‘SteamWorld Heist’ Review

Platform 3DS Genre Platformer. Turn-Based Shooter

Developer/Publisher Image & Form Games

If we were to look at the turn-based shooter genre, we could probably identify a couple of characteristics. Namely, the camera is often situated at third person or top-down perspective, and chances of landing attacks often depend on chance. Developer Image & Form wanted to do something different with SteamWorld Heist, so they changed the perspective to be a 2D side-scroller, and the combat to be skill based. The result is a charming, addictive game that has quickly become one of my favourite from the 3DS library.

SteamWorld Heist is the spiritual successor to SteamWorld Dig. Rather than carrying over the same gameplay mechanics, the world is the connection between Image and Form’s two titles – and it’s a fun world at that. It’s a world filled with steam powered robots, known as Steambots. Whereas SteamWorld Dig told the story of a miner searching for treasure, Heist’s protagonists are cowbots – space outlaws who perform heists on other ships for loot. Captain Piper and her motley crew decide they’ve had enough of their kind being oppressed by various groups so they set out to put a stop to them and liberate disadvantaged Steambots. On their adventure, the crew visit space bars which are inhabited by lively characters, and bands that play music when the player walks past them. The story is told through dialogue boxes in-game, and via a few animated cut scenes visually reminiscent of early 1900’s news stories, and narrated as such.

Meanwhile, the in-game action is beautifully animated in a steam-punk aesthetic. SteamWorld Heist is a joy to look at, even when things aren’t exploding on screen. The same is true of the sound design. Gun shots and explosions sound great, and the sound of the metal Steambots running on metal floors sounds authentic. It’s particularly satisfying hearing the clunk of metal pieces falling to the ground when you kill an enemy.

At first I wasn’t sure the concept of a turn-based shooter in the form of a platformer would work well, but Image & Form have clearly put a lot of thought into the idea. As with other turn-based shooters, the player and the enemy take turns moving and/or shooting. Depending on the mission, you will control one to four characters at a time. Each Steambot can move and shoot in the same turn, or you can move twice and not shoot. These are similar mechanics to other turn-based games, but SteamWorld Heist stands out due to its shooting mechanics and map design.

SteamWorld Heist’s combat is skill based. The player has to line up their shot each time, so it feels more interactive than the mundane click, attack, repeat of other games. It also adds another layer of strategy on higher difficulties; do you go for the shot which will kill, or do you play it safe and take cover because you’re not sure if you can aim accurately enough? This question is asked during every turn, and makes each choice feel important as you toss up between attack and defence. Watching your cautiously aimed bullet fly across the screen to narrowly miss the head of an enemy is agonising.

Further, each character has their own abilities, which activate in certain situations. For example, Piper gains an ability that increases her attack power as well as the allies who are standing next to her. Meanwhile, Bea can shoot two rockets from her launcher if she does not move during her turn, potentially leaving her unprotected during the enemies turn, but dealing double damage. These abilities are unlocked by levelling up characters with experience points they earn if they survive a mission. Working out how the different characters can operate together is fun and rewarding.

Combat is made better thanks to smart map design. Most maps, which are the inside of spaceships have tiers of platforms, with characters using ladders or ramps to move between them. It’s possible to shoot through most of the tiers, so someone on the highest platform can shoot and be shot by someone on a lower platform and vice-versa. It adds another strategic element as you have to make sure you’re protected not just from either side, but from any enemies which may be above or below you. Standing behind objects on the map will protect your character because it gives the enemy less to shoot at. Likewise, enemies can hide behind these objects meaning you’ll have to have a more accurate shot. It’s great map design, with each level feeling dynamic as cover can be destroyed and most rooms are randomly generated. Finding cover will often influence how you move around the map, especially on higher difficulties when enemies appear in greater numbers and do more damage.

Another unique gameplay mechanic is the ability for bullets to deflect off walls and items. If an enemy is behind cover you can angle your shot off a wall to hit them. It adds a creative element to the shooting, and also makes for some great trick shots.

Sometimes you don’t even have to engage in combat to finish a mission. A lot of missions require you to collect loot and then evacuate from the ship. No extra experience points are awarded for killing enemies, so sometimes it’s best to pack up shop and leg it to the exit as soon as all objectives are complete. Of course, this could mean missing out on valuable optional loot and, consequently, not achieving a three-star rating.

Heist is not without a couple of issues though. Firstly, there is a huge difficulty increase during the final third of the game. Introduction of new enemies is wonderfully paced, but not so much when it comes to difficulty. I started playing on Regular difficulty, but then bumped it up one for the first two-thirds of the game and was progressing at a nice pace. However, I had to decrease the difficulty back to Regular for the final third of the game because the jump in difficulty was too much. I’ll definitely be going back to try to complete the game on higher difficulties, of which there are four, but it feels like either the number of enemies or how much damage they do in the final third could have been slightly reduced.

Secondly, there isn’t enough inventory space. Even when you buy more slots from merchants, you collect so much loot on missions that it fills up too quickly. Then the game makes you sell items when you are full. While it makes you prioritise which items and weapons you want to use, it meant I didn’t have as much room to experiment with different combinations because I had to constantly evaluate what was and wasn’t useful.

SteamWorld Heist is a great game. A wonderfully created world, interesting characters, unique gameplay and smart map design all combine to make SteamWorld Heist a joy to play. I honestly did not think a 2D platformer with turn-based combat would work, but Image & Form has put a lot of thought into the concept to make it succeed. There aren’t enough turn-based shooters on the market, and hopefully the success of SteamWorld Heist will be the launchpad other developers need to be creative with the genre.

The Good

  • Unique take on the turn-based shooter
  • Fabulous steam punk visual style and sound design
  • Smart map design
  • The SteamWorld universe of characters

The Bad

  • Large difficulty spike in final two-thirds of the game
  • Not enough inventory space

The Score: 8.5