Everything was going so well. I smashed the Scrappers, got every last bit of loot, and was about to ditch the ship before it imploded in the vacuum of space. Then I just had to go chasing after that unicorn hat, and ended up pissing it all away.
That, in a nutshell, is the typical flow of a game of SteamWorld Heist for me. Image & Form’s latest frequently lifts me up, reinforcing skills I’ve learned over three decades of playing strategy games, to the point where I’m constantly high-fiving my own excellence. Then it grabs me by the short hairs and slams me back down to earth to contemplate the consequences of my overconfidence.
SteamWorld Heist is a turned-based strategy game with a heavy focus on effective squad tactics and resource management—not unlike, say, MicroProse’s X-Com, or Firaxis’s… XCOM— but the Image & Form twist is that it’s also played entirely from a side view, like a traditional platforming game. And that shouldn’t work, but it does, because the developer has thrown out the probability engine that sits at the heart of most strategy games and replaced it wholesale with geometry. For you C-students, this means that attacks are no longer governed by a random number generator, but rather by a good old-fashioned tool I like to call aim before you pull the trigger, jackass. Strategically speaking, shots will bounce off walls at an angle that is inverse to the angle at which you pointed your weapon, meaning even indirect shots will connect with impressive accuracy if you follow their path to its mathematical conclusion. Practically speaking, lining up trick shots is just damn fun.
Some weapons, such as main character Piper’s starter pistol, make this an exceedingly easy feat to accomplish as they’re equipped with laser sighting that traces a shot’s path for you. But these are generally in short supply (and frequently underpowered), so in most cases you’ll have to think long and hard before you take a shot, or even before deciding where to move your squad. This is especially true because most stages are randomly generated, with different room layouts, obstacles, types of enemies, loot locations, etc. You can’t just try again after failing a mission and expect that you’ll “get it right this time” because with very few exceptions it’s not really possible to memorize a level’s layout. This is a thinking person’s game, with a perfect shot and a careless one often defined by the space between two pixels.
As you progress through SteamWorld Heist’s 20-hour campaign, you’ll meet an assortment of robots you can recruit to your little rebellion, and while you might be tempted to stick with the first few you hire through the duration of the game, it behooves you to experiment with each of the new recruits and see who you like best. Each and every character is useful, but most play completely differently from one another, and some don’t become obvious powerhouses until you max them out. Piper gives adjacency bonuses to nearby squad members fairly early on, befitting her role as the captain, while Billy Gill is a melee powerhouse who can make short work of bosses with just a few knocks of his head once he’s maxed out. And Sally can go on an endless killing spree if she’s got a weapon powerful enough to one-shot foes.
In keeping with the narrative theme of the game—a ragtag group of space traders on a quest to liberate treasure from an evil empire, one chest at a time —leveling isn’t based on individual character performance, but rather by splitting the experience earned at the end of a mission equally among surviving squad members. This means that characters defeated during missions won’t receive any experience, and this can lead to a ton of wasted time as you attempt to bring weaker characters up to par with your mains but fail repeatedly because of the difficulty of most single-character missions. Worse, each failed mission or character death depletes what feels like an unfair amount of water (the game’s form of currency) from your reserves, so you can’t always afford to re-up on supplies after a failed mission and try again with a different loadout.
In these situations, I found myself constantly gaming the system, taking advantage of SteamWorld Heist’s infrequent autosave system and resetting to try again, rather than give up hard-earned resources. Call me a cheater if you want, but this form of save-spoofing is employed frequently by players of turned based tactics games, and it got me through a fair share of missions. Not that I’m proud of it. XCOM got around that particular act of player desperation by implementing an Iron Man mode, whereby the game was saved after each squad member’s turn; I’d love to see a similar feature implemented in a future update to SteamWorld Heist. Save me from myself, guys!
Aside from leveling your characters, you can improve their prospects for survival in a number of other ways. Each character is allowed one weapon, two accessories, and a hat, and while the hats are entirely superfluous (more on that in a minute), there’s actually huge potential for customization within the three remaining inventory slots. One of my favorite loadouts is to combine a weaker two shot pistol with two separate accessories that each grant one unit of extra damage per shot. Normally this would result in a bonus of two damage per turn, but because this particular weapon fires twice, you actually end up getting a +4 bonus. Throw in certain characters’ unique damage boosting abilities and you can push it even farther. You could lose hours coming up with the best possible loadouts for each character, and I wouldn’t be surprised if players are finding combinations even Image & Form hasn’t thought of.
In many ways, SteamWorld Heist is a dead ringer for XCOM, but it sets itself apart in ways that feel at turns fresh, pragmatic, frustrating, and even thrilling. It took me almost a full playthrough to realize that the lack of Overwatch—a common feature in turn-based tactical games whereby a character can be set to automatically attack during the computer’s turn if an enemy crosses its path—was actually a positive here. It makes the general flow of each mission—get in, grab the loot, get out—more belabored, but it also makes the act of escaping from a ship that’s quickly filling up with enemy reinforcements that much more invigorating… especially when you’re tempted to throw all the chips back on the table and head back into the fray just for a chance at a stupid unicorn hat.
So, about those hats. There are something like 100 of them hidden in SteamWorld Heist. Some of these are common, tied to certain races and ranks of enemies. Others can be purchased from millinery shops scattered throughout the game’s map. And still others—like the unicorn hat I still don’t have, or my favorite, the hat-in-a-cat, show up seemingly at random during missions. And they do absolutely nothing. But damn, if I haven’t lost countless missions and sacrificed tons of my mechanical mates to collect as many of them as I can get my digits on (last time I checked, I had about 30.) And really, who doesn’t want to see a tough-talkin’, heavy weapons-wielding robot lady wearing a dead cat on her head? Yeah, that’s right: nobody.
The hats of SteamWorld Heist might ultimately be worthless, but they’re also just a ton of fun to track down, and they’re emblematic of the kind of polish that’s gone into making this game. From the visual designs that convey so much about characters’ personalities before they even speak a word, to the laugh-out-loud dialogue, to the audio cues that accompany loot unlocks, there’s something wonderful to appreciate at nearly every level of the game’s design. In that regard, SteamWorld Heist has been a constant surprise, and a constant delight.
Perhaps best of all is Steam Powered Giraffe, a steampunk-themed folk vaudeville act out of San Diego that’s written an entire album’s worth of original songs for the game. As in their real life stage personas, the band appears in-game as a trio of “Singing Musical Automatons” who frequent the various bars and cantinas of SteamWorld. It’s such a perfect pairing that it’s hard to believe they didn’t form just for the game, but beyond the amusing theatrics are some genuinely impressive harmonies. I spent at least a couple of hours during my first playthrough just stopping in the various cantinas so I could listen to band perform songs like “Honeybee” and “What We Need Are Some Heroes.” I finally broke down and bought the soundtrack album today after listening to some of the band’s earlier songs on YouTube while writing this review.
Image & Form seems to understand games in ways very few people do. It’s one thing for a developer to study what makes a great game great, slap a fresh coat of paint on it, call it an homage to a classic, and then watch with glee as a contingent of nostalgia-afflicted writers breathlessly enthuses that it’s “the best _____ since _____!” It’s another thing entirely to take disparate genres—those which conventional wisdom tells us do not play well together—and combine them expertly into an experience that is not only cohesive, but feels like something entirely new and essential. And that’s exactly what Image & Form has done again. SteamWorld Heist is more than just a modern classic: it’s another game from a tiny Swedish developer that stands toe-to-toe with anything Nintendo’s done in the past 5 years. It’s one of those games that defines the 3DS, and will continue to do so for generations to come. Don’t miss it.
Invisible Gamer’s review of SteamWorld Heist is based on final review code provided to us by Image & Form. The game was released on Thursday, December 10th, 2015.