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Steamworld Heist is a turn-based tactical shooter out now on PC, PlayStation 4, PlayStation Vita and Nintendo 3DS, with Wii U, Xbox One and iOS versions coming later in 2016. Alan Stock brings you this review for Comiconverse.
Game Review: Steamworld Heist
Do you love pirates? Yes. Do you like robots? Well, depends on how scarred you were from watching Terminator as a kid. Do you like turn-based strategy games? Hmmm, well it is getting a little niche now… but if these things all appeal to you, you stand a good chance of liking Steamworld Heist from developers Image & Form Games. Apparently it’s the latest in a series of Steamworld games, but as a newcomer I can only judge it on my own impressions of the PS4 version. So, how do steampunk pirate robots fit into a strategy game?
Well, you control a motely crew of humanoid robots with personality in a universe where humans have vanished, leaving only their metallic offspring behind. Steamworld Heist exists in a Wild West/Steampunk inspired galaxy where robots eke out a living from mining, littered with bandits, evil empires and hokey saloons. The simple plot has your team roaming space in your rusty ship, raiding enemy vessels for loot whilst saving the oppressed from unhinged robots. It’s all light-hearted stuff, the game’s charming enough if you like the style, although the plot and characters are just a shallow backdrop for the main gameplay – the nitty gritty of turn-based combat.
A side-on 2D perspective has you controlling a team of up to four robots as you board enemy ships and clear them out room by room. There’s usually an objective to reach or destroy, and many missions are under a time limit. Reach each stage of the time limit and it’s not Game Over, but enemy reinforcements will start to appear in increasing numbers or powerful turret defences may pop up. It’s a nice way to encourage speed and efficiency and also encourages risk and reward – hang around to collect all the loot available and you’re going to be in more danger. Loot comes in the form of weapons and equipment, or water (the robot currency), which you can spend on, yes, more weapons and equipment. The game also has a strange obsession with hats, purely cosmetic, which you can shoot off enemies or buy and equip on your characters. Shops and bars are found scattered around the galaxy map, where you also select missions and have short conversations with plot characters.
Similar to other turn-based squad games, each of your bots can move and shoot once per turn, then the enemy gets a go. When shooting, the main innovation of Steamworld Heist is that you physically aim the gun towards the enemy, often over long distances – and as most guns don’t come with a laser sight, you are relying entirely on your own judgement whether your shot’s lined up correctly. Your bots aim wavers too so timing is also important. This makes shooting a lot more engaging than other games in this genre and requires skill for longer shots – also enforcing good bot placement to increase your odds of success. Bullets also ricochet, allowing for some cool bounce shots to get around cover. Ending a turn behind something solid is vital to survival when enemies are around. Although their accuracy varies and AI isn’t complex, leave your bots in the open and they’ll be scrap metal fast. In multi-level rooms, some floors can be shot through too, meaning positioning and considering where the enemy can target you from is important as well. These floors can be frustrating though, as cover can sometimes be hard to find with shots potentially coming in from above, below and either side.
Your team is made up of different specialists, such as snipers, close range weapon experts and heavy munition bots. You can add more members to your crew as you progress, if they survive a mission they gain experience and when they level up you unlock special abilities. You can only use these abilities a few times a mission but choosing the right time to deploy them can make a big difference in battle – for example a bot might heal team members nearby or have the ability to take two shots in one turn. For each mission you get to choose which bots to deploy and select their equipment, which adds some good variety. However, if you stick with the same few bots each time the others can get under-levelled and weak fairly quickly, discouraging experimentation. Bots can’t permanently die – they are resurrected after missions (at the cost of no experience gained), and if your team is wiped out you are penalised by cash, but can try the mission again, experimenting with a different squad and tactics.
Replaying levels to improve your rating is encouraged through the progression system – you earn stars depending on your mission performance, and some areas only unlock once you’ve earned enough stars. But here’s the thing, one of the core features of Steamworld Heist is that levels are randomly generated (except for a few key missions). This means there’s plenty of variety – even when replaying a mission it will be laid out differently – but this design decision has a number of flaws.
Firstly, you can’t see what’s inside a room until you open the doors. Then the whole room is revealed and any enemies inside become active. Rooms can be tiny or massive. Sometimes there’s just a few enemies inside, but you could have five or more to deal with and they pack a punch. Because rooms are randomly generated, you often end up in unfair situations where there’s not enough cover nearby to reach with your bots before the enemy gets their turn. With six enemies queuing up to attack when your turn is over, things can turn pear-shaped fast. The problem is exasperated by the turn-based nature of the game – you need to queue up all your team right outside a door before opening it, ensuring that they have maximum chance to reach cover or whittle down enemy numbers inside. Often there’s not enough safe spots to move your team to, or enemies are placed in locations where it’s impossible to deal with them. This wouldn’t be as much of an issue if there were other ways to deal with this vulnerability, but most of the abilities which could help aren’t unlocked until later in the game.
Secondly, some missions play out easier or harder depending on how the room generation turns out. Simply restarting a mission can yield a variation in difficulty. Not that the game is that punishing (except on Hard), the random generation and levelling up system mean you’ll always get there eventually, but it is an annoyance. Games like the XCOM series use random levels too, but in those you have more units and more tactical options at your disposal to deal with those situations. Here, for me, it doesn’t quite work and makes the overall game design and quality feel a bit loose.
Still, Steamworld Heist is enjoyable enough, if not outstanding. Although it feels like it’s mostly been done before, the style of the game and the aiming mechanic feels fresh. The main problem for me was I didn’t find it that compelling or challenging until at least half way through. At this point you have started to unlock the bot’s abilities and enemies become more interesting, making the game much more tactical. If it had been this engaging from the beginning I would have been sold, unfortunately the first part of the game is a bit derivative. Despite the levels’ random generation, they feel samey, with little variation aside from re-skins. Tactical options in the level architecture don’t really advance beyond a few minor gimmicks, and the tactical restrictions of the 2D perspective also hurt the strategy somewhat.
I think Steamworld Heist is a game that probably suits the handheld versions better than console – the missions aren’t too long and the easy accessibility is perfect for pick up and play sessions. On consoles the fit doesn’t feel quite right. Maybe I’ve been a bit harsh on this game – it’s a decent turn-based shooter with polish, plenty of heart and some satisfying moments, but doesn’t quite reach the heights of the best turn-based offerings out there. If you buy into the game’s character and are willing to play until the tactical depths become apparent, there’s plenty to like here.
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A decent 2D turn-based tactical shooter which takes a while to get going but gets a lot better once the tactical options increase. Probably best to get on handheld where its probably more enjoyable to play in short bursts.