It’s hard to imagine many people with access to a gaming console or PC of some description having never come across the SteamWorld franchise at one point or another. Since as far back as 2010 it’s established itself as a cohesive, but mechanically-flexible, series with a distinct universe shared across multiple games of varying categories. Between original developer Image & Form and current flag-bearer, The Station, it’s long acted as a gateway for players to explore new genres of games with smaller and more digestible distillations of each.
SteamWorld Build is the latest effort in this long-standing tradition, this time blending up two primary genres with a combination of city builder and dungeon crawler that manages to nail the fundamentals of both within an incredibly fine-tuned gameplay loop.
SteamWorld Build’s loose narrative runs concurrent to that of SteamWorld Dig 2, though you’d be forgiven for not recalling enough of that game to see the parallels or even care all that much. It follows a pair of robots in their effort to jet out from off of a doomed planet by excavating a number of buried parts of a powerful rocket, an endeavour which sees them joining forces with local ‘bots to establish a mining town and grow the operation until they can dig deep enough to recover all six parts. Like other games in the series, it’s a solid tale packing some memorable characters and a sharp finale, though it’s hardly going to take up real estate in your mind long past the credit roll.
What’s important here is that it’s all a setup to facilitate those two distinct gameplay styles, each of which nicely feeds into the other. Above the surface, you’re tasked with managing and expanding your mining town until it becomes a thriving mining metropolis complete with ever-wealthier classes of citizens to collect taxes from and a huge assortment of factories and facilities to generate or refine resources or just entertain the masses. It’s the first thing you’ll do in the game, for just a while, and it’s fundamental to ensuring you’ve got the wealth, the equipment and the supplies to back up your spelunking efforts.
Once you do get to go underground, you’re greeted by a total of three randomised mine floors, each which houses two of the six rocket parts required for your escape. Finding and excavating them requires hiring and housing a handful of different personnel from miners to prospectors, guards and mechanics, all in the name of chipping away at blocks of stone and uncovering minerals, natural deposits and buried treasures. As you delve deeper you’ll also find yourself set upon by nasty things living under the earth and need to protect your staff and structures from being overtaken, with some light tower defence elements coming into play as time goes on.
What’s really special about SteamWorld Build is how these disparate gameplay parts form a whole, with progress above or below ground feeding neatly into the other via a simple system of milestones. There are a fairly impressive number of different things to find and build, and quite a bit to manage by the end, but it’s doled out at just the right pace so that you’re never overwhelmed. It’s also designed in such a way that you regularly reach a natural stopping point in one aspect of gameplay before it becomes necessary to switch to the other, giving things a nice sense of variety. Thankfully, you’re usually quite safe to spend as much time as you want up top or underground without things getting too out of control sans your supervision.
The one unfortunate trade-off to how accessible and well-oiled the various gameplay mechanics are in tandem with one another is that there’s really just one way to play the game properly as far as progressing the campaign goes. With just the one scenario which will take most players around 8-10 hours to complete, though it can be played and replayed on any of five visually and geographically-distinct maps, it doesn’t lend itself as well to replay as I might have hoped. My second playthrough definitely felt worthwhile as I was able to put into use everything I’d learned and craft a glorious capitalist machine of a city even on the game’s satisfyingly tough “Difficult” difficulty option, but in a potential third go around I’d well and truly just be going through the motions.
After I’d played a demo earlier in the year on PC, I had concerns going into the game on PS5 for the review, but it turns out my fears were entirely misplaced. SteamWorld Build plays exceptionally on a controller, no doubt owing in part to a lack of overall complexity, but also thanks to some great design. Flicking between menus and cursor-style movement is intuitive, every single thing you could need is within grasp at all times and the path-placing is flawless. I don’t think I’ve ever played something of this ilk on console where the game always knew exactly what I was trying to do with my path placement even as I flung the cursor around with wild abandon.
The game also looks great no matter what you play on with the series’ trademark simple but charming look translating wonderfully to the squat dimensions of an overhead RTS and with tons of great flourishes and fun details.
The one glaring pain point on the console version, though? Text when playing on a TV is too damned small. Like, egregiously so. Especially in tutorials, which were physically painful for me to try and read on the 50″ telly in my bedroom and only marginally less so on the 65″ OLED in my living room. I can’t begin to fathom how bad it’d be on anything smaller, and it’s a massive accessibility oversight that The Station needs to address if it isn’t working on it already. Outside of text, the readability of the game environment itself can be bad as well with a lot of similar-looking buildings and visual noise occasionally making it hard to spot a specific structure you’re looking for, but the text is definitely the villain of the package.
None of that goes far enough to detract from the overall experience, though, and SteamWorld Build successfully follows in the footsteps of its predecessors by offering up a neatly-abridged take on what would potentially be a daunting genre (or two, in this case) for newcomers. If the idea here was to create a gateway to either city builders, dungeon crawlers, or both, consider it mission accomplished.
SteamWorld Build is another feather in the series' cap and another great distillation of genres into a friendly and wholly addictive package. The city building and mining halves come together effortlessly thanks to a pitch-perfect campaign, though with just a single scenario there's not a heap of longevity. The console version's awfully-small text also threatens to undo the good done by its superb controls, but in the end it remains another banger SteamWorld game.
Easy to pick up, fun to master
Great controls on console
Trademark SteamWorld charm
Balance between different genres works surprisingly well
Very small text when playing on a TV
Buildings and structures can be hard to read at a glance