A critical hit
In 2010, Image & Form — a largely unknown Swedish indie studio at the time — quietly released their first game, SteamWorld Tower Defense, on Nintendo 3DS. Three years later they released a genre-bucking follow-up, SteamWorld Dig, which dug up critical success while changing the focus of the series from tower defense to 2D platforming and resource mining. After striking gold with SteamWorld Dig, Image & Form released SteamWorld Heist in December 2015 for 3DS, which managed to claim a spot on many Game of the Year lists, including my own “Top 5 Nintendo Indie Games of 2015” feature. Now, after almost a year later, Heist has finally made its way to Wii U.
In SteamWorld Heist, players follow Captain Piper, a steam-powered robot smuggler space pirate, and her quirky crew. Taking place many years after the events of SteamWorld Dig, the story unfolds as the crew travels around the outskirts of the scattered remains of earth, which has exploded, in search of precious water. With the rise of a threatening army of diesel-driven bots, Piper and gang heed the calling to do the right thing and rid the new SteamWorld of the evil robots. And if they manage to steal a few jugs of water from the bad guys in the process, that is just fine.
Keeping with SteamWorld tradition, the gameplay of Heist is a complete departure from the previous entries in the series. The name of the game this time is turn-based tactical strategy akin to the Fire Emblem series; however, Image & Form has once again concocted their own unique take on the genre. Instead of each level consisting of an overhead view of a tiled battlefield, the gameplay of Heist takes place inside procedurally generated spaceships from a 2D side-scrolling perspective. This simple, yet radical shift for the genre opens up several gameplay features, such as the use of environmental objects as cover, narrow corridor shootouts, and multi-floor levels.
Even when considering the unique perspective, I find the most revolutionary gameplay feature to be the combat. The player assumes control of each party member one by one, as you might expect, and commands them around an allotted amount of spaces in the playfield to progress through the level. When advancing a character, the player can choose to move them extra spaces, as marked by blue colored floor spaces, or stop the character short in the designated orange floor spaces where they can engage enemies in combat. Skill plays a key role in gunplay here, with the player having to aim the character’s gun for each shot while taking account for environmental obstacles, level layout, weapon types and capabilities, ricochets, and more. For example, one character may be equipped with a laser-sighted pistol with long distance sniping in mind, while another may have an affinity for powerful grenade launchers with arcing projectiles that trade pinpoint accuracy and range for massive damage.
During the course of the game, players will travel around the shattered earth’s orbit, recruiting new crew members with unique attributes and abilities, visiting with surviving Cowbots, buying and selling gear, seeking new missions, and gathering loot.
SteamWorld Heist employs fairly robust RPG mechanics such as finding, buying, and selling items, gear, and weapons, as well as an experience-based level-up progression system and character classes. While gamers might be disappointed if they are hoping for Final Fantasy levels of character upgrading and customization, I believe Heist does an excellent job of providing RPG mechanics while keeping the focus of the gameplay on the missions, rather than getting too bogged down with menus and comparing stats.
Once a mission is complete, the player is rewarded with whatever loot they stumbled upon during the fight and is awarded up to three stars based on their performance. The key to unlocking new missions and advancing the story lies in the number of stars earned, which often leads to replaying some missions for higher star ratings. While this usually tends to regress into grindy tendencies — especially on higher difficulty levels — each mission layout is procedurally generated to a certain degree every time you play, taking a slight edge off more tedious tasks.
The missions themselves manage to bring a little variety to the gameplay while keeping players engaged. Although each mission has its own set of particular objectives, they typically involve destroying all enemies on the map, recovering a certain piece of swag, or taking out a boss before evacuating in an escape pod. Before each mission, players are presented with a description and objectives, as well as how many crew members the player can use. Taking the objectives and their own personal play style into consideration, the player then decides which members to bring into the fray and chooses each character’s loadout. Although there is an obvious layer of strategy in preparing for and carrying out each mission, I often found myself favoring a select few over-powered crew members and weapons every time, which is most likely a testament to the game’s residual RPG roots.
During missions, each character is carefully and individually controlled during the player’s “turn” phase, but the skill-based combat mechanics do a great job of injecting a sense of action into a genre that is usually more strategically deliberate and slow-paced. SteamWorld Heist affords players a vast array of weapon types and approaches to combat, which provides a powerful sense of accomplishment after successfully landing a well-placed bank shot off a ceiling, into a wall, and into the back of an enemy’s head for critical damage. Also, players are given the ability to quickly switch between characters during movement animations, or simply turn off movement animations if they want to pick up the pace.
Although Heist does little to take advantage of Wii U’s unique second screen capabilities, it still offers a generally better experience for gamers who have no portability requirement. The GamePad screen is used to display a rudimentary map, which is helpful but not necessary. However, I did find the larger viewing area of the TV to be useful when trying to line up long-distance shots that would be much more difficult on the smaller 3DS screen and field of view.
If the gameplay of SteamWorld Heist was not enough to provide hours of satisfying entertainment alone — which it absolutely is — the fantastic presentation of the game makes it that much harder to put the GamePad down.
The story is largely conveyed through the use of cutscenes comprised of static images and voice-over heavily inspired by old newsreels. The high quality art and visual style certainly make up for the lack of animation, and the writing is funny and highly amusing.
Speaking of high quality art, SteamWorld Heist looks fantastic in HD. The 2D characters and objects are sharp and crisp, which is very complimentary to the game’s angular designs and comic-style coloring. Image & Form’s artists and designers went to great lengths to create a believable world, and their attention to detail of the crew’s ship and various space outposts is remarkable. However, the nature of procedurally generated levels makes it quite difficult to offer an equal level of care to their designs, which players spend the majority of playtime in. Taking advantage of the game’s simple 2D approach, the artists were clearly able to allocate their resources to create beautiful, silky-smooth animations for the mechanical characters and environments, which is largely responsible for the charm and character that Heist is bursting at the seams with.
In the sound department, the effects and audio cues are generally simple but of excellent quality. The music is amazing and as well-crafted and aptly applied as the rustic, cartoonish art style. The soundtrack is western inspired with a slight industrial touch to coincide with the SteamWorld theme, and is perfectly crafted to bolster the mood and atmosphere of each segment. Additionally, Heist features an incredibly amusing in-game concert, in which the real-world band/comedy troupe, Steam Powered Giraffe, is recreated as Cowbots performing at a bar in front of a small crowd. This meta concert is simply delightful and a real treat for hardcore steampunk enthusiasts.
Overall, SteamWorld Heist introduces players to an extremely satisfying and unique spin on the turn-based tactical strategy genre. For fans of the genre, Heist manages to satisfyingly scratch that itch while providing enough engagement for gamers who like a little more action. If you missed it on 3DS or would like to re-experience the game in beautiful HD, I can certainly recommend checking it out on Wii U.