After toying around with the latest Codename: S.T.E.A.M. demo for a few hours, I’m still unsure about how to really explain it. Sure, the combat and system reflecte a sort of XCOM meets Valkyria Chronicles style that mixes both 3rd-person shooter action with resource and spacing management of strategy games, that’s much easier to describe. What’s difficult is explaining how Abraham Lincoln is leading a team of S.T.E.A.M. operatives including John Henry, a not-so cowardly Lion, and the Indian princess, Tiger Lily, throughout a colorful comic-book, steampunk London, that’s been invaded by aliens. I mean, really, what did I just type?
However, that insanity is something that I’ve come to endear even in my short amount of time with this demo. It’s apparent that this world is not our own and the game doesn’t take any initiative to tell you why. That’s okay though, because Codename: S.T.E.A.M. oozes with style and confidence around every corner. The steampunk aesthetic is found in the environments, on the characters, built into the menus, and even comes through in the music. But instead of an oily, greyed out, world, S.T.E.A.M. is full of bold colors and comic art that sets it apart from the genre. Throughout the game, you’ll find text reinforcing sound effects, and cutscenes will scroll through panels like you just pulled the latest edition off of the comic rack. Despite my initial underwhelming feeling for the art in previews, it really looks great in motion and getting to play it has greatly swayed my opinions so far.
The demo opens up with Captain Henry Fleming under attack by a group of nasty bug-like enemies and his objective is to just get out and survive. These first couple levels act as a tutorial to get you used to how S.T.E.A.M. plays, which is very nice considering there’s nothing like this on game on the 3DS. Basically, you’ll control a character like a 3rd-Person action game, aiming and shooting at enemies, hopping off ledges, and collecting items in the environment. The catch is, you can only move and act based on how much steam your character has. Different actions take up different amounts of steam and maintaining this balance will lead you to victory throughout each mission.
Throughout these tutorials you’ll then learn some of the more intricate mechanics of the game like enemy weak points, restoring steam, and weapon specific powers. After a few levels of basic initiation, Fleming teams up with John Henry, a bigger character with a bigger gun, able to break debris and open up new paths. Playing with both these characters opened me up to some new tactics like having Fleming get close while Henry stands back lobbing grenades at enemies. You can even save some Steam so certain characters can attack during an enemy’s turn. It’s clear that each mission has multiple ways to play. Sometimes I would focus on destroying all the enemies and/or collecting coins and items throughout each level, and other times I would simply have one character take fire while the other charged for the goal area. At least in these first missions, as soon as one character gets to the goal, the mission is a success!
But the real fun is after playing through the first three-level mission, you’ll get play with a full four-member team. It’s here where you can finally start planning out different strategies that take advantage of each character’s weapons and specific traits. I personally loved Lion’s Leap attack that not only was incredibly powerful but let me reach new heights and areas that both kept me out of harm’s way, but also gave me a better field of vision.
One of my only gripes with Codename: S.T.E.A.M. so far is it’s lack of any kind of speed-up features. After your party has their turn, the enemies take their turn and it really feels like it drags on. The game also focuses on your field of vision so I had plenty of times where I’m just looking at a wall while an alien progress bar slowly fills. With more members, it’s easier to spot enemies and watch their movements which feels better, but I still really think it would benefit a handheld strategy game to be a little snappier.
Developer, Intelligent Systems, is no stranger to strategy, having worked on the Fire Emblem, Paper Mario, and Advance Wars series over the last decade. But instead of strictly sticking to the same formula, they’ve expanded the scope of turn-based combat with Codename: S.T.E.A.M. Unlike anything you’ll find on the 3DS, it combines a shooter with turn-based strategy with ease, making it feel right at home on the handheld. I’ve had no trouble aiming or losing my focus on screen, the touch-based camera has worked great for me, and I’m really digging the art-style and wacky plot. The demo definitely shows that Codename: S.T.E.A.M. is shaping up to be a great addition to the 3DS, but with a track record like Intelligent Systems has, it’s no surprise. Now if only they could speed up the alien’s turns…