I'll be honest: when I heard the new SteamWorld game was a sort of city builder, I was a little bit disappointed. I love this series, and I wanted more of the core SteamWorld games. I wanted to venture out and dig deep into the ground, uncovering mysteries and earning upgrades.
That isn't SteamWorld Build - or at least it isn't at first. Thunderful's announced this as a cross between SimCity and Dungeon Keeper. I loaded up the demo build and started to placing worker buildings and connecting them by road. For five minutes I plodded along, thinking: is this SteamWorld? Really?
I should never have doubted. One of the great things about this series is its willingness to mix things up. One minute it's a sort of crafty Metroidvania. Next minute it's a turn-based tactics game with a bit of billiards mixed in. Then it's a card battler. All I needed was ten minutes or so and I realised: SimCity and Dungeon Keeper? In the SteamWorld universe? Yes please.
So I start off in a desert with an abandoned train station. All buildings I place need to be connected to the station by roads, so as I lay out worker residences I have to plug them into the grid if I want to keep building.
Workers also need stores and repair buildings, and I also need to start harvesting resources. I build mills and connect them to the grid, and throw in warehouses so the wood can be stored. I start cactus farming for water, and I start a bit of coal mining. I'm learning all this time how to keep the workers happy, how to keep the various resources flowing in, and how not to ank my economy when I want to build a new upgrade.
Milestones help give things a bit of structure early on, tasking me with meeting certain criteria to unlock new buildings. But the thing is, I've started to look around the map a little. Two things stand out: I can repair the train station to get goods flowing in and out if I meet certain criteria, and then - and then there's an abandoned mine on the very edge of the map. I want to know what that's all about.
This is lovely stuff - I'm always working towards interesting goals, and always making sure than people are happy enough for me to risk an expansion. It's SteamWorld too, from the ratcheting sounds as I move around the UI, to the blueprint art style on the menus and the adorable robot workers clanking back and forth from one building to another. These city builders live and die by how much fun it is to zoom in close and see everyone bustling about. SteamWorld Build is filled with all the character you'd expect from this series.
But that mine! When I eventually get it working again I find myself deep underground, and suddenly we're in Dungeon Keeper territory. I need to get people digging through blocks of earth to excavate space and unlock resources. Space means I can build residence to get more people digging, while the resources allow me to go back up to the city above and build new stuff - new stuff that helps me down here.
It's a lovely pairing of objectives - bright sunshine on the surface and steady expansion, and then downstairs it's moody and slightly medieval - gold glinting in the darkness and a sense of threat.
This is SteamWorld Build, then: build a city and mine to keep resources flowing, all while you work towards the main objective of constructing a rocket that lets you escape the planet before it falls apart. An hour in and I think I'm about to uncover the first setback - enemies down in the mines who have been alerted by my digging. You know what? After all that uncertainty at the start, I can't wait.
There's a Steam demo available now.