Intelligent Systems. Rarely does the name of a developer so clearly and succinctly offer an insight into their outlook and their strategy. Beginning life as an auxiliary-tool provider for parent company Nintendo, their focus changed thanks to the programming work of Tohru Narihiro, and the creation of his first two games; the original Fire Emblem and Famicom Wars. These titles exemplified what would become the developer’s calling cards, showcasing welcoming visuals that disguised deep tactical gameplay.
Codename: S.T.E.A.M. then is the latest offering from this legendary company, and it brings with it a more modern approach to the tactical genre that Intelligent Systems knows so well. It foregoes the 2D maps of its forebears, replacing them with comic-book flavoured 3D visuals, and marries them with gameplay that recalls SEGA’s iconic Valkyria Chronicles. The question is of course whether this new-found modernity has impacted on the purity that Intelligent System’s earlier work is renowned for.
Set in an alternative steam-punk past, players initially take control of Henry Fleming, a career soldier, and, as with many of the other characters, a literary creation, in this case taken from the war novel The Red Badge Of Courage. He’s joined by legendary steel driver John Henry, as they strive to protect Victorian London from an encroaching alien invasion. They’re subsequently rescued by President Abraham Lincoln who invites them to join S.T.E.A.M. – the Strike Team Eliminating the Alien Menace – and as you advance further in the game you meet up with an incredible array of characters hailing from Moby Dick, Peter Pan and The Wizard Of Oz.
All of the characters are fully voiced, with some serious sci-fi alumni lending their talents to the game. From Firefly’s Adam Baldwin to Star Trek icons Wil Wheaton and Michael Dorn, the voice-acting is excellent, providing all of the characters a real sense of being. They’re mostly all a well-presented bunch as well, with the bright comic-book-esque renderings bursting from the screen.
The title’s tactical gameplay takes place across various multi-tier stages which, as with other Intelligent Systems’ titles, are overlayed by a grid. Each character carries a boiler which provides them with a finite amount of steam, which players can use for movement or weaponry. They can carry both a main and a sub-weapon, with your arsenal expanding as you progress, as well as having access to a powerful special ability which can be used once per mission. The special abilities are often the key to success on some of the more difficult stages, though their single use means you have to be sure you’re using them at the right time.
Most stages require you to work your way through them, eliminating enemies on the way to the goal area. One of the key issues the game is that there is no map available, and beyond a brief fly-by at the opening of a mission players are left to work their own path out. Very often the goal is simply straight ahead, but in some levels, such as one where you’re seeking out frozen victims, you’re forced to meander in a genre that is more often about considered planning.
The alien antagonists are also drawn from literature with many of them based on the work of author H.P. Lovecraft, whose Necronomicon also plays a crucial part in the game. They’re not the most memorable of creations, mostly extending to the purple end of the be-tentacled spectrum, and I often had a hard time remembering what each one’s attack type was. There are some particularly annoying floating/flying varieties as well, who can act as target-finders for larger artillery-based aliens, or daze you when you come in range, but are either impossible to hit or hard to drive off.
Unfortunately, the purity of gameplay that the Fire Emblem and Wars series are known for has been muddied here, and whilst there are moments that reward tactical thinking, many of the levels can simply be beaten with a cautious approach, that is as long as you don’t mind drawing things out for an excruciating length of time.
It is indefinite when it needs to be absolute, so while your character can have run out of steam and be locked within the square they occupy on the map, you’re able to shift around that square which may or may not be enough to hide from your attackers. The red arrows that indicate when you’re within an alien’s field of view can be stymied by cover or buildings but sometimes the game seems quite contrary about what it can or can’t see, or indeed what triggers your enemies’ overwatch, making it at times feel unfair.
One of the key problems the game initially faced was the length of time the aliens took to perform their moves. Thanks to a patch that appeared mid-way through my time with the game, these periods are now much shorter, particularly if you own Nintendo’s New 3DS which can zip through them at three times the speed.
It doesn’t however rectify the fact that you can only see what your characters can see, with many alien movement phases trundling along without anything perceptible happening. Anyone who has played a Fire Emblem or Wars game will find that it makes it much harder to construct a meaningful strategy without being able to see the whole picture. Admittedly this makes it more realistic, but when you have a talking lion and a gun that shoots exploding penguins the point becomes moot.
Weapon shots need timing and aiming correctly, with each alien’s weak spot glowing bright purple and rewarding you with extra damage if you hit it. Some of them though, such as the tentacle-esque Lurkers that appear out of the ground, writhe in a pattern, making it harder to hit that sweet spot. When they’re damaged significantly they have an entirely different motion as well. It’s an interesting addition to the turn-based combat, and brings a lot of life to the proceedings compared with games where they just stand still waiting for you to hit them.
As with the majority of their new releases, Codename S.T.E.A.M. supports Nintendo’s amiibo toy-line, with all of the Fire Emblem characters being transferrable to the game. They make valid additions to the game, and though they don’t take part in the story, in the case of Marth and Ike, their close-combat nature requires an entirely different approach to the majority of the main characters. Those looking to use all four of the potential candidates may want to bear in the mind though the hugely inflated prices they’re now commanding, with newcomer Robin on sale for an eye-gouging £70.
The game’s Japanese release carries the subtitle Lincoln Vs Aliens, and in many ways the game benefits from the schlocky extra tag. The historical and literary figures, married with the silver-age comic book visuals make for an engaging world which begs for you to be a part of it. The downside is that the tactical gameplay simply isn’t in the same league as the developer’s other work, rewarding drawn-out, cautious play above any more meaningful tactics. Though there is fun to be had here, Codename S.T.E.A.M. disappointingly lacks the purity that made Intelligent Systems’ earlier work so essential.