What do you get when you grab steampunk robots, place them in a post-apocalyptic universe, and add to the mix an oppressive government, pirates, and a mysterious xenophobic entity? Yes, you guessed it, Steamworld Heist. This turn-based action strategy shooter made by Swedish developer Image & Form, shows that games don’t have to be cutting-edge to draw us in, and that simplicity and accessibility can be enough to create something fun and engaging.
Developed and published by Image & Form
Available on the PS4 and PS Vita. Reviewed on the PS4.
*Review code provided by Image & Form
Steamworld Heist is a cross-platform game that puts you in charge of an outlaw, spaceship captain and her crew as they try to make ends-meet in a universe where moisture has become the most valued resource. You are steam-powered robots oppressed by the diesel-powered Royalists, who have taken upon themselves to re-assemble a destroyed earth and who hoard most of the moisture in order to refill the earth’s oceans once they have succeeded in fixing it. You control the captain and the rag-tag crew as they fight desperate evil steamboats and Royalists, only to find out that that an ancient, menacing entity has awoken from it’s deep space slumber. The future of steambot-kind rests in your hands.
As a 2D turn-based tactical shooter, Steamworld Heist stays true to the genre. Each encounter is based on turns in which the player controls his crew members one after another (the player can choose the order in which to use his characters during each turn) and then the enemies take their turn. These mechanics work well but the game doesn’t bring anything noticeably new to the table. While aiming, the characters’ hands sway slightly adding an extra layer of challenge that requires the player to lineup and time each shot perfectly. Though this can be frustrating when it causes us to miss a critical shot, making the player use skill to shoot can be satisfying and a reward in itself when landing a near-impossible shot.
The encounters take place in ships and space stations that have multiple levels and rooms. The player is encouraged to explore each map in the hopes of recovering swag (that’s what loot is called in the game). This swag is the principal way of obtaining moisture (in-game currency), weapons and items to strengthen the crew. This an important aspect of the game because the characters don’t gain experience or loot by killing enemies, they do so by grabbing as much swag as possible and surviving the mission while enemies surge every few turns.
Getting through a mission with all of the crew members alive ensures that the player receives the maximum amount of reputation (shown as yellow stars in the upper-right corner of the screen) for the mission. Reputation can then be used to buy exclusive items, recruit more characters, and advance through the sector of space the player is currently in to other missions and points of interest.
Though the missions take place in similar spaces, there are some variations in their objective. Most of the time, the crew needs to board an enemy ship or station and grab as most loot as possible before evacuating. However, there are times in which the mission is to survive a certain number of turns until evacuation, kill an enemy boss, gather intel, or kill a certain number of enemies and evacuate in a limited amount of turns. These variations are welcomed and keep the game challenging, but after hours of playing they are not enough to keep the game from becoming extremely repetitive.
In order to get everyone home alive, the player must use the crew of steambots wisely. Each steambot belongs to a specific class, and using each character’s strengths to cover other characters’ weaknesses is key. After each mission each character that made it out alive will receive XP with the potential to level up. Every new level endows characters with new class-specific abilities as well as enhancing attributes such as health and movement. Dead or unused characters are not awarded any experience, a fact that can potentially force players to use the same combination of characters over and over again just because those are the ones with the highest levels. Yes, as you venture into more difficult sectors there are high-level characters available to recruit, but if they are not used in one or two missions, they quickly fall behind the player’s regular characters.
Steamworld Heist does a great job with its characters. They are memorable, funny, and unique. It is through the player’s interaction with the crew that most of the lore of the game is provided. All the way from a loyal sailor wanting to avenge his boy, to a country gal striving to earn enough money to buy a new farm after the Royalists confiscated her old one, each crew member and brings something distinct in and out of the battlefield.
As stated before, whether a character levels up or not depends if he is used in battle or not, and the attribute and skill points they receive are slotted automatically. The only customization the game leaves in the hands of the players is weapons, items, and hats (this last one being strictly cosmetic). The already limited customization options are worsened by the ridiculously small inventory. Yes, the game provides for the player to buy extra inventory space, but even after buying as much as you can, the amount of loot is way too much for the space provided, obligating the player to sell items (many which the player hasn’t had a chance to test out yet) after every mission in order to get the reward and advance to the next mission. In order to avoid this the player must sell everything that’s not needed to maximize space. It’s not that it’s bad. It just gets tedious having to do this after every single mission.
Steamworld Heist brings an interesting setting with varied characters that propel a simple but entertaining narrative. Though gameplay is enjoyable, initially the game might lack the challenge more experienced players might look for, but the difficulty increases significantly as the game progresses. Limited character customization and tedious inventory system tend to spoil the fun and cause frustration. Overall, Steamworld Heist is a true turn-based tactical shooter that welcomes both veterans and newcomers to the genre with it’s easy to learn gameplay and simple but effective mechanics that make it a perfect game to enjoy at home or on the go.
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