Steamworld Build Review – Built From the Ground Down


Those familiar with the previous Steamworld games probably know the drill by now. The fine folks at Thunderful select a well-worn sub-genre, such as Metroidvania or card RPG or tactical strategy, create a game of that genre in their post-human Steamworld universe inhabited by silly robots, and exhibit full mastery of their selected genre without adding much that’s new. I’m both very pleased and a tad disappointed that The Station Interactive has managed to do this exact thing again with city builders in Steamworld Build.

As a veteran of city builder games, I’ve found Steamworld Build to be a delight that sucked me in for hours every sitting. Players will enter the wonderful land of Steamworld that is equal parts ridiculous, intriguing, and endearing. If you’ve played any of the past entries in the franchise, such as Steamworld Dig 1 & 2, Steamworld Heist, or Steamworld Quest, you’ll be met with all the charm you expect when your prospecting family heads out to settle a new, empty land out in the desert to search for rocket parts that might help the last of the robots escape this post-apocalyptic world before we run out of resources.

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Gotta start somewhere, I suppose.

The premise of Steamworld Build mechanically is quite similar to every other city-builder: begin with natural, untouched wilderness, use those resources to build homes and offices and shops and factories, and automate one process so that you can turn your attention to a more complex one. Not many games have managed to break from the mold on this pattern, but I will acknowledge that the basics of colonialism are mechanically present in this genre in a way that feels inescapable. Still, it’s interesting that by the time Steamworld Build begins we’ve exhausted the world’s resources and are desperately digging into ancient ruins in search of tech that could help us escape our fate. Despite the dire circumstances of the world, Steamworld Build retains the silliness and charm of the rest of the franchise the entire way through, from its characters to its cutscenes.

After choosing one of the five maps, you’re given the option of picking whether you’d like to engage with the story or not. This is actually a great idea; of course I played with the story on for my first campaign, but for future campaigns the ability to turn off all the characters and cutscenes to just build from nothing is very enticing. There’s also a sandbox mode of course, if you’d like to model out your own town free of restrictions, but I recommend finishing a campaign first so you can understand the processes and resources needed to make each building work.

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A service shop is necessary to keep all your bots in tip-top shape.

You’ll start with residences that can house basic workers, then you’ll need to supply certain basic needs such as a general store and service stations to keep them happy. Meanwhile, you’re harvesting wood and sand and converting that into lumber and glass, transporting your resources around town with the use of interconnected warehouses. The warehouses work perfectly to allow you to expand freely, since placing any warehouse near the woodcutter will get the supplies to the lumber mill no matter how far away it is (it’ll just take longer). You can also freely move all buildings from one spot to another at no cost, which should be a baseline requirement for all modern city builders.

Soon you’ll unlock engineers who can make more advanced buildings and find your way down into the mines, where the sausage really gets made. There are three pretty massive mine levels beneath each map, each one different from the others, and each one themed differently so as to not feel too samey. The mines are where your diggers, prospectors, guards, and mechanics work together to extract resources like scrap, water, oil, gold, rubies and other resources needed to expand. As I said before, the end goal is to collect all six rocket parts, with two rocket parts being on each of the three underground levels. Find both the rocket parts for sublevel 1 and you can begin to access sublevel 2.

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You’re going to run out of workspace room quickly. especially early game.

While this all works together nicely and the overworld and underworld flow together well, I found myself getting consistently stonewalled by the requirement to designate physical tiles as workshops underground in order to get more bots. For example, to summon one digger on a floor i need to designate 9 contiguous tile spaces to be a workspace. If I want a second digger, that’s 3 more tiles. Getting the rocket parts on the first floor requires a minimum of 6 diggers, so while exploring this floor I’m expected to designate 24 tiles just for diggers – that isn’t counting the dozens each I also need for prospectors and mechanics and the workshop. Other types of expansions like the armory take up even more space. The thing that makes this a problem is the need for the workspaces to be continuous, because I can’t simply move them around as I expand the cave like I can with the buildings above ground. Be careful of cave-ins as well, you’ll need to build support structures and bridges to keep the caves safe from collapse.

On each underground floor I quickly ran out of room for workspaces and was unable to summon as many workers as I really needed without going back and destroying a lot of my work to reformat, losing money in the process that I shouldn’t be losing. This is especially difficult in the early game. By the time I got to the last underground floor I was so overwhelmed just trying to fit workspaces in I gave up on the extraneous exploring that I had really been enjoying and just focused on the rocket parts. I think one simple solution to this is to require 1 less tile for each additional worker; another might be to allow players to freely move workspaces around like buildings. Regardless, I highly recommend the dev team look into making an adjustment here.

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This is just one of the 8 neighborhoods in my empire!

I also was consistently running low on money, while I seemed to be able to balance other resources. The quickest way to earn more money is simply to build more houses and summon more residents, which I feel is really counterintuitive. Thankfully all bots assign jobs to themselves, all the way from workers to scientists, because I would never have been able to comprehend controlling the thousands of workers my town ended up with individually. When you’re running low on a resource, you can hit up the train station to set up a deal with a neighboring town. This saved my butt many times as I kept running low on sheet metal and tools, but I was able to keep the town running through purchased resources until I could establish my own sources.The train arrives and departs on scheduled times that you need to strategize around, which I found compelling.

There are also power-ups for individual buildings that can be purchased at the train station, but I feel these are just too weak in the grand scheme of things to matter much. I used all of mine, but I never felt a difference from a single warehouse producing 50% faster out of the 23 warehouses I owned. Perhaps another nitpick, but the icon for robot happiness is either a red angry face or a green happy one, but the indicators on each house are red and angry even at 99% happiness – they don’t turn green unless they’re staying at 100% happiness. Because of this weird UI decision, an overhead sweep of my town makes it look like there are 400 unhappy citizens when in fact they’re all at 90%+ happiness. Perhaps a “somewhat happy” robot icon is in order.

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“It’s a living.”

Farther into the mines there are also combat encounters with nests of giant bugs that are attempting to stop you from digging and kill your guard characters. Thankfully, they do not die and are only disabled, because if a horde of 10 beetles rushes your workspaces and you have less than 10 guards to fight them, you’re going to lose a lot of guys. Combat is passive and can be performed by guards, using different weapons from the aforementioned power-ups. This is the one instance where they’re invaluable, because the flamethrowers are necessary to survive in the bug-riddled depths. I enjoyed how combat interacted with my town management a lot, and it provided little bursts of adrenaline so as to not let me get too comfortable.

I played Steamworld Build on my PC with a Ryzen 5 3600 and RTX 2060 Super on a 1440p 144hz monitor. I ran the entire game at ultra settings at 1440p 144 FPS and did not experience a single stutter or frame drop. Steamworld Build runs like butter. However, I did experience a few glitches that forced me to restart the client. Many times while digging out dirt tiles underground, the dirt tile didn’t disappear from the screen even though the game treated the space as empty. This led to me losing tons of miners inside nonexistent blocks and even getting ambushed by a group of bugs that shouldn’t have been hidden. Leaving the underground and coming back did not reset this issue, it required a full restart every time. Outside of that specific but recurring bug, there were no other glitches to speak of.

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Can you tell this one is my sandbox town?

I’ve had a fantastic time with Steamworld Build, and it is certainly ranked among my favorite city builder games – I anticipate I’ll be replaying this one for several more campaigns. I don’t feel that it offers much in the way of innovating on the genre and breaking the mold the way that my favorites Against the Storm and Airborne Kingdom did, and instead focuses on streamlining the city builder experience to make it as easy and accessible as possible. While Steamworld Build on its face looks too complex for a total newbie, the easy to manage interface and clear, descriptive tutorials go a long way in make it more more accessible than most other RTS games I’ve played. There’s also a fun but unremarkable story with voice acted scenes, but I think after finishing their first seven hour campaign, most players won’t be interested in leaving the story on for their next playthrough. Steamworld Build has both thoroughly impressed me and been amazingly fun, and while I’ve got a few nitpicks, the complex and layered systems just work. I recommend Steamworld Build to all, whether you’re a city builder veteran looking for something new or just a Steamworld fan ready to set your first foundation blocks down in a new genre.

Nirav reviewed Steamworld Build on PC with a review code.

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