Captain Piper Faraday and her merry band of smugglers find themselves in a bit of a pickle at the start of SteamWorld Heist. For one thing, her raiding party is cut to ribbons during a boarding action on a rival gang’s space ship, but that gang’s rise threatens to bring the Royalists in to crack down on this region. So she and her rebuilt crew take on the Scrappers, and you have to wonder if these outlaws might actually end up being the good guys in this story?
SteamWorld Heist was quite easily one of the best games to launch on the Nintendo 3DS last year, garnering an awful lot of critical acclaim when it launched in December – our review was rather positive, too. Of course, just as with SteamWorld Dig, Image & Form were using this as a stepping stone of sorts, before bringing the title to PS4, PS Vita – where I’ve been playing it most – and Steam earlier this month, with further platforms in the game’s future. It looks great on the PS Vita, but it’s really when it’s blown up on a big screen that you can see the lovely art style that Image & Form have created.
Though they share a name and the same steampunk universe, SteamWorld Heist is a rather different game to SteamWorld Dig. The “world” has been shattered, for one thing, with water now the most precious of resources, but it’s also not a platformer. Boiling it down, you could describe it as a 2D side-scrolling riff on XCOM’s turn based tactical gameplay. Each mission only puts a small number of characters in your control, each of which has two action points to use on your turn, the first to move and/or interact with objects, and the second to attack, use an item or take a second move.
As an airlock door opens and a room on the ship you’re invading is made visible, a number of tactical options make themselves clear. You’ll want to move next to cover, so that your characters can hunker down and avoid damage, but you’ll have to be aware that both you and your enemy can fire up and down past the various platforms and levels, with a very vertical feel to some levels.
The key difference, and what helps to make Heist feel so good as you play, is that shooting isn’t decided by a roll of a dice, but by your skill. There’s just a hint of Worms about it, as you point your gun in the direction and try to time your shot with the light aim wobble, almost always aiming for the headshots that will deal a little more damage, or trying to pull off outrageously long range shots and richochets, possibly with the help of a laser sight. What’s nice about it is that you won’t find your gang of pirates missing at point blank range, unless you yourself have messed it up.
With portable gaming in mind, missions are relatively bitesized, even as you try to cautiously navigate the unknown ships before you. Again, tactical thinking comes into play, to try and avoid your crew taking too much damage and missing out on a share of the XP at the end of the level, but they can often feature countdowns, which spawn turrets and fresh enemies as a clever way of keeping you pushing forward. At the same time, enemies with shields, melee rushers and even boss characters can liven up the challenge you face from moment to moment.
Successfully completing missions earns you stars, depending on how well you did with the objectives and collecting all the loot. These tot up to give you access to new areas on the map and tougher missions, as well as letting you recruit more of the potential crew members that hang around in the bars and shops you can visit.
Early on, there’s definitely plenty of incentive to do so, to get a character able to wield heavy explosive weapons, for example, but it feels quite easy to get stuck in a rut of using the same characters and weapon types. I’ve got a handful of regular characters who are levelling up and earning new abilities, such as Piper inspiring those nearby to be more effective, Seabrass dealing more damage after taking a hit, or Valentine’s piercing shots. As they get better and I unlock and buy more powerful guns and gear to give them, I feel quite likely to try and stick with what’s tried and true. Of course, I’m far from completing the game, and there’s a fairly gradual build in difficulty early on that has me sticking with Experienced difficulty for the time being.
Really, it all comes down to that excellently satisfying gameplay loop, flattening the rejuvenated turn-based tactical genre to a 2D plane, but also putting the destiny of your crew in your hands, with the direct control over aiming and firing guns. That’s at its heart, but the bite sized missions make suit playing on a Vita or 3DS when on the go, just as well as sitting in front of a TV or computer and work your way through several missions at a time.