December is somewhat known unofficially as a “dead month” in the professional reviewers circuit. Despite Christmas being around the corner, and money being flung around at profiteers in the hopes of buying happiness in the cold winter winds; The amount of releases dry up like the frozen ground. This is partially because come mid-way through the month, people already have their Game of the Year list and know what they want for Christmas, so new releases get trampled under the hustle and bustle. Even the games that do get released are usually there either due to delays or to take advantage of the quiet winter month. So it feels weird for SteamWorld Heist to pop its head up at this point with a gush of steam and clanking of cogs, as it is a marvel of steampunk creation.
SteamWorld Heist is the recent steampunk creation of Image & Form. It is something of a spiritual sequel to SteamWorld Dig, based a good few hundred years after you plundered the planet for riches, but beyond the familiar setting it distinguishes itself as its own unique creation. Instead of digging around in a hole for minerals in a steampunk wild west, you’re Captain Piper Faraday in a steampunk sci-fi future of ships, piracy, and guns. One where there are no humans, just steampunk robots that feed off of boiling water to fuel their gears.
Before we get into the fiddly interactive side, I should probably dive into a potential misconception: If you’re anything like me, mental images of “steampunk sci-fi where robots dwell” are gun grey, misery brown, and dullard black. It includes tiresome corridors, with practically zero environmental characterisation, and a place where once you’ve seen one room you’ve seen them all. However, those images are just, well, wrong. They’re completely wrong. In fact, they’re so wrong you may even feel ridiculous.
Instead, SteamWorld Heist continues SteamWorld Dig‘s trend of being absolutely fantastic to look at. Rather than resorting to the dull realism (the type people dive into games to forget), it remembers there is actually, in fact, a large array of colours and possibilities of cosmetics. This includes the use of hats, something you can collect by shooting someone’s hat off and stealing it. These come in an array of exotic, unusual, and wondrous appearances. Now that we’ve got that out the way, let’s dive into the rest.
As the Captain of your ship, you’ll have to go to/send minions onto missions to gather the valuable currency: Water. Each character has their own ability scores, their skills, and their preferred brand of firearm; These variations even cropped up between those of the same class. Then you choose which weapon they’ll lug about, which misc items to have (which sometimes have their own abilities or passive bonuses), and even what smart dashing hat to pop onto your head. However, you only get to bring so many characters along to each mission, sometimes only being able to bring one to the party which you’re about to unleash onto some unsuspecting pirates/imperials/etc.. “What type of party?” you may ask. Why, the type that ends with you walking away with bottles of water and the other side not…Walking away…
Each turn you’ll get to move so much and attack per character. You attack by manually aiming and firing, which ends the character’s turn. However, you can forego attacking in favour of using an accessory, moving some more, or perhaps even simply end your turn right there. Then the enemy acts using the same move/attack choices.
From this simple base, wondrous things are built upon it. Depending on your weapon (which there are so many of), you will approach combat in many different ways. You may snipe from a distance, knowing if you so much as move you can not attack, with an accurate laser sight to score a critical hit via headshot — It can even show you how the bullet will deflect off of walls. You may decide to run up close to see if you can point-blank shotgun blast or burst-fire into someone to assure death. You may just consider chuckling and letting loose a grenade from your launcher, taking out three people from behind cover.
Even on top of this you have further variation depending on the enemies you’re facing (e.g. if they have shields or not), the character you’re using (e.g. one is able to fire twice in a row if she doesn’t move, effective with grenade launchers), or even your mission type (e.g. some will require you to just grab loot, others you need to make a mad dash for the exit with an endless swarm of robots hot on your heels). That is also excluding personal preference of play; If you prefer to try to bring the enemy in close, take as many out as possible, or to just get through the mission without wasting your time on enemies. Let alone what stage of the mission you’re at; If you’re just gathering all the loot for the final get away, or cleaning out the guards before reinforcements will come.
…Phew…All that… It is understandable if it sounds like a complex mess… On paper it likely sounds like a dry turn-based strategy game with so many factors as to boggle all except the most hardened of JRPG, tactical strategy, or spreadsheet fans. The reality is that the game has the profound ability to communicate all of this in an astoundingly accessible form (much more so than I am able to), always keeping the in-mission management as simple as possible and trying not to burden you with too many options during mission set-up.
It is that part of the review where usually I dive into “AND HERE IS WHERE THE GAME TRIPS UP!” part, but honestly I’m having a hard time with that. Usually, I point an accusatory finger towards narrative, as it is common for a game as well-built mechanically to be unstable in this area due to the limited resources, but that rests well too. While it wouldn’t be the type to play on your heart-strings like a harp or to stir thoughts in that 3lb of flesh in your head called a brain, it does have a rampant silliness through-out. This includes things such as hats, the characterisation of robots (that fortunately aren’t just caricatures of stereotypes), and the general plot. There are also darker undertones, but these are reserved for fridge horrors. e.g. Your main currency and object of stealing is water, the very fuel source you need for your robots to function; So you’re basically using food as currency, as there is a very limited amount of it in the setting. Generally though, the writing is at least sound and at most great, due to its ability to be silly while not cheapening the drama around it.
Then I checked the length of the game (about 15 hours, although I spent longer mashing my head against the wall trying to win on the harder levels), and it is long enough to justify the price point. The price as well is cheap for what you get, looking at a very sleek £12 (for the observant folk, that’s less than £1 per hour, even if you rush through it).
My only nagging point — and honestly I tried to dig deep for a criticism — is that the environments can get a bit monotonous after a while. While the out-of-mission areas vary wildly in design, sadly the in mission environments don’t vary a huge lot outside of “bad guy’s ship.” It is procedurally generated so you do get a variety of approaches with even the same mission, but the environmental assets lack the variation to depict different forms of ship (e.g. an aquarium (with its delicious water), a factory or a diesel/alcohol distillery) to shake up the locations a bit more.
I admit that considering its release date, I hadn’t expected too much from SteamWorld Heist, even though I played it at EGX Rezzed this year and had an enjoyable time with it. However, the gameplay is impressive in the attention of detail and possible tactics on hand; It’s engaging (as you carefully line the shot up for a one-shot kill) and accessible to those not too well versed in games. On top of this lies an aesthetic that is colourful, as well as a gleeful light-hearted narrative that allows the nightmare fuel to drip into the cracks of your thoughts if you allow it. If you own a 3DS, you’d be nothing short of foolish for not picking up this gem and embracing steampunk robotics in space. Just, if you don’t like dark pessimistic views of humanity and the future that lay in store for us, perhaps don’t think too hard on it.
A 3DS code for SteamWorld Heist was provided by Image And Form for the purpose of this review