SteamWorld Build preview - we built this city on bots and coal

Astrid and Jack Clutchsprocket against a SteamWorld Build key art backdrop
Credit: Thunderful Publishing

Astrid and Jack Clutchsprocket against a SteamWorld Build key art backdrop
Credit: Thunderful Publishing

It's safe to say I'm a fan of SteamWorld. From the depths of its mines to the outer reaches of its galaxies, I've had great fun with its rusty robots. 2015's SteamWorld Heist has full credit for introducing me to a long-time favourite band, Steam Powered Giraffe.

The main appeal of the franchise, to me, is its willingness to reinvent itself with every new entry. Not in the 'slightly different mechanics' way that Pokemon gets away with, mind you - each new game explores a different genre, usually with impressive results.

I've never been interested in city builders, but the SteamWorld series' always-accessible nature had me interested. However, with new developer The Station heading up this latest entry in the genre-shifting franchise, it had to be seen whether the studio could capture the same magic with SteamWorld Build.

A cutscene playing out in SteamWorld Build; Gunn-Britt Gildenwire is acting rudely toward the trader.
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Credit: Thunderful Publishing

After basking in the always-brilliant music, I was ready to take my first steps into city building. Without much warning, you're tasked with choosing one of five potential locations for your settlement. Giddyup Gorge, Fossil Park, Tumbleton - all delightful-sounding, with unique layouts to boot.

The game's approachable design means it's accessible for genre newcomers, but gamers looking for low-stakes fun will be pleased to hear about 'sandbox' difficulty that gives unlimited resources for stress-free city building. I opted for 'balanced' difficulty, ready to get my robot hands dirty.

After a fairly simple-yet-thorough tutorial, it seems your only requirement when making your city is to make sure all roads lead to the all-important train station. The game gradually opens up, however, and there's tons of resources to keep track of. I'm pleased to say that it's nowhere near as stressful as it sounds - there are plenty of 'a-ha' moments that made managing my city more of a fun puzzle than a logistical nightmare.

Becoming an ethical factory owner - if such a thing could exist - is still a tough job, however. A growing population can only wear so many hats, and as the workers you start the game with are upgraded into engineers, some buildings will complain about a lack of workers. A fair warning for fans of aesthetics - you'll need to get used to your city looking rather ramshackle if you want it all to run efficiently.

Active and idle playstyles are accommodated for, as you can bust open tumbleweeds made of scrap metal to get bundles of cash and other resources. A train rolls into town every five minutes, letting you set up recurring trades or purchase a resource bundle to speed up progression nicely. There's no microtransactions in sight, which is always nice to see.

My favourite part of the game takes place in the mines beneath the city, where it's clear that the developers did their homework. Many of the ores and obstacles you find in the mines come directly from SteamWorld Dig, with some adjustments made to suit the new top-down gameplay. You're also responsible for preventing cave-ins and unearthing resources to keep the city running, swapping between the mines and city to properly manage your resources and build as efficiently as possible.

The animation team also deserves a round of applause. When you're not commanding workers to dig tunnels, your AI-controlled minions will sweep up dirt and set up lights like an excitable colony of ants. Buildings and decorations have a wonderful wobble as you move them around, but I was always entertained watching my underground crew.

The story is fairly simple, and while I can't share too much, it looks like a familiar villain has grand plans for the rocket that players spend much of the story assembling. If my lore-senses are tingling correctly, it seems that SteamWorld Build's story may end up being responsible for much of the narrative found in SteamWorld Heist.

The stakes increase after descending to the second level of the mines. Again, SteamWorld Dig fans will have an idea of what to expect, with nasty creatures needing to meet the business end of a flamethrower to keep your miners safe. The population being robots is strangely comforting, though - my general incompetence may lead to workers' limbs blowing off, but they can be welded back on without any fuss.

If you're a big fan of city builders, I can't say exactly how SteamWorld Build stacks up. Fans of the SteamWorld series will definitely find it worthy of the name, however, with tons to enjoy that you'll have to experience for yourself. I, for one, can't wait to get back in the mines.

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