Out of nowhere Swedish game developer Image & Form has become one of my favorite game studios. I had a fantastic time with SteamWorld Dig, but perhaps like many of you reading this, I wasn’t completely sold on SteamWorld Heist, as it looked so different from the last game. I knew it was a strategy game featuring the lovable steam-powered automatons seen in the prior title, but the screenshots leading up to its release didn’t really excite me. In fact, it wasn’t until I finally got my hands on the game and spent a few minutes playing it that it all clicked, and I was amazed all over again that this game was made by such a small development team.
I’ll talk about the story in a moment, but first I want to dive right into the gameplay mechanics because this is where the game truly shines. At its core, SteamWorld Heist is a turn-based strategy game. You control a varying number of robots, each with its own attributes, such as: health, movement, firepower, and melee strength. Some of these can increase as experience is earned and skills are unlocked, while others can be improved through finding or buying new gear. Not all robots are created equal, and each will have specific training in the types of weapons that can be equipped. You will be able to customize individual load outs prior to each mission.
Most of the randomly generated levels will have a specific objective, such as kill a set number of enemies, take out the boss, or successfully grab some loot and make it back to the escape hatch in one piece. Each spaceship will have differing layouts, and many times the only way to discover where enemies are located is to open a door to reveal the next room. Doing so is a risk in and of itself because opening a door counts as your action for that turn, which means you can’t open the door and then also take aim and shoot at an enemy. Caution is always advised when scouting the next area. That’s where part of the strategy comes into play. Do you keep all of your allies huddled together, so that one opens the door, and the others rush through to take out any potential lurking enemies? Or do you send the robot in solo, keeping the rest of your crew safe from potential attack? Each sequence presents its own challenges, and you really have to think things through to avoid sending your automatons to the scrapyard.
What really sets SteamWorld Heist apart from other strategy games is the shooting mechanics. Inside the steel bellies of these spaceships are plenty of platforms to traverse and barrels to take cover behind. Both you and your enemy have a wide range of weaponry that can be utilized to blow up the other side. The really fun part is that the bullets can ricochet off of the walls, floors, and ceilings to deliver some amazing kill shots. Some guns will show the trajectory your bullet will take before pulling the trigger, so you can really dish out some wonderfully fun carnage. From revolvers to snipers to grenades, there’s a perfect tool for every enemy encounter. Your adversaries can also use the same techniques, so attempting to place your fighters out of harm’s way really contributes to the strategic element. Many times I felt I was safe from attack, only to be hit from a location I didn’t realize was possible. Indeed, I learned quite a few tactics from the enemies and turned the tables against them in subsequent turns. If any of your comrades should fall in battle, they won’t be awarded any experience points from that mission, assuming of course you still successfully get extracted.
You play as Piper Faraday, captain of the spaceship Déjà Vu. You have a small crew to start, but will quickly be able to add to your team as you gain the proper experience and funds to afford the extra hands. The story isn’t all that important, but you’re out to right the wrongs of the galaxy, even if that means smuggling and pirating from other spaceships. As you complete levels, your star ranking goes up, allowing you to access more areas of the map. You’ll regularly receive requests to help out various characters, and oftentimes get rewarded with new gear that will make you more powerful than before.
It must be said that the graphics in SteamWorld Heist are stunning. The art style is reminiscent of Dig, but with a more gritty outer space pile-of-junk-spaceship edge to it. Each character on your team has a distinct look and their animations perfectly fit their personas. The ambient lighting in each level looks fantastic, and little touches like sparks flying off of walls when bullets ricochet off the surface look great. If you headshot an enemy wearing a hat, you might just send it flying off the enemy, allowing for you to pick it up and add to your collection to wear on the next mission. Even the steam coming out of some of the characters looks fantastic, especially if you have the 3D effect turned on.
The audio is also a highlight of the game. I love the grinding noises of the various robots talking to each other. Early on in the game you’ll visit a space bar and there’s the appropriate twang music playing in the background, complete with vocals! I was surprised at how professional it sounded, and it really added to the believability of this Wild West robot world.
SteamWorld Heist is one of those few games released every now and then that’s a total joy to play. The controls work great, the story is lighthearted and entertaining, and the presentation is top-notch. Having the ability to go back and replay missions you’ve already completed to earn more experience is a nice bonus, and one of the rare times where I really appreciate randomized levels.
Really the only criticism I have is that it can sometimes be difficult to know how far your enemies can move. Many turn-based games will show the enemies’ area of attack, allowing for more strategic placing of allied forces. This isn’t the case here, but it’s a small quibble. The more I played the more I understood the various enemy types and eventually was able to approximate their mobility.
If you’re a fan of strategy games, this is a definite must-purchase. If you’re on the fence and not sure if this will suit your tastes, I say give it a try. It features multiple difficulty levels that are sure to please newcomers and veterans alike. Most missions are short and sweet, making SteamWorld Heist the epitome of the perfect handheld experience.