I’m not terribly familiar with the Steamworld games, including SteamWorld Dig and SteamWorld Heist. I tried a bit of Dig, and it didn’t click with me. However, I am very familiar with city builders, so the latest game, SteamWorld Build, still got me excited.
This entry is done by a different developer The Station, whose previous work was also called The Station. So, SteamWorld Build is a bit of a departure for both the developer and for the series as a whole.
The world is ending, so some of the surviving robots are following the instruction of a disembodied robot eye and digging into the ground to try and find rocket parts so they can leave. Rather than do it themselves, however, they’re building a settlement directly over the abandoned mine so they can attract other robots that they can send to their deaths in the cold, unfeeling earth.
SteamWorld Build feels closest to the survival city-builder genre to me, but only in terms of controls and the management of resources. There really is no survival here. There’s no real fail state, and even if you suck really badly at things, you will probably always be making progress. Really, SteamWorld Build has its own flavor, which works both in its favor and against it.
Beneath that, there’s also a mining and exploration game where you direct your robots to dig through blocks of earth to try and find resources and other objectives. Dungeon Keeper kept coming to mind as I played it, and there’s maybe a splash of that in here in the sense that you hollow out areas and can build rooms. Some of the blocks you order your robots to destroy also contain ore, so there are at least aesthetic similarities if little else.
Really, the goal here is to build up your town, so you can get better mining gear, so you can dig deeper and get more resources for your town, so you can get even better mining gear and get to the bottom. It’s an effective way to entangle the two modes of play. You’re constantly switching between the town and your mine, which is helped by a control scheme that makes it easy to get around. It feels nice.
The main flow of town building has you first plop down worker houses and have them extract resources to make products that will attract more workers. After all their needs are met, you can upgrade them to the next class of citizens and repeat the process with more and more complicated production lines. You’re constantly building and reinforcing supply lines so you can fit more and more robots into your society and meet milestones to unlock the next level of gear and production.
Meanwhile, underground, you’ll be putting your new gear to use. You need to ensure the mine is stable, that you have enough workers, and you must create infrastructure for resource extraction. Eventually, you’ll run into monsters and other hazards underground and need to deal with them, but I’m fairly certain your robots can’t permanently die. They can get eaten or destroyed in battle, but I think they either get fixed by mechanics or replaced. As I said earlier, it’s a hard game to fail at. You can certainly play it worse, but I don’t think it’s possible to be so bad at it that you get stuck. Prove me wrong, I guess.
Alongside this is a storyline that plays out in cutscenes. It’s… fine. I didn’t find it annoying, but I didn’t find it compelling either. On my second playthrough of the game, however, I was happy to be able to turn it off entirely. That’s a great option to have.
This is going to sound strange and ironic, but the major issue with SteamWorld Build is that it’s too mechanical and robotic. Progress is entirely linear, which is extremely strange for a city builder. With how difficult it is to fail, if a fail state exists at all, there’s very little dynamism to the whole experience.
What this means is that one playthrough plays pretty much the same as another. It’s a city builder that absolutely needs to have a narrative overlaying everything because you aren’t making one of your own. The robots under your care might as well not exist. They don’t have lives or schedules. They’re merely tools; a number that lets you know how close you are to reaching the next milestone.
After your first playthrough, any subsequent approach to the game might as well be a speedrun. You have the skills in place, you’ve solved all the problems, and you’ve seen the story. There is no other playstyle to experiment with, and you’re just doing everything again, but maybe more efficiently.
As someone who loves city-builders and management games as a whole, SteamWorld Build feels alienating. It’s a city-builder for people who don’t like city-builders.
While that’s a big problem for a genre entry, it’s not as damning as it might be. SteamWorld Build is an incredibly polished game. And while the lack of friction adds to the inhuman feel of the game, it is laudable. The graphics and music are so well executed that I honestly can’t imagine them being improved in any way. While the game itself feels so robotic, the aesthetic shows a lot of personality. It’s like human flesh over a metal endoskeleton.
What I mean to say is that if an extremely rigid city-builder doesn’t sound like a problem to you, or even if it sounds appealing, then SteamWorld Build is worth trying. I can honestly say that I didn’t hate the time I spent with it, even on the second playthrough. It just feels empty when I think back on it. I don’t think it’s going to stick with me. But there are far worse problems for a game to have than being too robotic.
[This review is based on a retail build of the game provided by the publisher.]