It’s rare to see an IP so diverse and yet so consistent. The SteamWorld library of games can dig up gold from just about anywhere, and manage to mine some pretty diverse genres along the way. On top of the huge indie smash SteamWorld Dig, players love SteamWorld Heist, SteamWorld Quest, and SteamWorld Dig 2 – a sequel that improves upon the original in almost every way.
Safe to say, expectations are high for whatever the franchise does, and after the recent unveiling of SteamWorld Build, it looks like the series is ready to mine gold from yet another genre. This time, developer The Station takes the reins from Image & Form, delivering a title that’s part city-management ala SimCity, and part mining simulator, that the team describe as “Anno meets Dungeon Keeper”, as SteamWorld Builds heads to consoles and PC in 2023.
Ahead of publisher, Thunderful, unveiling the title at the SteamWorld Telegraph: Special Broadcast, we got to experience the first few hours of the game, and in our SteamWorld Build preview, the potential already shines through like glistening chunks of diamond in a mine shaft. The usual polish, humour, and charm of the SteamWorld IP are present in every corner, and as a huge fan of the city-builder genre, I’m thrilled to see both developer The Station and the SteamWorld IP explore a style of game I love so much.
You’re in charge of a SteamWorld mining town, and what starts as a barren wasteland is soon set to be a bustling community filled with SteamBots ready to do your bidding, each mining or working away to deliver valuable resources. The key difference is that on top of the city-builder element (or rather below), there’s another element of the game all about mining resources, as you balance your spelunking with your city-building duties.
First up, the city-building is possibly the most exciting element here, and it feels great. As a person who tries to play a lot of management games on my Switch, I appreciate legibility and clear communication of tasks. SteamWorld Build looks great, is easy to manoeuvre, and while there’s certainly all the depth you want from the genre, it feels easy to keep on top of your duties and make your town folks happy.
Meanwhile, yes, these are robots (or SteamWorld bots) to do your bidding, but their satisfaction is still paramount. Laying down some residential buildings brings more bots to your city, but it’s essential to check in with their wants and needs, lest some of your workforce decides to leave you. Specific buildings demand a certain amount of worker bots, so managing that tightrope walk of resources, happiness, and your tasks is how you go from shantytown to bustling metropolis.
The world at the start simply presents a rundown train station and an abandoned mine shaft, but after you place some houses for our bots, lay roads to connect it all, build a mill to gather wood, and a few other buildings, the resources and cash start to flow. It’s an incredibly satisfying creep of available facilities, workers, and more. This balance is something crucial to the heart of a city-builder, and here it feels as though you walk the line deftly, though these are the opening hours.
When dissatisfied, your bots pop up with an icon, and a quick click clearly displays what they need next. Certain buildings also need other facilities nearby to function, such as the forestry needing a mill, and then the mill needing a warehouse to place its timber. Clicking on buildings in the crafting menu shows all the facilities you need clearly, so in my short time with the title, I’m always clear on my next task, my problems, and what I need next.
Helping to sell all of this is a bucket load of charm, great characters, and stellar voice acting. The SteamWorld brand means a certain level of pedigree within the world of indies, and Build feels ready to match its predecessors and even give some bigger names a run for their money. The dialogue got a few chuckles out of me, but it’s mostly the warm sincerity and oddball charm that makes it all work, with dialogue bookending tasks occasionally and adding a sprinkle of fun to proceedings.
We played a Steam version (ha) of SteamWorld Build, and controlling every aspect of the city feels great. As you move around, zoom in, select units, and lay paths or place buildings, it all feels natural and intuitive. For concerned Switch players, The Station clarifies it’s developing the PC and console versions simultaneously, and that fans should expect all UX and UI to feel just as natural with a controller as it does with a keyboard and mouse.
My only concern so far is that the barren wastes of the dusty mining town are a little bit plain to explore, but the final product promises different areas to discover and develop, and even still, the thrill of going from a couple of units to a bustling community filled with workers and buildings is immensely satisfying. Though, occasionally there’s nothing to do while you wait for resources, or at least at first.
Once you meet a certain amount of requirements, the mineshaft becomes available, and the other element of the game is functional. Diving into the mines, you’re presented with a bunch of crumbling blocks, and you need to recruit some miners to get started. You must keep on top of the stability of the mine with pillars and place enough miners’ quarters to actually function. Then it’s prospecting time.
Much like the action and management sim Moonlighter, the symbiotic nature of the two gameplay elements is a fun balance. Certain buildings demand tools, which you can find in the mines, while some mining equipment demands wood, which you farm back in the city. Switching between the two is instant with the click of a button, and it also means there’s always something to do.
Once you get through the first few tasks, much of SteamWorld Build is automated, with the game letting you place units and tinker with roads or buildings as you please, so flying between the city and the mines is a great way to keep players engaged, and make sure that even in the downtime there is another fun task for folks to fiddle with.
After just a few short hours, I’m itching to explore deeper down the mines of SteamWorld Build. Every element of the city-builder feels carefully considered, with a strong focus on clearly defined goals, well-communicated tasks, and simple controls. Dragging and dropping units feels great, and laying out paths or placing your mining equipment all works just as you’d want it to. It’s going to be tough to walk away from this game.
Fans looking for the immediacy and thrilling action of the titles like Dig or Heist might find the shift in genre strange, but publisher Thunderful and developer The Station are proving that the SteamWorld IP is perhaps even more malleable than fans thought, and if this short session is anything to go by it’s also as strong as it’s ever been. So long as there’s enough to do past those opening hours to keep gamers coming back, this is set to be a thrilling addition to the management sim genre.
While we wait for SteamWorld Build to dig into our free time later this year, if you need something else to play be sure to read our Fire Emblem Engage review next.