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  • Writer's pictureBarely Magic Mike

SteamWorld Build Review - Can You Dig It?

SteamWorld Build


The Station/Thunderful


I don’t play city builders very often, but not because I dislike them. To the contrary - my first several hours with Steamworld Build were consecutive and obsessive. This is a genre that addicts me quickly, and this is a game that is no exception. It begins by placing you in one of five different locations, allowing you to pick your difficulty as well as whether you want to include the story and tutorial. The tutorial in Steamworld Build is absolutely essential, because there is a lot to cover.

There’s no way I’ll be able to capture all of it in a single review, but the basic gist is as such – your job, story-specific goals aside, is to build an above-ground city full of worker robots. If you make these bots happy enough by fulfilling each of their specific needs, like ensuring they live near a repair shop and a general store, you’ll be able to upgrade them to engineer bots, who have a mostly separate and far more extensive list of needs, then to aristobots who have even more needs, and so on.

Naturally as you upgrade these living quarters, placement of their relevant utilities will need to change accordingly (and thankfully, moving buildings comes at no cost, so you can totally reconfigure your city whenever you feel the need and motivation). If you can manage to upgrade your buildings and fill the needs of their now-wealthier inhabitants, you’ll get more tax revenue. Is Steamworld Build a casual city builder or a grand thesis on the process of gentrification? You be the judge!

western town
Yep, this game has a lot going on!

While plenty of hustle and bustle is happening above ground, sooner or later you’ll need to access the mineshaft and peek under the surface. That’s because the wide variety of resources you need in Steamworld Build cannot all be found above ground, and need to be excavated down below and delivered to the surface for use in a wide variety of processes.

In the story mode, which isn’t especially compelling but simple and unobtrusive enough to hold my attention, the deeper you dig, the more you find rocket parts to assemble together so that you can ultimately leave the planet and set sail for the stars. But you have a heck of a lot of work to do first. Much of that work involves setting up the correct supply chains to get certain residents what they want. Maybe your aristobots, the pretentious, upper-class, luxury-seeking steambots, require a diesel station to be near them, and opening one wasn’t as straightforward as building a place they could go and let them have at it – I needed to find oil in the mines, build an extractor over it, build some conveyor belts to send extracted oil up the mine shaft, build an oil refinery, ensure it has enough workers to operate smoothly, ensure any other resources it needs to operate are also sent up the mine, and ultimately build all that stuff nearby enough to the aristobots in question that it actually has any impact. There is a lot to do in Steamworld Build to maintain a successful city, and both the city itself and mines below will frequently call for your attention to a wide variety of problems, be it new residents who need a fine dining restaurant nearby, to workers in the mines below being attacked by all sorts of toothy horrors. Thankfully the tutorial covers all of these things in mostly enough detail to make it easy to pick up and not overwhelming you with too much micromanagement at once.

It also helps that it’s quite easy on the eyes, with a charming aesthetic filled with colorful characters and cheeky humor. It doesn’t take long at all for your city to look alive, with lots of little steambots running around doing their thing, and buildings full of small, unique animations that add a lot to the overall vibe. If you’re looking to play on the Steam Deck, on a mix of medium and low settings I was able to get a solid 45fps cap on the game that felt great to play, and aside from just being better with a mouse and keyboard, the Deck is a more than serviceable way to experience the game.

You'll get your money's worth in terms of content

Unfortunately though, after several hours of play, some cracks in the game begin to show, and while they don’t ruin the experience, they’re worth noting to set expectations for fans of the genre. First of all, Steamworld Build doesn’t have anything quite resembling a fail state. There’s no timer to accomplish a certain goal and money is based purely on taxes collected from residents, who will continue to pay at least some taxes even when their needs aren’t being fully met. The only enemies to speak of are deep in the mines, and can at worst kill your crew and force some replacements to come in. Whatever, not a big deal, what’s a few miners getting eaten by a razer-toothed alien worm as long as the aristobots can get their fine dining restaurant, right? But while there isn’t an official fail state telling you game over, try again, at least as far as I could see, it’s definitely possible to mismanage your way into a corner that would require ungodly levels of patience to get out of. In a sense, Steamworld Build’s biggest indicator that something is going wrong is that you might have a lot of waiting to do.

In my first settlement, about 6 hours in I reached a point where I could upgrade aristobot residents to scientist residents, and did so for as many buildings as I could while I had the resources to. This ended up being a terrible idea, because the scientists had many needs I couldn’t fulfill yet, and as a result refused to pay most of their taxes. Since they had replaced other citizens who had been perfectly content continuing to pay, the result was that my periodic tax income slowed to an absolute crawl until I could give them what they wanted, which was difficult without money and resources. This was also the point where I had more than a few times set the game idle for a bit to generate money and resources – because again, it was seemingly impossible to fail. If there was nothing to do but wait, why not go get some dishes done?

Some of that waiting could be substantially helped with literally any improvement to the fast-forward system, which even at its fastest feels so close to real-time that I can hardly understand why they bothered. So given the inability to fast-forward through all of this waiting, once I hit a wall hard enough I just decided it was time to start over.

I want to be clear about one thing though – rather than waiting, I might have been able to slightly improve my situation by moving some buildings around, selling some to get some money and resources back, etc. But this is an area where Steamworld Build needs some major quality of life improvement – because while buildings look distinct and creative in their construction, most of them are similar colors and difficult to distinguish from one another once your city becomes large and thriving. There’s no way I could find to zero in on a particular type of building, like finding an aristocrat’s house or figuring out where I put the oil refinery, so unless your memory is basically perfect, determining where the building you even want to manage is and what would be best to do with it was, in itself, a matter of endurance. Similarly, there are dozens of different resources to keep track of in the game, most of which can only be tracked within the administration menu rather than being clearly visible somewhere on the screen. Certain resources can be tracked at the top of the user interface, but the ability to customize which resources you’re actually seeing in this menu could have gone a long way.

more building
It's hard to say how fans of the franchise will feel

It’s a bummer to say, but while I enjoyed most of my time with Steamworld Build – even starting over and trying to build more efficiently, it feels like there’s a natural state in the late game when there are so many supply chains and so many variables to keep track of that it becomes a bit of a slog. Upgrading residential buildings is a frequent need to keep your city growing at a healthy pace, for example, and the current residents need to be at 100% happiness in order for an upgrade to be allowed. But what I’d frequently see is residents vascillating between 90-100% happiness because a particular resource was flowing in and out of abundance at a seemingly random rate, which didn’t seem to matter as long as I was willing to – you guess it! – WAIT.

Similarly, sometimes facilities in my city would seemingly not function properly with very little explanation as to why. I can’t tell you how many times the aristobots were unsatisfied with the lack of a fine dining restaurant nearby, despite there being one a block away, which was for some reason never properly stocked with food despite TWO farms that it sourced from being literally on the same block. It’s hard to know if there was a bug or just a layer of management I wasn’t figuring out, but it was frustrating and tedious nevertheless.

Ultimately, Steamworld Build is a city builder that feels fun to play and has plenty of charm, but some may struggle not only with patience but with longevity. Each run unfolds the same way, with nothing in the way of dynamic events or interesting twists to force you to rethink your strategies. The result is that much of the game centers on its set-it-and-forget-it supply chains, and can thus feel more like an automation game dressed up as a city builder, but with a much more restrictive sandbox to work in.

Those who spend dozens or hundreds of hours in a single city builder may find not enough variety on offer here, but I still maintain that the core experience is interesting and complex enough to have a great time figuring out. Its twist on resource-focused city builders isn’t going to revolutionize the genre, but for the time it lasts it’s a fun, mostly polished experience and has enough charm to get over its occasionally frustrating hurdles. I think it could use a patch or two to balance some of its late game annoyances and tweak its fast-forward function, but I had more than enough fun with Steamworld Build to award it the bronze genie lamp of approval.

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