genre with moderate success. It's a well-designed game, but it is a little too repetitive and – pardon the pun – shallow, despite three levels of mines to dig into. That makes it accessible, but not always engaging, and you'll be using the speed-up time function constantly. The above-ground city building and below-ground exploration are well intertwined, but you'll have seen everything that the game has to offer after completing one of the five available maps, which only takes a handful of hours. And there are just not enough reasons to do it all over again on a new location with a slightly different visual aesthetic. This all makes the game's $30 asking price a bit steep, as despite decent gameplay design, there's just a bit too much tedium and not enough longevity and structured content.