It's a special treat each time a new SteamWorld game comes out because it's a series that has always deftly leapt from genre to genre. Earlier SteamWorld games have covered everything from tower defense to platforming, strategy to roleplaying, and even deckbuilding. It's hard to think of another game series that's successfully managed to bounce around so many different genres.
As we saw in the launch trailer (above) on PC Gaming Show: Most Wanted, starting tomorrow SteamWorld will claim the genre it's probably always been destined for: city building. But leave it to Thunderful Publishing and developer The Station to say: Nah, SteamWorld Build isn't going to be just a city builder.
Not only are you constructing and managing a sprawling city on the surface of the planet, there's a whole other Dungeon Keeper-like system taking place deep underground at the same time. Your bustling city up top and your crumbling mine below feed off the progress of one other, and you can flip instantly between them with a single button press. It's a pretty compelling hook.
The eventual goal is to build and mine enough to escape the doomed planet your little robot workers are stranded on, but it hardly feels like a perilous situation as I begin placing buildings on a cozy, dusty patch of desert. One factory to cut down trees, one to turn those trees into boards, and little itty bitty houses for my robot workforce to live in. Throw in a general store, a service shop—it's like a robot hospital—and a cute little cactus farm, and my dusty little frontier town quickly becomes a charming and busy little burg.
But it's not long before things get more complicated. There's some ancient technology buried deep underground I need to unearth so I can build my escape rocket, and once I've promoted enough lowly worker bots to smarter engineer bots I can begin digging through the dark, crumbling mines under the town. Scrap metal, gold, iron, and bundles of tools can be dug up, but more importantly the underground provides its own separate sort of genre to play with. I dig out the mines, harvest its resources to support my city on the surface (which is in turn supporting my underground efforts), build specialist robot housing and factories with the limited space I've got, and eventually encounter hostile subterranean creatures that require a tower defense-like strategy.
All the while, I'm still popping my head above ground to grow and manage my city and explore new unlocked tech. In a word: Whew. SteamWorld Build really gives you a lot to manage, and everywhere you look there's something that needs your attention. But somehow there's also a chill sort of feeling to it: I did a poor job of defending my mining operation, but the swarms of monsters didn't completely obliterate my underground city, they just damaged some of my structures and workers, which weren't difficult to repair.
Returning aboveground to find a bunch of angry icons over all my buildings because I've neglected them initially feels like a complete failure, but it usually just means a bit of fiddling to get my production lines sorted out and my robot's needs tended to. SteamWorld Build is not like a survival city builder where you'll accidentally wipe out all your citizens because you didn't stockpile enough firewood for winter. Production might slow or stop, but it never seems to be fatal. Robots are a lot more understanding and less judgemental than humans, it seems. As Robin says in his Steamworld Build review, it's a pretty forgiving game. Given how terrible a mayor I tend to be in city builders, that works for me.
Here's something not every city builder fan will love, I suspect, but I find kind of neat: you can finish SteamWorld Build, and pretty quickly at that. Growing your city, mining your way through the depths of the underworld, and constructing your robot rocket to escape the planet may not take you more than five or six hours. It's an odd feeling, really, blasting off and leaving your lovely city behind, because cities are the sort of thing I tend to want to tinker with forever in most games.
But I do like the idea of a city builder with a central goal, and one that you can reach within a few hours of starting. In some ways it reminds me of Stranded: Alien Dawn, the colony sim where I was a bit surprised to find I could actually finish the survival scenario and get all of my citizens to safety, as bittersweet as that was. In genres like survival and city builders, where you typically play until you decide to move on, it's cool to have a few games where an official ending can be reached.