The Steambots from SteamWorld Dig are back. Well, not the same ones, but the universe is. A lot of time has passed, their planet has been destroyed and these days they drift around in space as pirates or nomads. This is the scenario that sets up this little turn-based tactical game. We say "little", and that's merely a reflection of the rather contained and highly focused mechanics; the campaign is rather lengthy with three maps to explore, each with its own unique style of enemy. We won't spoil anything, but the last set of enemies mix things up a bit which forces you to consider alternative strategies.
This is Xcom only turned on its side, or perhaps a slightly more strategic take on Worms. As the rather careful captains we are, the campaign took us about twenty hours (sometimes taking a good while considering our next move, and probably leaving the device idle once or twice). You can switch difficulty at any point (you'll earn less experience on lower difficulties), and once you've completed the game there's a New Game+ where you start with all characters unlocked and any hats you've assembled. The game is more fun on the higher difficulties as your mistakes will be more severely punished. If you fail you only lose "water" - the currency used in the game - and while it is important to buy things it's not overly punishing as you can always go back to older missions to replay them for new swag, fancy hats (you shoot these off the heads of your enemies), and gallons of precious water.
Combat is deceivingly simple as you'll move your steambots around 2D levels to position them behind cover (if you're smart about it), while taking shots at enemy bots or sneaking up on them for melee attacks. You can either choose to move a long distance or moved half of that (or less) and take a shot, alternatively not moving at all and still taking a shot. Pretty standard, but you don't perform actions when it's not your turn, so there's no "overwatch" or similar. One of the main mechanics is the fact that bullets bounce off walls. This allows for some rather spectacular skill shots, but it also means that you'll have to take great care firing guns that feature friendly fire. To make things a little more interesting your aim isn't rock solid as the ships gently rock back and forth (presumably riding the waves of the infinite ocean that is space). This can be used to your benefit as it opens up more possibilities, but it also puts more emphasis on your timing.
Over the course of the adventure you'll gain access to an assortment of 9 Steambots, ranging from sharpshooters (who can use the extremely handy sniper guns with long laser sights), heavies, assaults, brawlers and so on. The character class limits what guns you can equip your chosen bots with. There are also two slots for each bot where you can place items - things like sidearms (adding a free, less powerful shot), grenades, armour and so on. There are missions for solo bots or with as many as four comrades to control.
One thing that we really like about SteamWorld Heist is that there is not a lot of stats creep. In fact each time you level up your character (surviving squad members gain xp after each mission) you only get one new perk or ability. This can be an extra hit point, or perhaps an ability or an improvement to an existing ability. But even towards the end of the adventure your characters won't have more than perhaps 12 hit points and those can quickly deplete with poor positioning (say, behind an exploding barrel, or immediately in the line of fire of a charged enemy weapon that cuts through cover). This makes for a game where each hit point, each bonus from flanking or a headshot (for critical damage), every one matters. And that makes a great move or a difficult skill shot all the more rewarding, and if you fail there is always a very clear cut explanation as to why you didn't succeed.
The tactical and strategic layers of SteamWorld Heist are so captivating that you'll have to excuse us for not getting to the aesthetics until now. But the beautiful artstyle is something really pops on the Nintendo 3DS, perhaps not perfectly suitable for 3D (we turned that off for the most part), but very pretty nonetheless. While there aren't a ton of cutscenes we did enjoy the retro stylings of the presentation. There's also great music to be heard. The Steam Powered Giraffe have provided the theme as well as songs played by a band in the various bars you visit during the campaign, but the regular mission music is also of high quality. It makes for a surprisingly cohessive whole, and the visuals and music both contribute that what is an incredibly charming premise.
It is difficult to find many flaws with SteamWorld Heist, but we would have loved more freedom as we explored the maps (it's a fairly linear progression, with only a few off-shoots from the main path), the conversations between the bots didn't grab us much, perhaps mainly as they occurred during intermissions on the ship, and the procedural nature could have been expanded upon as it felt like it mainly just shuffled the positioning of the rooms in each level.
If you're looking for an addictive turn-based strategy game like no other, look no further than SteamWorld Heist. It offers tremendous value as a downloadable title, and it's a great fit on Nintendo 3DS.
SteamWorld Heist is being launched first on Nintendo 3DS, with further platforms including PC and new-gen consoles pencilled in for release in 2016.