We live in a blinking lovely time right now. Gone is the notion that genres like real-time strategy (RTS) and management sims can’t be controlled with a standard controller, and we have the likes of Two Point Campus and RollerCoaster Tycoon 3 Complete Edition on Switch to prove it. Joining that field is SteamWorld Build, the latest game in the beloved SteamWorld series, and the first in 3D.
On the surface, things seem very simple. You have a city in which you need to build (!) homes, refineries, and resource extractors. Each home can house a maximum number of workers, and the happier they are — dictated by the service buildings nearby and the resources available — the closer to that maximum you’ll get. SteamWorld Build does such an excellent job of easing you into its mechanics that it can seem almost painfully basic at first glance, but that’s all part of the plan.
As you progress you rapidly unlock new facilities to build and improve the lives of those that live in your city, and in time you discover that your workers can be elevated to the rank of Engineer, on a per-household basis. This is the first inkling you get that there’s more to discover than you may have initially thought.
And as you might expect, the discovery train doesn’t stop there, although the trade train will stop in your city. Yes, there’s a train that regularly comes by allowing you to trade resources or cash for other resources or other cash. Considering the strain of trying to fit everything in neatly and maintain a constant supply of all the needed resources, this is a very welcome addition that eases the building burden. It all comes at a cost, naturally, and you’ll have to pay more than what resources are worth to make good use of this bartering system.
But back to the proverbial discovery train. Once you have enough Engineers at your disposal you are able to repair the mineshaft (which was the whole point of your Steambots upping sticks and dropping tools in this particular location), and this is where the game goes from surprisingly layered to literally layered.
The mine is an entirely separate map beneath your city, which you can switch to at the press of two buttons, and it’s instant. We don’t mean ‘there’s barely a loading screen’ or even ‘a short transition’, we’re talking a sub-one second process, and it’s utter bliss.
The mine allows you to mine (!) for minerals and other resources to support the city above, and improve the lives of its population with the likes of moonshine, spare parts, and many other bits and bobs that Engineers love to have. Make them happy enough, and you can even boost them to the heights of a new class, Aristobots, and by this point you’ve got the whole thing sussed. The Aristobots and their woven glass hats are the top rank with ludicrous demands and top-tier rewards, right? Well, we’ll get back to it, but obviously the answer is ‘no’.
The whole reason you’re in the mine to begin with is to uncover parts of a spaceship that will allow you to escape the planet which is crumbling and exploding beneath you a bit. It’s the sort of motivation that maintains itself, to be honest. To find them you need to maintain quarters for the four types of bots, navigate unbreakable bedrock, and prevent cave-ins from delving too greedily and too deep. Eventually, you reach a kind of watershed moment, because the mine you entered through a mineshaft has another mineshaft within it.
SteamWorld Build starts out as a simple city builder and slowly reveals itself to have a total of four levels that you can switch between in an instant. Remember how we said it was actually instant before? Well, it still is, and it’s incredible that the developers have achieved a game where four maps are clearly running independently and simultaneously on Nintendo’s little hybrid.
These lower two levels also bring with them some complications in the form of enemies. You’ll need to employ Aristobots as guards to keep the other workers safe and fend off these foul foes, and we start seeing some light RTS-like mechanics seeping in.
To be honest, the whole game feels like it’s riding a line between management sim and RTS at times, and — once you gain the ability to place turrets and other static defensive structures to stem enemy flow — even some tower defence ideals, taking us right back to the series’ roots. It’s quite the intoxicating blend, although the penalty for miners being eaten by giant worms or guards being blown up is fairly small, as they’ll just be replaced fairly briskly. The harder difficulty definitely gives combat a bit more edge, so if you’re the type that goes for that, that might be something worth thinking about.
Throughout an entire playthough you’ll be discovering new structures and resources that need to be managed, culminating in Scientist bots advancing your understanding enough to rebuild the rocket and ‘Junior Birdman’ the heck off the planet. Whenever we felt we’d discovered it all, the game gave a hearty chuckle and then revealed that we needed to use more of our sulphur gas and oil reserves because the Aristobots demand a sparkling diesel manufacturer (hmmm).
The whole thing, as every good management sim should, becomes a delicate balancing act of managing resources, maintaining populations, and expanding to achieve progress. One thing we hadn’t banked on was the weird self-inflicted social commentary of moving low-level workers to the outskirts of the city because it really is just easier to do that, leaving all the wealth and services further away from those with the least. Oof.
Such a complex game sounds like a struggle for the Switch, and truth be told the graphics are pared back a lot compared to other platforms. The game runs at 30fps and details are muddy, but considering you’re zoomed out so far 99% of the time, it’s not a dealbreaker. Moreover, graphical fidelity has been sacrificed to maintain performance, and although you will encounter dips as scenes get busier, it’s still very playable in both handheld and docked mode. We’re sad not to see more detail of the robot cat on a bench, but prioritising performance is absolutely the right move. The touchscreen goes unused, and we would like the option to scale down the UI in docked mode, but we got used to it fairly quickly.
There’s also a story that will accompany you on your first playthough (although you can disable it), and it’s a nice little context-provider. It’s not breaking any new ground, but it’s a harmless addition that stuffs more personality into things. Similar levels of personality can be seen in the finer details of buildings and how they function, such as a sand refinery simply flinging out whatever it deems too coarse to make it through its filter, presumably hitting some nearby family’s home repeatedly and at all hours. Again, this is lost to a degree due to the graphical sacrifices on Switch, which is a bit of a shame.
One thing we have been left wanting is more replayability. You have multiple maps to choose from, and completing each map gives you a super building of sorts, but they all end up playing out roughly the same in the end. More distinctions and conditions would have been nice to give the player more reason to go through more than once. Having said that, the game is so enjoyable and well-polished that you may be tempted to do a second run straight away regardless, even if the second go around is almost the same as the first.
SteamWorld Build is a beautifully crafted game that seamlessly blends genres and ideas into a polished and premium package. There’s not another management sim like it, but despite it running surprisingly well on Nintendo’s system, it does leave us wanting for more reason to return to it. You’re all but guaranteed to adore your first time through, but subsequent playthroughs may not carry the same magic. Still, with all that being said, this is undeniably a triumph of mechanical marvellousness.