The SteamWorld games have successfully bounced around a number of different genres including Metroidvania-style mining games and turn-based tactical stealth. With SteamWorld Build, developer The Station has brought those adorable robots into the city-building genre, with a bit of dungeon exploration thrown into the mix, in what becomes a ridiculously addictive experience.
SteamWorld Build tells a simple yet endearing tale of a small group of steambots living on a dying planet, trying to find ancient technology to help them venture off into the stars. It's a basic story with some rather obvious plot twists, but it's told with such a huge amount of charm that you won't necessarily mind, especially as the real showcase here is the gameplay.
To start with, you have an empty bit of land which you'll need to build up into a bustling town. The city-building aspects of the game are simple enough that newcomers will quickly be able to get into it while also being compelling enough that genre veterans will feel right at home. It definitely helps that there's an intuitive UI, which makes it quick and easy to switch between menus, as well as controls that have been well optimised for consoles.
Things start out nice and slowly, with you building some housing to encourage workers to come to town. You'll then need to build services such as grocery stores and repair shops to keep your bots happy. Of course, in order to keep building, you'll also need to gather resources, and to do this you'll need to build various factories, such as lumber mills and charcoal kilns. Keeping the population happy is very important; if you don't, they'll start to leave. This then has a knock-on impact on the amount of tax revenue you get, as well as the number of workers available to staff your factories.
Over time you'll gain access to different types of bots, and you'll find that the needs of the population will change. They’ll become more demanding in what they need to keep happy, but thankfully the UI makes it clear when you're starting to run into issues, so it's easy to see where you might need to make improvements to your town.
Supply chains also get increasingly complex as you unlock new facilities. For example, some workers will want Moonshine, but in order to make it you'll need glass bottles as well as water. To gather water, you'll need to build cactus farms, and you'll also need a sand sifting plant as well as a glass blowing factory. Sometimes different facilities will use the same basic resources, and so you'll frequently want to check in to see if there's enough to go around. It's a delicate balancing act to make sure that all your plants are getting the right influx of resources and to make sure you're not over- or under-producing.
Early into your town building career, you'll unlock the mine. It's here where you'll be searching for the various pieces of ancient technology mentioned in the opening cutscenes, as well as gathering more resources for your ever-expanding settlement. The town and mine have separate gameplay loops, although doing well in one area will of course benefit both by giving you more resources you can use to build.
The mines offer a very different experience to city-building. Down below, you'll be taking on a much more active role in your steambots' lives by directing them on where to go and what to dig. You'll constantly be tempted to push deeper and see what's ahead, be it a new rich source of resources or a vicious nest of monsters. There are also some tower defence elements where you'll need to use guards and build defences to protect your miners from waves of enemies as they dig up treasure.
The juxtaposition of these two game modes works surprisingly well. Switching between the mine and the town is pretty much instantaneous and so it's easy to keep an eye on both regions. You also don't feel like you get punished for spending a lot of time in just the mine or the town. You can set up each area to be fairly self-sustaining so that you can safely focus on one without worrying that everything will have turned to ruin while your back is turned.
While the main story is a little short and can be wrapped up in around 10 hours, there's some replayability. You can play in different starting locations with a randomised mine layout, as well as different difficulty options, although it would've been nice to have some different campaign modes to extend the gameplay even further.
If you're a fan of other management style games like Two Point Hospital or Cities: Skylines, you're likely to find SteamWorld Build to be a little bit simplistic. It can be easy to pull yourself back from the brink of failure, but that doesn't mean that it's not fun to play something a little bit more relaxed and forgiving. Being able to freely switch between the two modes without constantly being pulled back by emergencies means you feel rewarded for exploring and experimenting rather than being punished for not micromanaging everything.
SteamWorld Build is a delightful and very satisfying foray into the city-building genre. The two gameplay modes complement each other well, offering two very different but equally pleasing ways to gain resources. While we do wish the story could've lasted a little bit longer, the addictive gameplay and slick presentation makes it very easy to recommend.