Steamworld Heist: a turn-based shooting RPG featuring a fractured Earth overrun by steam-powered robots. A title that was born out of a man’s love for chess. Let’s go back to a warm, mid-summer’s Wednesday in June, and to an early morning meeting at the Electronic Entertainment Expo. This meeting, quite frankly, changed my world and how I looked at games, because when I was introduced to Steamworld Heist, I saw a title with the immense potential to be something great. It was great in every sense of the word. A truly gripping, strategical game that challenged me even in its earliest levels, daring me to beat it. Meeting with Image and Form CEO Brjann Sigurgeirrson showed me how unique games could be in the hands of independent studios, with a series that began as a tower defense game, and then an action title. Having never invested much into independently developed titles, Heist definitely grabbed my attention and got me to start paying attention to these studios. After following up with him a short while later in an interview, here we are at the release of Steamworld Heist for the Nintendo 3DS.
Steamworld Heist takes place in a distant future 400 years after the events of Steamworld Dig, where the Earth has been fractured into thousands of rocky territories and overrun by steam-powered robots. It’s set in the same universe as its predecessors, Steamworld Tower Defense and Steamworld Dig, and chronologically places at game five in the series. Games one and three are Tower Defense and Dig, respectively; game two is an unreleased prequel to Dig and game four is a connection to Dig and Heist.
The story of Steamworld Heist takes place several hundred years after Steamworld Dig and follows the adventures of a space pirate band, led by Captain Piper, a former pilot in the Royalist Space Force, who became a deserter after making a choice to not bomb a suspected rebel base. Her crew raids the ships of the Royalist forces, aiming for glory and wealth, and aids denizens of this fractured Earth. The twenty hour story line is entirely charming and offers the player some thought-provoking questions, such as how humanity was superseded by sentient robots, or how the Earth managed to become, literally, fragments of its former self. It has plenty of lighthearted and humorous moments, with witty dialogue and a cast of characters that are much deeper than their stiff, robotic exteriors show. On the other end, there are also some more serious moments, moments that induce pondering, making this much more than a one-sided generic action shooter. Cutscenes and dialogue weave together in the storyline, and aid in the overall immersion of the tale, creating a seamless transition from shooting Royalists to the next step in the lore gathering process. Credit must be given for a well-written, playful narrative that never dulls throughout its run.
The gameplay structure of Steamworld Heist is vastly different from its predecessors. While Steamworld Tower Defense was a DSiWare tower defense title, and Steamworld Dig a Metroidvania platformer, Heist is a turn-based free shooting strategy title, where Captain Piper’s crew raids randomized ships. Following the evacuation of an enemy frigate, players can move along a spider webbing grid to new territories, and forge new paths to lands unknown. There are quite a number of territories to steal from, with Image and Form noting that the game is five times as large as Steamworld Dig. Advancement of the story line is done through the Reputation system; the more you have, the further you can go. Reputation is earned through each stage. On the maps, Bars are dispersed for Piper to recruit new team mates, by paying either in water or through reputation. New equipment can be picked up here as well. The majority of the game though is spent in heists, which should be self-explanatory given the title of the game. Captain Piper and her crew hop from frigate to frigate, collecting ubiquitous quantities of swag (yes, it really is called swag in game!), and equipment. Heists feature a number of different objectives, from collecting swag, to defeating foes, or destroying power generators. These randomly generated frigates feature numerous terrain elements, such as overhead turrets, or crates and explosives to hide behind for cover. As the crew finishes exploring the frigate and completes the objectives, they must evacuate the frigate for the mission to be complete. Items and water, Steamworld’s currency, are added, and experience points distributed to the team mates.
The battles of Steamworld Heist are surprisingly intricate, more so than any other turn-based strategy that I’ve played in my lifetime. Instead of a four-directional attack pattern, players have a near 360 degree axis of control over their weaponry. It’s skill over luck, and utilizes the surroundings. With the addition of the precise and highly intuitive angling mechanic, this is strategy as we’ve never seen it. The attention to detail is immaculate; shooting a robot in the leg will disable its movement for one turn, shooting it in the head could increase damage. Shots are bounced off walls, and can ricochet in many different patterns for an infinite combination of means to destroy Royalist forces…and the occasional Scrapper here and there. With certain weapons, specifically those with laser sighting, it is possible to predict the ricochet pattern. Steamworld Heist takes this up a notch, with a wavering mechanic that adds a minor degree of freedom in each shot; amusing, given that we’d expect robots to be stiff in their movements. It adds a new layer of complexity to turn-based strategy. This idea was taken into consideration from Anthill for iOS, an early mobile title developed by Image and Form, with the development team remembering the chaotic movement patterns of ants as they randomly move about towards a destination. With the addition of the thumb slider on the New Nintendo 3DS, which allows for camera control, everything felt natural and not a single button wasted. Switching characters with the L button, to setting up the weapons with the R button, everything had a purpose. The bottom screen itself displays valuable information, such as character health, and the map of the terrain, which shows areas which can be interacted with. Locations that have not been reached yet are shrouded in darkness.
Heist features a wide array of customization elements. Characters are given a chance to equip their robots with up to four items: a weapon, two utilities, and a hat. The weapons have varying damage outputs and critical hit chances, with some weapons carrying a secondary ability such as laser sighting, friendly fire activation for bazooka-quality weapons, bouncing lasers, grenades, or burst shots on a shotgun – this game has you covered. Utilities are vastly useful, and come in many different flavors: movement distance increases, life recoveries, extended weaponry such as grenades, or armor that buffs the overall character stats. Image and Form thought of it all. Last but not least, the hats! Hats are entirely for visuals, ranging from admiral-looking caps to baseball caps, Royalist helms, a crown fit for a king, to the classic fedora – there’s a vast variety of different ways to keep a robot’s head warm, and they all add to the charm. There are actually a total of 100 weapons and 100 hats to collect. There were a number of occasions where I yelped, “oh my God I want that hat!” because a lot of the designs are actually really, really cool.
Apart from this though is the ability to unlock skills from leveling up, which can truly turn the tide of battle. Offensive, defensive, and support come together and add elements of surprise. Sometimes, you just might need that extra damage boost on a shot to beat something, or you need a turn or two longer to survive – skills come in greatly handy here for just that. Each robot you recruit comes with his or her own special ability, adding even more combinations to the potential fun that each stage brings out.
In addition to equipment, the gameplay is truly going to belong to the players. Players who find the game difficult can decrease the difficulty at any time, before any mission is undertaken. The difficulties range from Casual (to experience the storyline), Regular (adds a challenge and is a good starting point for the typical player), Experienced (for those used to turn-based strategy, with bonuses), Veteran (for those with skills and featuring enemies buffed to perfection) and then Elite (for those who truly like to inflict pain on themselves, where a single mistake will lose the mission). The ability to scale up the difficulty, not just down, is a first for me. I’ve seen plenty of games where players scale things down because the going gets rough, but scaling up the difficulty at any time makes for some great gameplay. It’s perfect for those occasions in which I felt over-leveled or over prepared myself for a heist, and wanted that extra boost of gameplay to reward myself for playing a mission well. It’s such an intuitive system, and it’s one that that carries itself extremely well throughout the game’s 20-25 hour campaign. For an independently developed title, it holds itself up better than a lot of the AAA turn-based strategy games that I’ve experienced in my gaming career. The depth and the customization to suit the individual separates Steamworld Heist from any other in its genre.
Heist features some great visuals that suit its theme, featuring bright, neon colors and some locales with gritty, dark tones. The visuals and cutscene presentation goes back to the early days of gritty, silent film cinematography, complete with the flickering and grit of Old Western films. The “speckled sand grains” feel, as I like to refer to it. The visuals are crisp on the Nintendo 3DS, and the 3D slider adds a layer of depth to the locations; Piper’s ship actually feels like it’s a big ship, the zones in space actually feel like three-dimensional objects on a 3D plane. It feels like I’m really travelling around in space, and not on a vertical or horizontal axis. For the message that the game is trying to convey, the theme works out great.
Steam Powered Giraffe composes a decent portion of the game’s soundtrack. The main theme is catchy, and has strong connections to American folk music. Having taken a folk music course, I recognized some subtleties and themes in the soundtrack, a soundtrack which features some great lyrical performances from Steam Powered Giraffe. Be sure to expect some Western-themed sounds though. Speaking of sounds, the noises the robots make while speaking to each other is really nice on the ears without sounding overtly grating. Their tones are…soft, for lack of a better word, rather than harsh and irritating. Being an Asian American, I never imagined actually liking this kind of music or theme, but it really started to grow on me. The voice acting in the title, for the opening sequence and for cutscenes, fit well with the steampunk, Western-inspired tone. The voice of the narrator reminded me of Deckard Cain from Activision-Blizzard’s Diablo franchise. The voice sounded wise and kind of reminiscent of when a grandfather sits down with a story to tell grandchildren.
Steamworld Heist is an independent title with a large scope, and completely stands alone in the turn-based strategy genre. Unparalleled customization and intuitive gameplay, some really great boss design, combined with a scaling difficulty system makes this easily accessible to any gamer – from the non-strategy savvy to the most hardcore fans. At $19.99, Heist has a whopper of content and completion elements for players to hunt for, an engaging and playful storyline that is about 25 hours long, and charming yet witty dialogue. All of this was crammed into 180 MB. The game is prone to breaking the fourth wall on occasion, with plenty of pop culture references. My only (personal) irk is that the game’s campaign couldn’t be longer. This is easily a hidden gem that deserves to be noticed this holiday season. A game franchise that has spanned quite a few years, and undergone many groundbreaking changes in its gameplay style, is one that deserves a chance. Just like the two Star Wars trilogies, Steamworld Heist is just one part of a grander tale, and I can’t wait to see what comes next for the series. Based on the high quality of gameplay, this is quite possibly the best game I’ve played all year, and the passion Image and Form dedicated to this title shows. The thematic Steampunk style may not be for everyone’s fancy, but I can’t recommend it enough. So as a little teaser, straight from Image and Form, here’s what you guys will be looking at once it launches.
Steamworld Heist is due out on the Nintendo 3DS December 10th, followed by the PS4, Xbox One, Wii U, and mobile platforms in 2016. Gamer Professionals would like to thank the team at Image and Form, mainly Brjann Sigurgeirrson and Julius Guldbog, for providing and coordinating a review copy.