As a lifelong XCOM addict who’s always preferred to game on Nintendo handhelds, I was beside myself with joy to get my hands on Code Name S.T.E.A.M., a hybrid of turn-based strategy and third-person action that very clearly seeks to fill an XCOM-sized hole in the 3DS’s library. But in typical Nintendo fashion, this is no cut-and-paste copy: there’s a whimsical sheen to the whole thing, with deeply strategic gameplay offset by kid-friendly cartoon humor, art direction that apes classic Jack Kirby comics, and a premise that’s just the best kind of ridiculous. In the world of Code Name S.T.E.A.M., Abraham Lincoln faked his death at Ford’s Theater so he could secretly develop an elite squad of alien fighters culled from popular 18th century literature. As players, we take control of a four-man squad (consisting of such famous characters as Tom Sawyer, Dorothy Gale and her merry band of misfits, and someone called Queequeg) as we wend our way from Buckingham Palace to the Potomac to the Emerald City of Oz to the South Pole, all on a quest to eliminate an inter-dimensional force of Wellsian invaders. If all this doesn’t sound awesome enough already, the game was developed by Intelligent Systems, whose Fire Emblem and Advance Wars games have anchored the handheld strategy space for decades. How could Code Name S.T.E.A.M. be anything but a masterpiece?
Well, it’s not.
And on one hand, that’s surprising, given Intelligent Systems’ pedigree. On the other, they’ve quite simply never done anything like this before. All the right elements are in place, of course. S.T.E.A.M. is built on tried and true strategy design, but it mixes traditional grid-based movement, resource management, and rock-paper-scissors style unit balancing with third person action in new and interesting ways. For instance, traditional turn-based strategy games allow characters to move once, then perform as many actions as their remaining resources allow; in S.T.E.A.M., characters can move as freely as they want, gathering resources, scoping out the map, and exploring as they see fit, just as long as they don’t run out of steam (the resource that governs all actions in the game.) They can even move back to their starting position to refill their steam tank, then head in another direction entirely, taking shots at nearby aliens or preserving steam for Overwatch attacks during the enemy turn. On top of this solid foundation, the game features 12 different characters, all with unique skills, strengths, and weakness, and some truly interesting and varied map design that engenders unique types of challenges from mission to mission.
All of this is great, in theory, but in practice, it’s deeply flawed, thanks to an automated attack system called Overwatch that feels unbalanced at best, and untested at worst. Any character can use Overwatch repeatedly during the enemy turn as long as they’ve got the steam (unlike in, say, XCOM, where most units are restricted to one Overwatch action per turn unless they’ve received significant and well-earned upgrades) and it’s a great way to take out enemies quickly since Overwatch attacks are typically more effective than manual attacks. But it works the same way for the aliens, and as much as it stings to get hit multiple times by the same unit in Overwatch, it’s made significantly more frustrating by the frequency with which enemies respawn. Worse, Overwatch is triggered not just by spacial movement but by aiming: a character can be killed before she even gets a chance to retaliate, just for adjusting her weight slightly. This was forgivable in early levels, where I assumed the imbalance was due to my inexperienced characters and their entry-level weaponry — but it only got harder as the game went on. Restore points — which allow players to revive fallen teammates at key locations on each map — seemed like a nice concession for inexperienced players in the early stages, but by the end of the game, I was using them several times per mission, burning up all of the medals I’d gone out of my way to collect (which are otherwise used to unlock new weapons.)
Code Name S.T.E.A.M. also limits the field of view to whatever your individual characters can see, using a close-up, Gears of War-style third-person camera. It’s not what I’m used to, but it’s essentially the same as fog of war. What you can’t see can hurt you. I often found myself creeping slowly across the map, rotating the camera around corners in anticipation of boogie men that weren’t always there. It’s a great way to ratchet up the tension, and Intelligent Systems deserves kudos for trying something different here. Still, I know strategy games, and S.T.E.A.M. made me feel like an idiot more often than anything else. The game is brutally difficult, and it’s not just because of its mishandling of the Overwatch concept or it’s limited camera. Mistakes are made dearly, and in most cases it’s just better to restart a stage if you’ve strayed slightly from an efficient plan of attack. Further, some enemies just don’t seem fair. Worst among them are the nasty floating eyeball things that paint targets on players for nearby heavy missile platforms. After more than 20 hours, I still haven’t figured out a way to kill these buggers, and they can tag your characters multiple times per turn, meaning if your squad hasn’t escaped their gaze, your’re basically as good as dead. As I mentioned earlier, the game rewards exploration with out-of-the-way collectibles that are used to unlock new items and weapons, but many players may find it’s just not worth the trouble. That’s a shame, because there are some truly delightful unlockable weapons and steam boilers that modify character health, movement range, defense, and so on. Luckily, for players who aren’t doing too well in later stages, S.T.E.A.M. encourages replays of earlier areas, and there are reward multipliers for hardcore strategy players looking for an even deeper challenge. Removing free range movement, for example, earns you double the medals you’d normally collect in a mission.
And you’ll want to collect as many medals as possible to get the best weapons, because Code Name S.T.E.A.M. features some truly excellent multiplayer. All of the great concepts found in the single player maps are refined for a smaller set of multiplayer arenas, where two players will pit their S.T.E.A.M. squads against each other in no-holds-barred battles of wit and strategy. No multiplayer game I’ve played has felt quite the same. One stage takes place inside a hotel that’s made up of tiny rooms filled with crates; against one player, that was a fierce rush to the middle to see who could out-shoot the other, while another match saw me and my opponent spend three times as long playing mind games with each other, with me ultimately outwitting him, but barely. Another one of my favorite maps features a small pit rimmed with high ridges, with one team typically waiting it out on top while the other eventually tries to cross the pit and knock the first team off its perch. Even though there are fewer maps than in single player and they’re not quite as interesting overall, the multiplayer is a tense, thrilling experience, and the fact that you don’t have to deal with the unbalanced single-player AI makes it one of the most rewarding aspects of the entire game. There’s also something silly called ABE Mode, which is like an overly simple version of Mech Warrior and is usually over in 30 seconds or so. You’ll probably try it once and then never go back.
As much as I’ve complained about the brutal challenge of Code Name S.T.E.A.M., I do truly enjoy the game. There’s a ton of great stuff here to appreciate, from the art direction and humor to the huge variety of missions and plethora of useful unlockable items. The game is also peppered with some really funny supporting material that goes into detail on the backgrounds and traits of the various S.T.E.A.M. agents and aliens you’ll face — sort of like XCOM’s UFOpedia, but simpler. But for all of this great extra content, it feels oddly unpolished at times. It can take ages to figure out how to access critical information, like weapon and steam tank descriptions and stats. Starting a multiplayer tournament is completely unintuitive, too: first you have to join a tournament, then back out a couple menu levels and select a different option to actually start the match, where you’ll then select your tournament again and hope you don’t have to explain the whole process to your friends. These kind of quirks are beyond baffling to me, and I really can’t understand how they made it into the final game.
Code Name S.T.E.A.M. is exactly the kind of new IP that Nintendo needs, with fun characters, stunning art and deep and nuanced gameplay mechanics. But it’s also just not for everyone. If someone like me, who’s been playing turn-based strategy games since the early ’90s, thinks this game is too hard, I shudder to think what eager Nintendo fans who are new to the genre might think of it. Everything’s in place for the next great Nintendo franchise, and I’ll be coming back to this one regularly for my XCOM fix… at least when I don’t have access to an iOS device. But it’s going to be a tough sell for a sequel if players can’t see what’s so great about Code Name S.T.E.A.M. through tears of frustration.