“Affliction comes to us, not to make us sad but sober; not to make us sorry but wise.”
-H. G. Wells
“The following is a contributor post by the One-Winged Mage.”
The third game in Image & Form’s SteamWorld universe takes a turn-based strategy approach on a side-scrolling 2D plane that is fun as it is unique. The term ‘turn-based strategy’ should be used loosely here, because SteamWorld Heist’s gameplay is more about skill-based aiming and shooting than it is about carefully formulating a plan and executing it. I very rarely had to plan my positioning more than just one move ahead. The game’s mechanics allow for very quick battles, but you could also take as much time as you need on your turn; it’s up to you.
(Note: Most of these screens are from the HD versions of the game)
As a SteamWorld Dig fan and strategy games enthusiast, I just had to have this game when it released. I bought SteamWorld Heist shortly after release but dropped it after just a few hours – couldn’t exactly tell you why. Maybe I lost a mission and rage quit after it took half of my currency (which doesn’t happen in casual or regular difficulty). Or maybe I went in expecting a completely different type of game. Fast forward several years later (after playing through the wonderful SteamWorld Dig 2) and I decided to give it another shot, and boy, am I glad I did!
You play as Piper, captain of a space pirate ship and leader to a misfit crew of steambots on a quest to rid themselves of scrappers who are terrorizing their neighborhood. Raid ships, shoot bots, collect loot and escape, preferably with all your bots intact. The gameplay loop is fast, fun, and satisfying enough to make you want to keep doing just one more mission, or replaying a previous mission to see if you can improve your star rating. Most missions contain randomly generated maps, so don’t go in expecting to know exactly what’s going to happen.
Missions have a predetermined number of teammates for you to choose. The majority of levels are three-member missions, but there are also missions that ask you to take one, two, or even four crew mates. The solo missions are very tense, as you can imagine. In between missions you can shop for new weapons and helpful items, but you could also rely on simply the loot that you find on each mission, only stopping at shops to increase your inventory capacity. Earning stars in each mission will allow you to proceed further and unlock extra missions and shops along the way. Shops also typically have other characters that you can recruit for a one-time fee and keep for the rest of the game.
Speaking of characters, they are all unique with interesting personalities, abilities and special skills that are unlocked as the characters level up. Don’t count any of them out at first glance. One of the characters, who I originally thought was the most useless, ended up having one of the most useful skills once I unlocked it. Each character has a unique skill that can be really useful under the right circumstances. For example, one character does more damage if he shoots enemies in the back; another unlocks the ability to shoot twice every turn.
Weapons range from pistols and rifles to SMGs, shotguns, and explosive launchers. The hook of this game lies in the ability to ricochet bullets off of walls, ceilings et cetera to hit hard-to-reach enemies. There are crates and barriers spread throughout, which you or enemies could take cover behind, so the strategy here becomes finding a good position where you have cover while finding a good vantage point against enemies. But be warned, crates can be destroyed and most missions have enemy reinforcements that could flank you.
I found that the most useful weapons are sniper rifles and scoped pistols which have a laser pointer showing you exactly where the bullet will travel. I always made sure to have at least one sharpshooter character in my party.
For those who enjoy collectibles, the game also includes about 100 hats that could be used to adorn your bots’ heads. This is entirely optional so there’s no actual incentive to actually find them all, unless you play the PS4 or Xbox One versions for the trophies/achievements. You can either find them in shops, or they can actually be shot off of enemies’ heads to be collected off the ground. It’s a nice bonus that added an extra wrinkle of enjoyment (not to mention the hilarious sight of giving my toughest steambot a nurse’s hat).
The pixel art in this game is top notch. The animations are smooth, and seeing the bullets zip by and cause explosions is very satisfying. All the characters’ personalities shine through in the way they’re animated as well. What didn’t impress me is the lack of unique environments. There are very few variations in how the many ships look on the inside, though that never took away from the fun I had.
The sound effects in this game make every action you do feel very satisfying. Aiming a well-placed shot and hearing the impact shatter enemy bots never gets tiring. Where this game is lacking is in the music. The soundtrack attempts to create a tense mood but, for me, is just forgettable. The exception comes from visiting bars; there’s a steambot band playing in the background, which is actually music from a real band called Steam Powered Giraffe, complete with vocals.
The gameplay loop is addicting. Pick your crew and loadout, go in guns blazing, collect loot, escape before enemy forces overwhelm you, and repeat. The game constantly throws something new at you. A tougher enemy, new element or situation is always around the corner, so you never feel confident going into the next mission. A few extra challenge missions are even more intimidating. Most missions are also very quick, which makes the game perfect for handhelds: just play one or two, then put the game down.
There are plenty of optional but interesting conversations to be had with all the crew members, if you should choose to listen. The game isn’t story focused, though, so the plot is fairly straightforward and doesn’t offer much surprise. However, the SteamWorld universe is deep in rich history and lore. You’ll often come across references to events and characters from other games in the series, a nice bonus to those who have stuck with the series.
This game is much longer than I initially thought. When I thought I had just beaten the final boss, it turned out I was only two thirds of the way done. My final tally clocked in at just over 20 hours, including replaying previously completed missions in an attempt to get a better rank. After you complete the game, it unlocks a New Game Plus mode where you can restart with all characters unlocked from the start. The missions themselves don’t seem to change, which is why the game suggests you raise the difficulty when you do start over. Speaking of which…
SteamWorld Heist offers five difficulty settings from casual to elite. Personally, I found that my sweet spot was at the third difficulty: ‘experienced’. I was able to finish the majority of missions my first time around and only had to lower the difficulty to regular on two occasions. But, be advised, the game ranks you after final completion and remembers your lowest chosen setting. If you set the game to one of the two hardest difficulties, you better make sure you don’t make any mistakes or miss a shot, or it will cost you. Taking advantage of all of your crew’s abilities also becomes much more important at higher settings.
There’s no denying that all the games in the SteamWorld series have a distinct charm that is more and more refined with each new release. The cast of steambot characters, the setting, the types of enemies, all come together to create this universe that you just want to continue exploring. The gameplay itself is also unique in its implementation of side-scrolling turn-based strategy. There’s simply no other game quite like it (that I know of).
My Personal Grade: 9/10
Very rarely do I start a game and get so wrapped up in its world that I shoot through it the way I did. I don’t quite remember what turned me off of the game the first time I tried it. All I know is that once I really got into it, the game hooked me and didn’t let me go until it was all over. If it was a shorter game I would probably have wanted to continue with the New Game Plus right away so that I could get more steampunk goodness. For that, I give this game high praise, and Image & Form earns a place among my favorite developers.
Aggregated Score: 7.9
The One-Winged Mage, aka Kalas, may have been born with only one wing, but fear not for he has found a wonderful community of friends to share his love of games through Twitter, Instagram and Youtube.
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Categories: Game Review