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SteamWorld Heist

Platform(s): Nintendo 3DS, PC, PlayStation 4, PlayStation Vita, WiiU, Xbox One
Genre: Action/Adventure
Developer: Image & Form Games
Release Date: Dec. 10, 2015


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3DS Review - 'SteamWorld Heist'

by Chris "Atom" DeAngelus on Dec. 14, 2015 @ 2:00 a.m. PST

SteamWorld Heist is a game about space adventures and survival. Recruit a team of ragtag robots to explore and scavenge the remains of a destroyed world. Board enemy ships and command your crew in a unique variety of turn-based combat.

Available first on the 3DS and later on other systems, Steamworld Dig was a hidden gem. It wasn't the shiniest game out there, but it was fun and accessible with a strong core concept. Its short length and lack of replay value were its only flaws. Steamworld Heist is not a sequel but a spinoff that takes the Steamworld franchise in a new direction. It might be a different genre, but Steamworld Heist shows that the developer learned some very important lessons from Dig.

Steamworld Heist opens after the apocalypse. A mysterious explosion destroyed Earth, separating it into floating chunks inhabited almost entirely by the robots who used to serve on the planet. Robots struggle to survive by mining resources from the shattered remains of the planet or, in extreme cases, piracy against the diesel-powered Royalists who run the ruins of Earth. Players take control of Piper Faraday, a Steambot pirate who is looking to make a name for herself. After a chance run-in with a mysterious group of reanimated Steambots, she's forced to gather a crew and engage in increasingly daring heists for a chance at profit and perhaps something greater: a true purpose in life.

The basic premise of Steamworld Heist is that it is an XCOM-style tactical shooter set entirely on a 2-D plane. You have up to four characters at once, with the number of characters depending on the stage, and you and the enemy take turns moving your characters around. Every character can move and act in the same turn, though they can sacrifice their chance to act in order to gain further movement. Characters can fire equipped weapons or use a special power. Weapons are manually aimed rather than targeted via a random hit chance, so you can reliably hit enemies if you're able to "eye" where your bullets will go.

Positioning your character near an object in the environment automatically causes them to take cover behind it. As in many games in the genre, positioning is very important. The 2-D plane makes it easy to understand when and where you'll get hit. All attacks coming at you from the direction of your cover will be blocked until the cover takes enough damage to be destroyed. Attacks coming from behind or above will get through. You can also circumvent cover by going directly up to it, which allows you to shoot through it as if it weren't there. Figuring out how to hit the enemy behind cover without leaving yourself vulnerable is a big part of the game.

The structure is a little different from traditional turn-based games. Every stage has a set goal you have to accomplish, which can involve killing a certain number of enemies, collecting loot, disabling a crucial system and so on. Once you've completed that objective, you have to exit the stage to finish the level. Each stage also contains a lot of loot, including at least one special Epic Swag item, which you have to collect. Finish the stage without collecting all the loot, and you'll lose out on Reputation. Since Reputation is necessary to progress, you need to do more than the bare minimum to get past levels. You're ranked on finding loot, finding the hidden Epic Swag, and finishing stages without losing a Steambot. You can replay stages to try for a better score, so you're not obligated to get it right the first time.

Steamworld Heist has various mechanics to discourage trying to hang out longer than necessary. Most stages have some kind of alarm system. Some alarms go off after a certain number of turns while others go off when you complete a certain objective. Depending on the stage, the alarms can summon enemy reinforcements, cause built-in turrets to pop out, or even force the base to self-destruct. On higher difficulty levels, setting off the alarm at the wrong time can end your run very quickly. A game over doesn't end the game but on anything but Casual mode, you lose a certain percentage of gallons (the in-game currency) if you fail or retreat from a stage. Gallons are pretty easy to recover, but failure does have a consequence.

You can recruit up to nine different characters in Steamworld Heist, and they represent a very cool and varied crew. Every character is pretty similar at the start, but as they gain levels, they gain new abilities. Piper, your protagonist, can inspire nearby units so they'll do greater damage, and she can also use a Power Shot for strong long-range sniping. Another character can fire two shots at once and powers up as they take damage. A third can taunt enemies and become temporarily invincible. Every character can gain 10 levels, with a new ability every level. By the end, you can have a melee-focused behemoth who darts from enemy to enemy, a sniper who can blast multiple enemies at once, or a bazooka-wielding ex-soldier who fills the screen with explosions.

In addition, you can customize your character with weapons and items. Every character can equip one weapon and two pieces of equipment, and the weapons depend on the character. Weapons come in a variety of types, including handguns, bazookas, shotguns, SMGs and long-distance sharpshooter weapons. While many weapons are basic, you can find rare items with stronger attributes. You can find a pistol that fires twice or a shotgun that shoots through cover, for example. Since the loot, like the levels, is semi-randomized, you'll often find cool items in random drops.

While most of the weapon types are fun, there is one that stands out above all others: sharpshooter guns. They're the game's version of sniper rifles, and they're an absolute delight. Sharpshooter guns extend a long laser sight across the map. Some are for short ranges but can be used after moving, and others are for absurdly long ranges but require an action point. The laser sights there are not straight lines. They predict and show the player how the bullet will ricochet, so you can perform extremely cool trick shots by bouncing sniper rifle shots off walls, floors and enemies. There's some sway to the gun, so you do have to aim carefully, but it's ridiculously fun to make a lengthy, complex trick shot from halfway across the stage.

The enemy design is also quite good. Enemies begin simply, but they get more complex as you progress. Early enemies hide behind objects and shoot at you. Later enemies spread oil across the battlefield and set it on fire, teleport around the arena, set up barriers and shields, launch seeking mines, and various other gimmicks. The enemies strongly reward you for using different characters and weapons. Sniper weapons are great for enemies with weak points but poor for ones who are heavily shielded. Bazookas can obliterate covers, and machine guns can kill multiple foes at once. The boss battles are fun and encourage you to use all your mobility, long-range sniping and explosives to win as quickly as possible.

Steamworld Heist is just fun. The combat is tactical enough to be enjoyable but simple enough to pick up and play for minutes at a time. The strong customization options and variety of character abilities allow you to customize the game to your liking. The inclusion of multiple difficulty levels also prevents it from getting too tedious. The default difficulty is a bit light, but the higher modes can be real brain-busters. Make a mistake, and you can lose a robot or two in a single round. Most of the levels are procedurally generated, which lessens the distinctive variety of the stages but helps keep them fresh even if you're replaying a level.

The only downside to the well-designed combat is the dumb enemy AI. It's logical that they don't need to be the brightest because extremely cunning enemies would render the game nearly impossible to finish. However, more than once, I saw an enemy attempt to shoot through an explosive barrel directly in their path. I was also disappointed by the fact that the last area introduces laser enemies who are less threatening than regular foes, since they need time to charge; it's very difficult to get damaged by them unless you're careless. It's less fun to defeat an enemy who blew themselves up or wasted their turn shooting a wall.

There's a lot of content in Steamworld Heist. The core game should take between six to eight hours to finish, depending on difficulty and a few other factors. There's enough in the story to motivate you, though the characters are largely forgettable. There's a New Game + mode that lets you start with all of the recruited characters, any cosmetic hats you've finished, and multiple difficulty levels that alter the strength and number of enemies. The game's $20 price tag is justified, and it's easy to get at least that much enjoyment out of it. The procedurally generated levels and variety of characters means there are a lot of reasons to replay the game after you've finished.

Visually, Steambot Heist is passable but not stunningly impressive. The sprites are nicely detailed but have simple animations, and the procedurally generated environments get dull pretty quickly. There are a lot of subtle details here and there, but nothing stands out. The soundtrack is a fun mix of atmospheric music and hilariously cheesy space-western songs. The latter play in saloons and when you defeat a boss, and there's a different tune for each, which helps prevent them from overstaying their welcome. The soundtrack isn't the best I've encountered, but it's a solid one.

Steamworld Dig was a fun romp, but Steamworld Heist shows that Image & Form isn't a one-trick pony. Steamworld Heist is one of the most enjoyable budget RPGs I've ever played. It's accessible, fast-paced and balanced. Only a lackluster story and some minor complaints about the combat hold it back, and neither is more than a minor blemish. If you're at all looking for a handheld take on the tactical RPG genre, you'll have a hard time finding a better example than Steamworld Heist. The $20 price tag might seem high, but Heist is enjoyable enough to justify it.

Score: 8.5/10

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