It seems like a long time since SteamWorld Dig landed on the 3DS. Almost out of nowhere, it surprised everyone with a mix of addictive risk-and-reward mining and RPG elements. The success of that game inevitably puts more pressure on the next game in the series, but SteamWorld Heist is very much its own game.
The immediate difference is in genre – SteamWorld Heist is a turn-based strategy shooter set in space, where you control smuggler (and occasional pirate) Captain Piper Faraday and the ship she is on. You move between locations on the map, boarding ships of both a friendly and enemy variety on your travels. As you go, you slowly recruit more robots and customise them – Image & Form have really gone all in on the RPG elements of Dig, with plenty of customisation available. This goes from your weapon to your equipment slots to your hat (hey, style is important).
The RPG feel comes through even more when you get into the nitty-gritty of the game. Turn-based combat is reminiscent of classic games of that genre, and Image & Form have done a good job at putting their own spin on it. Within a 2D plane, Heist is both inviting and also impressively deep. On the normal difficulty, you can blast through many missions with a surface understanding of the game, but if you want to get more rewards and even challenge the higher difficulties, there is a lot to get your mechanical teeth into.
A lot of this comes from the different members of your crew that you pick up along the way. They are all very different in play-style, and I personally found myself experimenting until I found a combo that I liked (which I took through to the end of the game). For example, Captain Piper Faraday uses a sniper which allows you to accurately bounce trickshots off walls, while Billy Gill the fish-robot is good at close-quarters melee combat (don’t ask how). The trickshots I just mentioned are a big part of the combat, even if you don’t have an accurate sniper weapon. The free-aiming combat makes for some crazy shots, and the levels and enemies are often cleverly designed to make you want to exploit these angles. Combat is wonderfully fast-paced too, as long as you enable the skip move button in the settings. You should take the time to enable it, as having the option to fly through enemy movements is incredibly useful.
The levels come in all shapes and sizes, and have loads of nooks and crannies to explore. Bits of cover, explosives, and loot are everywhere, coaxing you away from the main objective. This is where you can get more from SteamWorld Heist; the loot, picked up by simply standing on that space, can get you better items – but it can be at the risk of straying away from your crewmates and failing the main objective. Especially as the game gets towards the latter stages, these are choices you have to think carefully about. Part of this is deciding whether to sprint. Sprinting lets you move further, but has the drawback of not allowing that character to attack that turn. Do you sprint for the loot, or do you focus on the enemies?
The more you play SteamWorld Heist, the more the strategy element comes through. You start realising what pieces of equipment are best for the two slots each character has – health items can be more useful on the bulkier crew members, while heavy-hitting explosives have to be used carefully – and planning your movements in accordance with what is happening in the mission. Playing to the strengths of your different crew members and combining moves is crucial as you seek the most efficient way through.
Naturally, Image & Form have taken the world of SteamWorld Dig and kept the same visual style going for Heist. Set in space, there is the great feel of being in the same world as Dig, with some rather lovely cutscenes interspersed throughout the game. Boss battles are welcome too. These challenging fights test your skills every so often, and generally help to pace the game. The sense of humour carries over too, in both these cutscenes and also through little moments with characters – for example, one tough robot in your party who actually has a passion for dancing (yes, really). Talk to your crew – in a Mass Effect-esque manner – and you will be presented with some lovely moments.
However, the game is sometimes guilty of overusing the SteamWorld look. Heist took me a bit over 10 hours to get through, and for roughly two thirds of the game you are settling general issues in SteamWorld (I won’t go into spoilers). For this whole section of the game, the rustic, brown-dominated colour palette doesn’t really change. The non-hostile ships do break it up a little, with a friendly feel and awesome music on some of them (these are also where you can purchase some items). Even so, the levels and steam-driven robots facing you get very familiar, and it starts to feel a little stale in terms of gameplay mechanics as well as visuals.
So, there is a sense of relief when you get to the last third of the game and find a massive style change. This end section of the game takes the shackles off and introduces plenty of new enemies and gameplay elements, almost as if Image & Form were released from the shackles of trying to keep the SteamWorld look going. The result of this is that I wanted to keep going once I finished the main story – I was actually pretty sad to hit the Level 10 cap and find myself coming to the end just as I was really getting used to the RPG elements. This is when New Game Plus made a timely appearance, though…
As well as said New Game Plus, there are special challenge missions and also the incentive of 3-starring every mission in order to get the best items (not to mention the aforementioned higher difficulties). It’s almost greedy to want more from what is already a substantial 3DS eShop offering, but if that upcoming free content update included some more missions and/or a higher level cap, I wouldn’t be opposed to it. Anyway, that’s something for another day!
SteamWorld Heist has managed to put a distinctly SteamWorld spin on the turn-based strategy shooter. It is accessible, yet also has a lot of substance to it if you dig under the surface – yes I just made a SteamWorld Dig reference. Speaking of that game, it was no easy task for Heist to follow it up; this game should be given props for both keeping the SteamWorld name going and also being a very strong take on a different genre. SteamWorld Heist relies on its own steam, thank you very much.
Disclaimer: A copy of SteamWorld Heist was supplied by Image & Form for the purpose of this review.