After four years away, SteamWorld is back. If you haven't seen the news yet, Thunderful unveiled SteamWorld Build earlier this evening, the next entry in their genre-hopping series of games about colourful robot pals trying to make their way in the world. As the name implies, this one's a citybuilder, and I've been hands on with an early build of, err, Build, to tell you all about it. No, I'm not sure what's going on with the previously announced Headhunter right now either, but in some ways, I'm glad it's Build that's coming out first.
After all, it's been a hot minute since the last SteamWorld game came out, and Build is shaping up to be the perfect reintroduction to what made this series so special. It goes right back to its roots, reframing that classic SteamWorld Dig story of mining for gold and treasure with a new, management-style eye for town-planning, while also paying homage to where it all began for these jolly old rustbuckets way, way back on the Nintendo DSi. That's right. SteamWorld Build may be a citybuilder on the surface, but down below it's a mining and tower defence 'em up - and having lost several hours to my demo build already, it's really something special.
Set at roughly the same time as SteamWorld Dig 2, SteamWorld Build focuses on a different set of robots who are also looking to hightail it off this rickety old planet and head for the stars. To dig out the requisite rocket parts to enable your interstellar escape, however, you'll need to set up a mining town first, taking care of accommodation, shops and all the other services you'll need to keep your workforce spick and span while you plunder the depths below. There's more lurking in the dirt than just gold, rubies and scrap metal, though, so you'll also need to make sure your miners are defended against the terrors waiting to chow down on a tasty bowl of nuts and bolts.
My demo build stopped just short of the game's tower defence elements, sadly, so we'll have to wait until later in the year to see what kind of added pressure that brings. But the basics of setting up my town and mining its first (and entirely danger-free) strata of earth were both absolutely delightful. On the Balanced difficulty setting, it's very chill and laidback, giving you ample time to make decisions and plan your next move. Your progress is measured in milestones, which are detailed at the top of the screen along with your cash reserves, workers and available resources, but you can take as long as you like to get there. There's no time pressure, and things won't start falling apart or catching on fire (lookin you at, Pharaoh) if you fail to catch a red exclamation mark hovering over a building. That usually just means your warehouses are full, or you don't have enough workers to man a building efficiently.
Good news, then, for those who like a more relaxed approach to management games - and, indeed, folks who just like to watch their little minions noodle about their daily lives as they shuffle between buildings. The level of detail on show here is just supremely charming, from the robo dogs snuffling about in their wooden houses, to the cactus scarecrows twirling in the wind as little green spiky cucumbers bounce up the conveyor belt behind them to get mashed and pulped in the squelchy water press. LED signs buzz against the sound of whirring machine parts in the service shops, and together with your bots weaving in and out of warehouse couriers, everywhere you look is alive with the thrum of activity. There's also a plentiful supply of desert-themed decorations available, too, I should add, although it's a shame these doesn't contribute to your workers' overall happiness in some way. Instead, they're purely cosmetic - which is fine by me, to be honest, although if there were crucial to my bots' happiness, you can guarantee there'd be a dedicated cat bench (yes, really) every other tile in my little town.
This lack of time pressure isn't to say SteamWorld Build is a complete pushover, though. Your workers still have needs that need to be satisfied, for example, and you'll need to make sure they're kept happy if you want to upgrade your work force and unlock more advanced technologies as your town progresses. You'll do this by keeping them in close proximity to their favourite shops and services - marketplaces and cactus farms for your general run of the mill bots, for example, and saloons, tool shops, survey offices and moonshine distilleries for the engineers - and making sure there are roads connecting them altogether so they can access them.
Working out this level of proximity is a cinch thanks to its intuitive UI. Whenever you plonk down any kind of building in SteamWorld Build, roads and other accompanying structures will light up blue, showing you how far their reach stretches before your bots simply can't be arsed to make the journey anymore. You can also click any worker home at any time to keep track of their needs individually as well, just in case you've built them a couple of blocks out of the nearest service shop range, for example. If you're playing on Hard, you'll incur a small cost penalty for buildings you want to remove or relocate, but the default Balanced mode lets you do this for free, making it nice and simple to rearrange your town as you see fit.
Indeed, even if you end up with an entire sea of little angry robot faces telling you your workers' needs aren't, in fact, being met - as I did during one point of my demo (see below) - there's still no need for panic to set in. They're not going to revolt or oust you Frostpunk-style. Rather, SteamWorld Build's city planning is ultimately a matter of efficiency tweaking, with the main goal being to keep things ticking over like a well-oiled machine, if you'll pardon the expression, above everything else.
It's just as well, really, as it means you can safely leave your town humming away up top while you focus your efforts down below. As mentioned earlier, my demo only covered the first of many mining layers open to players in SteamWorld Build, so the only glimpse I've had of the nasty creatures lying further down is what's in the trailer - which look to be very much in keeping with the kind of horrible beasties lurking in the original Dig games. Before that, though, there's still plenty to focus your attention on - such as making sure your miner bots don't find themselves on the wrong end of an accidental cave-in. Structural integrity is of vital importance in SteamWorld Build, and you'll need to make sure you've built enough pillars to support the ceiling above your robots' heads to keep things running smoothly. Otherwise, rocks will start falling from above, making it harder for your bots to work and clear the way.
It can be easy to forget about the pillars sometimes. On a couple of occasions, I'd ordered my bots to go and dig out a bunch of tiles while I pootled off to attend to something on the surface, only to return to find an ominous rumbling and several new rocks on the ground when I returned. Admittedly, I never encountered a cave-in rock actually destroying something I'd built down there, but I can see this and leaving your miners unattended becoming a bigger potential problem once you start having to fend off monsters at the same time. I'll have to dig a little deeper (sorry) to find out more on this.
Thankfully, pillars are relatively cheap to put up, and they can occupy the same space as any underground living quarter - which you'll need to lay out tile by tile to attract more miners, prospectors and mechanics in each layer. Miners can only dig out dirt and basic minerals at first, but once you've built a tools shop in your town above, they can start using pickaxes to get to the good stuff. Scrap metal and water veins, however, will need dedicated drills, which in turn need their own workshop spaces to build, and accompanying mechanics to maintain. As such, there's a lot to jostle in such a confined space, but again, the game gives you plenty of breathing room to get your bearings before (presumably) chucking the big guns at you.
The interplay between upstairs and downstairs, so to speak, also feels well-paced and thought out. The gold and rubies you mine can be spent on items to enhance production on the surface, for example (which rotate every couple of minutes when the next train shipment comes through your town's station), and the number of mechanics you've got in your city determines the speed at which you're able to unlock more mining capabilities. I was wondering for ages why the little bridge option was greyed out in my toolbar, but it turned out I just hadn't quite attracted enough engineers to my town in order to unlock it yet - which is helpfully spelled out for you when hovering your mouse over its build icon.
Best of all, you can try all this for yourself right hecking now. To celebrate its big reveal, Thunderful have just released a free demo of SteamWorld Build over on its freshly pressed Steam page, which I'd definitely recommend giving it a go if you've got a few hours to spare - and trust me, you'll need 'em given how much time I've already spent poring over my press version. It might not have been the SteamWorld game you were expecting Thunderful to announce during their Special Broadcast stream today, but I think you'll agree this new recruit is really building up to something special here.