You have to hand it to The Station, they really are turning the SteamWorld series into quite the franchise. Despite starting out as Metroidvanias, they’ve expanded into turn-based strategies, deckbuilding RPGs, and now a city builder. Not only that, but the quality has always remained high throughout.
Can their latest entry live up the rest of their titles?
Many thanks to NIS America for the review code.
IF YOU BUILD IT, THEY WILL DIG
The SteamWorld robots are in trouble. Their planet is dying and they need to find a way out. There is hope however, and it lies in the innate abilities of a young metal girl called Astrid who can channel unknown voices and a tiny robotic sphere who knows about hidden tech buried deep underground.
As they start digging, they uncover rocket pieces that can help them find a way out… but they also find something else too. Something lurking in the deep. Waiting.
The interesting thing about how SteamWorld Build’s plot plays out is that upon starting a new game, you seem to have the ability to select any of the five maps whilst choosing either story or sandbox mode, as you please. Confused as to how that would actually work, I decided to just plump for the first one – the natural starter’s choice. However, upon reaching the conclusion of the plotline within that map, the game didn’t proceed to the next world: it ended.
As it turns out, the story mode of the game can be played out on any of the five levels as you see fit, with all the story beats remaining the same. The map themes and layouts vary, such as a Vegas style map with it’s gaudy neon signs in the sand, or a claustrophobic dinosaur park, but these only really serve to add aesthetic changes and some more challenging layouts for you to manage. Sure, the subterranean mines all have the same visual themes; however, these too can be randomised for those wanting to experience something fresh.
It’s a very unique take on the city building genre that threw me off at first, but also proved to be one that I appreciated too. The game has more than enough meat on its bones to satisfy those wanting a city building experience, whilst not outstaying its welcome. Map-specific rewards are earned by completing the story on that specific level, thus providing some incentive for replaying the game, without ever feeling like you are obliged to either. These bonuses will certainly help when trying to take on harder difficulties, but only veterans of the genre are likely going to take that on anyway.
But, how does the game itself actually play? Well, starting off it seems very much like any other city builder: create accommodation for your standard workers to live, along with their basic amenities, and set up a means of harvesting the planet’s resources. When you’re first establishing your town, it’ll be nothing more than a mere logging facility but it’ll soon expand into cactus farms, sand sifting factories to create glass bottles, and much more.
Resources are used to build new structures, and these structures are ultimately what keeps your workers happy. This happiness is important, as that is what allows you to upgrade their accommodation to be suitable for engineers. Gaining access to these will also allow you to create more advanced structures, but these workers also have different basic needs for you to manage too, thus forcing you to strategically place your structures.
The main problem with managing needs is that you need to ensure that certain things are not too far from where they live. Having drinkable water is fine, but not if the supermarket is on the other side of the map! Carefully planned roads will ensure that things aren’t too far away, and more advanced roads will allow residents to travel faster and thus your robots will be far more forgiving of things that are further away.
You aren’t going to be able to advance very far though without the right materials, and the likes of sand and cacti probably aren’t going to help you make guns and factories. For that you need certain minerals that can only be found beneath the planet’s surface.
Soon after finding and repairing the mineshaft, the game reveals its true nature as a follow-up to the SteamWorld Dig games. After entering the dusty caverns below, you are tasked with digging away in order to find resources and advanced technology.
In essence, it feels a little like the Dungeon Keeper games, with you ordering your miners to chip away at the underground blocks in order to make your space grow. Some blocks contain gold or tools, which are always useful, but ore can also be found too for a more constant supply of materials.
In order to dig underground, you’ll need miners, prospectors, and mechanics to get everything you need done. They all need their own quarters too, which can only be done when you have enough space to do so. It’s a really addictive loop hammering away to find more stuff, with you having to take care to add supports to ensure the roof doesn’t fall down on top of you.
As you search around underground, you’ll encounter old technology but also uncover hostile creatures too. At that point, defensive and offensive strategies will need to be implemented. Creepers require flamethrowers to deal with, so you’ll have to find the upgrade that will allow your soldiers to carry one around with them. It’s a nice change of pace that adds a little more stakes to the proceedings, but don’t expect the game to suddenly turn into an RTS. Providing that you have enough troops to deal with enemies you uncover, there’s rarely much need to worry – unless you’re playing on hard, of course.
It’s hard to touch on every little mechanic that the game has on offer, as there’s quite a lot to unpack. I could talk about the obtainable upgrades to boost efficiency, setting up trades via the train station, and so much more; yet, there’s really no need. They’re all added to enhance the gameplay, yet rolled out so steadily that it rarely feels overwhelming. The game’s optional tutorialisation works a treat and is definitely recommended for first time players of the game, though it can be turned off for future playthroughs should you feel confident enough doing things with no assistance. The development team really have thought of everything, and there’s very little to fault here as even the game’s framerate holds up well – even when your town grows to larger sizes. It has its minor moments, for sure – but they’re small blips that are barely noticeable.
In fact, the only real issue I had with the game is the unfortunate lack of touchscreen support when in handheld mode. Whilst the controller works surprisingly well considering the genre, I still wish that I could do it all with the touch of a finger. The game’s simple setup should have made this possible, so it’s a shame it was omitted. It’s not enough to spoil the game, but it still would have been nice to see.
SteamWorld Build is undoubtedly the best console city builder I have ever experienced. It runs well, it looks great, the controls are as perfect as can be considering the genre (albeit with an unfortunate lack of touchscreen support), and the gameplay loop is superb. For fans of the genre, this is an absolute must-buy.