2016 has been a year for great turn-based strategy games. Both XCOM 2 and the new 3DS Fire Emblem titles were great additions to the genre, but a small indie title from Image and Form International AB deserves recognition as well. Adding the 2D side-scrolling flavor of Steamworld Dig to the mix, Steamworld Heist freshens the formula for PS4 and Vita gamers with manually-guided aiming, streamlined mechanics, and a great combination of writing and atmosphere.
An HD release of the 3DS title, in Steamworld Heist players control Captain Piper and her band of smuggler steambots as they venture through space to make money. Heist takes place thousands of years after Dig; robots have found their way to the stars, and the Royal Space Force regulates the spaceways with an iron fist. This villainous group of dieselbots subjugates the steambots at every turn, but there’s a more nefarious plot about as well: the RSF is working to take control of an ancient artifact that will give them even more power. Once Piper and her crew discover the plot, they set out to stop the RSF before it’s too late.
Watching the story unfold is both hilarious and engaging; each new crew member has their own distinct personality and style conveyed through optional conversations you can have with them as Piper onboard your ship. The universe of Steamworld Heist contains plenty of contraband and the types of seedy characters you’d see in the smuggling business, but the ships are also full of music and great art that somehow make the 2D ships feel fuller than they are, and the game as a whole richer as a result.
Of course, the game wouldn’t stand without quality gameplay, and Steamworld Heist has it in spades. Instead of the typical 3D overhead camera angle that most strategy games offer, levels in Heist are 2D cutaways of procedurally-generated ships, with doors providing fog-of-war blindness between cabins. Each mission calls for a different number of crew members, each of which can hold a main weapon, two pieces of miscellaneous equipment, and a cosmetic hat. When roaming the halls and confronting enemies, simply choosing a target isn’t enough: you must manually aim every grenade launcher, pistol, and sniper rifle for maximum impact. Since battles take place in closed, narrow corridors, opportunities about to bounce shots off of ceilings and floors, and special powers let bullets piece enemies for added effect. Though the bots may be machines, they still don’t aim steadily, making each shot a calculation. It’s a minor tweak to the genre’s gameplay overall, but it definitely kept me engaged.
Those looking for the tactical depth or intricacy of a Front Mission or Final Fantasy Tactics title may want to look elsewhere, but I appreciated the streamlined sensibilities Steamworld Heist offered. Each item fills a specific, easy-to-understand purpose, in most cases either enhancing or negating damage. Instead of combing through an endless array of crafting items and old equipment, players start with a maximum storage of 12 items that grows over the course of the game, forcing players to keep their inventories trim. Each bot has their own linear leveling tree, so instead of worrying about a bunch of customization, players can just use the bots they’re most comfortable with in each mission. Still, the lack of choice makes it hard to feel like spending the time to level troops you don’t frequently use. Sure, there might be a power here or there that you wish you had later on for one particular party member, but it’s not generally influential enough to make you double-back and grind. That shouldn’t be enough to dissuade you from playing, however.
Steamworld Heist is the kind of game that makes me glad the indie space exists: it takes the kind of chances other large studios might not, and they pay off. Cross-buy compatibility is great for Sony players, but be warned that there’s no cross-save function: gameplay on the PS4 and the PS Vita versions run completely separate. Besides the missing cross-save functionality and occasional feelings of missing complexity, Steamworld Heist is a great addition to any turn-based gamer’s library.