Format: 3DS Publisher: Nintendo Price: £30:00
Ah, the narrative concept of a Victorian era world fused with Sci-fi levels of technological advancement. A world which authors, artists and indeed video games have explored repeatedly. How then do you add something new to what has been explored before? Simple. By literally putting the S.T.E.A.M in Steampunk. Oh, and aliens. Lots and lots of aliens.
This is a bold game for Nintendo’s Intelligent Systems, developers of the Fire Emblem and Advance Wars games. While their credentials as strategy masters are in no doubt, this is the first game where they apply their trademarked top down, grid based gameplay into a three dimensional world, and combine their penchant for turn based gameplay with gun related action. By and large, it’s a combination which works well.
On each map of Codename S.T.E.A.M a crack team of four agents face off against an assortment of nasty invading aliens. While objectives and victory conditions are varied, basically you will be traversing the map blasting any alien you see, while ensuring that you don’t leave yourself open to a devastating counter attack. You begin each map facing overwhelming numbers of deadly enemies, and simply being aggressive will spell disaster. You have to use your wits to blast away your foes instead of your trigger finger.
Steam is the key to this dynamic. The amount you have in your tank each turn determines how far you can traverse, how many attacks you can use and whether you can counter any aliens that might get too close for comfort. Combat is a balancing act, where you have to decide how much steam you use, how you use it, and how much you keep in reserve.
To complicate things further you don’t just pick an enemy and blast it. Range and positioning are all crucial as well. Using the stylus you can aim your weapon on an alien’s weakspot for all important critical hits. By circling a foe without it realising you can stun it with a swift surprise attack. A feature which sets it apart from other strategy titles is the overwatch mechanic. If you equip certain weapons and have enough steam in your tank, during the alien’s turn you can automatically spring counter attacks upon encroaching enemies, putting a quick and pain filled halt to their advance. But of course enemies can do the same to you, and if you round a corner too eagerly you’ll find yourself getting blasted instead.
Fortunate then that the agents of S.T.E.A.M are a varied bunch. Each character has their own primary weapon, abilities and once-a-battle super power for you to utilise. Some of these primary weapons are pretty standard, grenade launchers for taking out large groups of foes, sniper rifles for distance kills and healing mortars to restore health. But as the game progresses these primary weapons get increasingly imaginative and wacky. Spring loaded boxing gloves ideal for counter attacks. Halloween pumpkin bombs that stun nearby enemies when they explode. Launchers that fire robotic penguins capable of ripping holes in buildings. Bizarre as this all sounds each has an effective, meaningful use. Each character can also use equip a secondary weapon to diversify their attack options or supplement their core abilities. These are unlocked as the game progresses, as indeed are new boilers which affect your steam levels and recharge rates.
The further you progress, the more diverse your options of attack become. Half the fun of the game comes from returning to old stages with new characters and weapons and testing out new squad combinations. Just like any strategy game it will take a while until you find the correct squad for the situation. The customisation options are a little basic, and there isn’t much scope to improve your character’s stats, but it offers enough to satiate your curiosity.
The developers have used the Silver Age of comics as their primary influence for the graphical style. While the art is eye catching, the graphics are fairly basic and the models blocky and disjointed. The aliens in particular are not that great to look at, most resembling a jumble of turquoise tinted blocks and jaggies. In some instances it’s hard to tell apart certain alien types. For instance, there are two near identical alien designs, one which fires grenades capable of blasting groups and another a sniper which targets individuals from range. It makes strategizing hard when you’re struggling to figure out what kind of attack you can anticipate.
The story and setting compensates for this. While it basically boils down to your usual over the top alien invasion affair, the fact that the agents are reimagined versions of characters from classic literature is a nice twist. You have Tiger Lily from Peter Pan as a medic, Queequeg from Moby Dick as a harpoon wielding power house, Tom Sawyer as a speedy scout and the Wizard of Oz gang packing enough firepower to do more to the wicked witch than just melt her with water. Not to mention you have historical figures such as Abraham Lincoln and Queen Victoria underpinning the narrative. Their characterisations are strong and intriguing, and hold interest in the otherwise basic story.
There are four more characters you can use in this game; four stars of the Fire Emblem series Marth, Ike, Robin and Lucina. However the only way to bring them into the game is if you are fortunate enough to have laid your hands on one of their respective Amiibos. This is where Nintendo’s critical under-shipping of these figurines really begins to bite them, as there are so few of these respective Amiibos around, only a handful will be able to access these characters.
The real question for the strategy enthusiast, as always, is does this game offer a decent challenge? The short answer is yes. There are many maps where you find yourself pinned down, facing near impossible odds and it takes all of your cunning to blitz through. You have to think through every step, because while a character being defeated doesn’t see them die permanently, ala Fire Emblem, losing an agent makes your job of winning the map all the more difficult. It’s a rare thing when a game makes your characters feel powerful and vulnerable in equal measure.
The one big issue is that some of this difficulty is down to cheap tactics, like continually re-spawning enemies capable of attacking before you even have chance to react. All too often you set up a defensive perimeter against the approaching forces only for another enemy to appear without warning and blast your plan to pieces. The other main issue is that enemy turns can take far too long, but a patch you can install from the off provides you the ability to fast forward through the enemy combat sections.
This is an experimental game that often hits the mark with pinpoint accuracy, but occasionally misses wildly. Its shortcomings are not game-breaking, and there is a lot to be enjoyed here for any enthusiast of strategy games, not just Fire Emblem and Advance Wars fans. It offers a sizeable adventure with plenty of replay value, and a decent online multiplayer too. Yet it suffers some teething problems. If you can look past the cheap tactics employed to make it more difficult, and how some of the content is locked away unless you’re willing to overpay for a Fire Emblem Amiibo, then you’ll find a unique strategy game bursting with new ideas and some fairly addictive battleground antics.
By Michael Foster