Review: SteamWorld Heist22 Nov 2016 2
Review: SteamWorld Heist
Released 09 Oct 2016
In the early days of the Xbox 360 (yes, I chronicle my life by console generation), I felt like turn-based strategy had fallen off developers’ maps. I doubt the demise of any gaming genre has been announced as prematurely and with as much frequency as that of TBS. But hey hey, my my no cultural object ever dies and in the mid-aughts I had just been looking in the wrong places for my turn-based fix. I eventually discovered that exciting things were still happening with the genre on Nintendo’s DS handheld game console, and apparently they still are. Although I’ve long since moved on to Apple devices as my primary gaming system, every once in a while something ports over from the DS world that reminds me of the homecoming I felt with titles like Advance Wars: Dual Strike.
The latest such adaptation is SteamWorld Heist, which was released on the Nintendo eShop for 3DS at the end of 2015 and has already trickled down to iOS. While this is the third installment in the genre-hopping SteamWorld series by developer/publisher Image & Form, it’s the first to make it to the app store. While other games in the series have covered console staples like tower defense and platform adventure, they share their eponymous post-apocalyptic steampunk setting.
SteamWorld Heist brings the steam powered automatons of this world into a series of side-scrolling turn-based combat missions. Despite this being a renaissance period for TBS, you don’t see this particularly 2D take on the system very often. Aside from a third dimension, the other thing you’ll find missing from Heist is the ubiquitous hit percentage. Image & Form has opted for a completely skill-based approach to ranged combat and much of the level and enemy design is in service of testing those skills, forcing players to set up trick shots and adjust their positioning.
It’s an excellent combat system, and having been designed for another touch screen interface, it’s no surprise that it works incredibly well with the iOS interface. Steambots making a ranged attack have the freedom to aim at anything on the screen, and once your crosshairs are in the general vicinity of your target you can drag the reticule around to make fine adjustments. Before you land that crucial headshot, however, you’ll have to account for the character’s “breathing,” which causes your firing arc to wobble slightly while your finger hovers over the “Fire” button. Unless you’re a sharpshooter and have access to a very helpful laser sight you’ll be best-guessing this arc. Additionally, in-game objects and terrain will either deflect your shots, allow your bullets to pass right through or explode on impact so learning the environmental effects is key to both the offensive and defensive game.
On the subject of defense, this is very much a cover-based shooter. The maps are littered with chest-high objects for your bots to crouch behind, and crouch they must as your hit points and healing opportunities are in very limited supply and there’s nary a save point to be found. In a choice I very much like, Heist opts for a compromise between the “!@#$ I’m reloading,” permadeath approach of a game like XCom and the “pause, abort mission, restart” approach of many others. Any time you fail or abort a mission you lose a full half of your in-game currency, which you’d rather be spending on new guns and hats. That being said, I would describe the challenge level of the game as more punishing than difficult, which is to say that if you fail a mission it’s because you made a mistake rather than because the enemy made a good or surprising move. You can adjust difficulty between missions, but this only affects the enemy health, damage and quantity (as well as how much currency you lose if you fail). This is consistent with the you-are-the-master-of-your-own-fate 100% skill based nature of the game, but I’d prefer if the enemies performed more capably and less like tower defense style minions.
SteamWorld Heist’s story is told in three acts over the course of the single player campaign. Each act is bookended with pulp adventure comic book style cutscenes; like everything else in this game they look great and are full of character. The plot draws from the most fun Western and Pulp Scifi threads of the vast tapestry that is Steampunk, placing you in the metallic boots of Captain Piper Faraday, the good-hearted smuggler and her rotating crew of steambots. The campaign itself is semi-linear with unlockable branching paths made available by performing especially well on missions (collecting all swag without losing a character). The vast majority of missions have randomly generated maps, which is great for replayability, but occasionally frustrating when you get a janky layout without enough cover for your hapless away team. Between missions, the story is furthered in-game by visiting bars, shops and non-hostile vessels where you’ll receive quests, hire new crew and spend your hard-earned water (it took me an embarrassingly long time to realize why steam-powered robots were using water as currency) to purchase equipment and expand your inventory.
Inventory management is a big part of the game, maybe distractingly so. Each character can be equipped with a weapon and two pieces of equipment, and you’ll be taking up to four characters on a single mission. The various character classes are proficient in different weapon types and will want different pieces of equipment to support their specs. That’s a minimum of twelve items you’ll want to have in your inventory, but you only start the game with ten item slots. Luckily, most shops will sell you storage space, but for most of the game that’s the only reason I went shopping and it felt like makework. Outside of your inventory you’ll also be collecting a variety of hats. Occasionally, a near miss on a headshot will separate an enemy from their hat and you can collect it like any other swag in the mission. Other times you’ll visit the friendly local space milliner, but supposedly there’re ~100 hats in the game to unlock. I was confused as to whether or not I was actually getting in-game bonuses for pairing a steambot with an appropriate hat, some of the descriptions sound like they’re hinting at this being the case, but it’s not very explicit. I’m usually disinterested in these sorts of unlockables, but even I found myself spending obscene amounts of water on the perfect bicorn for my captain.
Lest I give the wrong impression, I want to emphasize that there are no microtransactions in this game. Heist is currently available for the premium price of $6.99 on the app store, and you get a pretty sizeable campaign for your money. Your first run should take about twelve hours (the official website advertises 15-20 so YMMV), and you’re incentivized to play through again with all the unlocked characters in “NewGame+” mode. If there were additional game modes or some form of multiplayer, that would certainly increase the RoI, and potentially address my other wishlist item for an enemy that doesn’t hold back. An expansion has been released as DLC on other platforms and there’s no reason to believe this won’t eventually be offered as an IAP for iOS users.
Image & Film has polished this game to a brazen shine, and in the end what elevates this above the turn-based tactical fray is the chrome. The art and design is fun and charming in parts and breathtaking in others (the backgrounds for the three different “zones” are stunning). Hits on enemies are satisfying and palpable. The storyline is self-aware without being cloying and has an actual arc; I thought the idea of a robot caste system based on power source was really interesting, for instance. There’s even a soundtrack by an actual steampunk band, Steam Powered Giraffe, that’s meted out at significant plot points and appears in the background of some locations. While I enjoyed the gameplay, and it does allow players leeway in beating missions their way, I found it broad rather than deep with fairly obvious choices. I’ll be keeping tabs on the eventual DLC update, because I’d like to spend more time in this colorful world and see what twists the developers can add to the core gameplay.