Publisher: Image & Form
Developer: Image & Form
Genre: Turn-Based Strategy
Release Date: 06/07/2016
Image & Form has take a unique approach to building a video game franchise. Rather than produce direct sequels with minor improvements, they’ve made each of the now three SteamWorld games as part of a different genre. They’ve tackled tower defense, developed a Dig Dug meets Metroid hybrid, and now they’ve created SteamWorld Heist. SWH is a turn-based tactical game reminiscent of XCOM with a dash of Worms. What has resulted is one of the coolest strategy games to hit the market in recent years.
SWH takes place in a universe where the world has been destroyed. Also, instead of people there exist various types of robots. First you have the Royals, which run on diesel. Then you have everyone else running on water. Well without a planet, water has become hard to come by. That means the steambots are basically the poorest group in the bunch.
You play as Captain Piper Faraday, a smuggler and sometimes pirate operating out of the slums of the steambot sector. As the game starts out, Piper’s crew is wiped out by a ruthless gang of robots called “Scrappers”. Determining that the status quo is bad for business, Piper vows to rebuild her crew (so to speak) and start making space a safer place to be a bot.
From there, the game’s plot moves in a straight line. You fight bad guys, defeat bad guys, and find a whole new slew of bad guys you need to defeat. The story doesn’t really go anywhere, but it makes up for that with fun characters. Each character gets several lines of dialogue as you progress through the game. They’ll tell you their thoughts on what’s going on as well as tell you more about themselves. It serves to connect the player to the world, and make the story worth going through.
The SteamWorld games all have a western steam punk look to them, and SWH is no different. Your steambots look cobbled together from various scraps, and are typically adorned with cowboy hats and pistols. The look works, and it changes up as you move through each of the game’s three areas. When fighting the diesel powered royalists, for example, the look gets less cobbled together. Animations are few and far between, but the standout is the explosion of robot parts whenever a character is destroyed. Better yet, the parts will fall down stairs or get roll towards the side. It never stops being cool. Perhaps the coolest thing in the game is when the action slows down to let you follow a ricochet. The game allows for some crazy trick shots, and watching the bullet bounce around is extremely rewarding. Unless you miss of course. There’s also a great attention to the lighting, with the use of warm colors creating a glowing effect throughout the ships. It makes it feel like a lived in area, and one bereft of natural light. It’s very cool.
Instead of voice acting, SWH uses various chirping noises for the characters. Think something like Okami or Banjo-Kazooie. Each character has a unique tone, and the game leans toward lower toned sounds rather than high pitched ones. This is ultimately easier on the ears. It also lends personality to the characters. As for music, there are a number of solid tracks for battling and simply walking around. The western theme is played up to its fullest. Of particular note is an entire soundtrack of songs by the band Steam Powered Giraffe. Digital representations of the band play in saloons and bars throughout the game and you’ll hear their music as you explore. The tunes fit the game like a glove and are pretty nice in their own right. The sound effects consists of numerous different type of gunshots, explosions, and metallic clanking. It’s all good. It makes for a fantastic overall aural package.
Most of your time in SWH will be in battle. Battles are two-dimensional affairs where you move you take turns in rounds with your enemies. Each of your characters can move and take an action on their turn, or use up their turn in a full sprint action. Taking cover works just like it does in XCOM. Half cover is useful in that it lets you duck out of harm’s way, and full cover means your opponents won’t be able to hit you straight on. Actions include attacking and using various skill unique to certain characters. It would almost be an XCOM clone if not for how you handle firing weapons.
When you go to shoot an enemy in SWH, you don’t just take a shot and hope the dice rolls are in your favor. Rather, you must manually aim your shot. This is easier said than done. For starters, you have to deal with arm sway. Your character’s hand will move as you take aim, making it so you have to time your shot as well as aim it. Can’t line up a good shot? Don’t worry. Many types of guns fire bullets that ricochet. This means you might be able to bounce a bullet off the ceiling to hit an opponent behind cover. Some guns have scopes that bring up a laser guide to show you how the bullet will bounce up until a certain distance. This mechanic is the core of the game, and it works quite well. You’ll be able to pull off crazy shots in no time.
There are nine different characters you can use throughout the game. While some follow similar play styles, each has a unique set of skills to set them apart. For example, both Piper and Valentine utilize sniper rifles. However, Piper grants a buff to nearby allies while Valentine has special abilities that allow him to hit multiple enemies with one shot. Similarly, you have Sally versus Billy. Sally can take a bonus shot after she kills an enemy, while Billy can take a bonus move. Each character has their uses, and you’re pretty much free to create whatever team you want. Depending on the mission, you’ll get one to four bots to use. Experience is granted at the end of each mission to those that survive. Each level grants a new ability or improves an existing one, allowing each character to get more useful as the game goes on.
Equipping your characters is key. At the start, you get a starter weapon and a hat. The weapon is the weakest of the types that character can use, while the hat is purely decorative. From there, you can equip a new weapon and up to two different other items. The types of gear you’ll see are armor, grenades, health kits, and other typical things. These equipment slots can be used to augment your character and/or further specialize them. For example, Billy has an ability that allows him to attack twice in one shot with melee strikes. It therefore makes sense to equip items that boost melee damage or simply boost his health so he can stay in close.
The downside to the equipment system is that you have a limited inventory. At first, you start out with just a few slots. You can buy more as you go, but you’ll typically be full up. This requires you to spend a lot of time selling off excess items, which gets old quickly. It’s also rare that you’ll want to buy an item from the shop, as you’ll probably pick up something better anyway.
As for those hats, they’re purely decorative. However, they also serve as the game’s collectibles. Some hats can be bought in stores, but most can’t. To get them, you actually need to shoot them off of an enemy’s head and pick them up. You’ll likely earn many by accident, but making trick shots to earn you a new hat is strangely addicting. You’re also free to equip any hat to any character, which is pretty neat.
Missions have a decent amount of variety to them. You’re always going to be fighting enemies, but the randomly generated maps mix things up. Enemies will not always start in the same position, and the swag might be in different rooms. Sometimes you need to fight everyone, sometimes you need to beat a specific character, and sometimes you just need to not die. Some missions offer specific challenges such as an abundance of explosive barrels. There are also several boss fights throughout the game. These bosses often introduce new strategies thanks to massive life bars and not being able to run away. The cool part is that your ranked on each mission based on if you got a specific item and if you were able to keep everyone alive. You can replay missions to improve your rank, and there are items and characters you can’t get until your rank is high enough. You can also simply replay missions to get experience and loot.
Perhaps the game’s greatest strength is it’s difficulty curve. Missions gradually introduce tougher enemies and obstacles. You’re also constantly getting new and better gear. Levels start to get longer, enemies start to have more tricks, and your timer starts to shrink down. Timer, you ask? Many missions have a countdown that increases the threat level when it finishes. As the threat level increases, more enemies will join the fray in addition to the ones you’re already facing. This gives you incentive to keep moving and to always be on your guard.
It doesn’t take long at all to get through the game. A first playthrough, depending on your desire to earn top ranks, can last eight to ten hours. After that, you can work to up your ranks, level your unused characters, or collect hats. You can also start a new game plus with all of your unlocked characters and hats. There are also several difficulty options that increase the number of enemies as well as make them tougher. You’re free to try any mission on any difficulty you like, but it’s more fun to start anew and see if you can get top ranks on a tougher playing field. Either way, a dedicated player could get some serious mileage out of this game.
Short Attention Span Summary
SteamWorld Heist is a fantastic strategy game that gets high marks in pretty much every category. It has a great presentation, a unique and fun battle system, an almost perfect difficulty curve, and more than one reason to keep you coming back for more. This is one fans of the genre aren’t going to miss, and is more than good enough to entice those who don’t normally go for this kind of thing. Chalk up another hit for this ever improving franchise.