After handing us a pick axe we diligently spent hours furiously burrowing our way through dirt in the surprise Nintendo eShop gem that was SteamWorld Dig. But, rather than produce a direct sequel, Image & Form’s business smarts has seen them cast their gaze to the stars to now send us on a more grandiose adventure in an entirely different genre.
SteamWorld Heist is glorious strategic perfection. Rusty’s plunderous excavation took place in the long forgotten past, and we now find ourselves in the SteamWorld universe’s very own space opera. As Captain Piper Faraday, your immediate goal is to lead a motley crew of steambots as you defend her turf in the Outskirts from the marauding Scrappers. With water resources becoming low, you must raid the derelict hulks that are similarly being targeted by the brutal thugs, escapades that eventually attract unwanted attention from the Royal Space Force…
Heist primarily sees players spend their time blasting from Scrapper to Royalist spaceship, accompanied by an ever expanding crew that rally to your cause. Turn-based orientation doesn’t dispel early enthusiasm, the pace allowing players to take as much time as required to consider their options. Each turn will see you take control of each of your steambots – an orange trail indicating an area in which you can move and then shoot, whereas a blue trail beyond this will let you run further but sacrifice making an attack.
Gunplay is never as simple as selecting an enemy and pressing fire, with players required to line up their shot as best they can and leave the rest to lady luck. That means Heist can be unpredictable at times but hilarious in equal measure, bullets bouncing off the surrounding environment to let you perform skilled trick shots.
With doors and hatches hiding what awaits in the next room, you will warily trek through the spaceships that you board. Tripped alarm systems can summon robotic reinforcements or turrets, so being cautious is often key to safely evacuating the entire team at the mission’s conclusion – with more risky moves resulting in the loss of a valued (s)teammate. There’s no perma-death to worry about as their remains are always recovered to be reassembled, but any lost companions will affect your mission completion rating. Reputation Stars are awarded for completing the mission, collecting every available Swag Bag or Epic Swag box, and having your whole team escape, which becomes an increasingly difficult challenge as you progress.
Preparing you for boarding, Heist presents you with a choice of five difficulty levels that will ease or toughen the gameplay experience for newcomers and more proficient strategic minds alike. While Casual will provide a gentler adventure, Elite is the polar opposite in making you preemptively fret about every potential mistake. Whichever you choose has a direct impact on parameters such as the mission failure penalty as well as enemy numbers, damage and health, with higher difficulties rewarding you with more bonus experience for a successful scavenge hunt.
Earning experience is particularly important, as you will unlock new abilities that empower your favourite characters. Passive health boosts and increased movement speed are expected help as the difficulty steadily ramps up, but characters are also rewarded with abilities that see them become enraged when taking damage, automatically healing a health point at the start of each turn, or becoming invulnerable for a turn while they draw damage.
It’s clear that careful consideration has been made to make each character feel unique, my favourites being con artist Payroll and fearless fighter Billy. Payroll rocks around on a wheel so moves further than other steambots, the Flanker ability letting him deal bonus damage if enemies are shot in the back. Whereas Billy excels in close combat, with his Filet-O-Fury and Vampire abilities letting him perform consecutive melee attacks that can also restore his health. As these abilities expand, they can prove to be game changers that help guarantee your success – encouraging you to revisit past missions to secure more perfect ratings.
Each character is also proficient in certain weapon types – categorised as Handgun, Sharpshooter, Assault and Heavy. Your heists will continually reward you with new weapons to gear up with, usually with increased damage and improved critical hit chances. But there’s a good mix – throwing in laser-sighted revolvers, wide spread shotguns, and rocket launchers.
There are also items to consider, whether that be repair boxes that let you heal during missions, power gloves that increase melee attack damage or grenades and missiles that let you deal damage in a wider target area. Your inventory will fill quickly, and you will be required to sell older equipment to make way for the new.
Characters can also be given the personal touch with an assorted hat collection. These can be shot off an enemy’s brow and then collected, and while only a cosmetic change the descriptions often made me chuckle!
Heist’s wide open galaxy is bursting with personality. Space bars are a frequent source of information and the favoured watering hole of new steambots-for-hire, notably being places in which songs plucked from Steam Powered Giraffe’s tremendously rousing soundtrack seamlessly blend with Image & Form’s intergalactic steampunk western.
As you soar across the frontier aboard the Déjà Vu – Faraday’s captured Royalist freighter – players are free to spend time interacting with their gathered team, with conversation readily peppered with witty banter. Away from Tumbleton’s confines, Image & Form score clear success here in breathing life – or water vapour! – into the steam-driven robots that inhabit SteamWorld, and making it such an intriguing universe to be in.
Presentation astounds, once again helping to immerse you in SteamWorld’s quirky world. Minimal loading screens see you board in quick succession, and the cast of characters, enemies and menacing bosses are especially well-varied in design.
SteamWorld Heist is nothing short of a tactical triumph for Image & Form, easily ranking among the best games to board Nintendo 3DS this year. Steeped in strategic depth, it is the highly characterised world that makes it such a sheer joy to play.