The adorable Steambots enter a brand new era and genre, as we paid Image & Form a visit to test their next entry in the SteamWorld franchise.
It's easy to fall head over heels for the SteamWorld games and that's no secret. The first SteamWorld Dig had us spellbound from the start, and we finished the game in our first sitting and didn't even blink before jumping into the next playthrough. The second SteamWorld Dig took the concept to new levels, and we've played SteamWorld Heist across a multitude of platforms as it steadily made its way onto new devices after the initial 3DS release. They're all solid games with a wonderful sense of humour and fantastic design, and they're easy to pick up and play and lose yourself in.
With that in mind, we recently visited Gothenburg-based publisher Thunderful Games (Image & Form and Zoink's joint publishing house) to check out their upcoming slate of titles. The publisher recently picked up Rising Star Games, so there are quite a few titles in the pipeline apart from the ones developed in-house, but the game we were most excited about was without a doubt SteamWorld Quest: Hand of Gilgamech.
First, we got steam-powered robots with a Western feel with Rusty and Dorothy in the Dig titles (well, technically first we got a tower defence title released via DSiWare, but that one is a bit obscure even for SteamWorld fans). Then we got acquainted with a space scenario and pirate captain Piper Faraday in the rather excellent SteamWorld Heist. Two very different experiences, still yet housed within the same cohesive style with the same brand of charm and humour. We're not alone in having eagerly awaited what would come next from Image & Form after SteamWorld Dig 2 released in 2017 and we shouldn't be surprised the studio is taking us to a new era and a new genre once again. SteamWorld Quest: Hand of Gilgamech places the Steambots in a fantasy realm and judging by what we've played so far, it's a wonderful expansion of the SteamWorld universe.
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From spelunking, via turn-based 2D strategy, we've now landed in a role-playing game and in many ways SteamWorld Quest: Hand of Gilgamech is a very traditional turn-based RPG. But still, it manages to come up with its own unique twist. Image & Form has chosen to mix the turn-based battles with a card system - think Hearthstone and Gwent. This time we're not dealing with a classic board where you draw and place cards, instead the focus is still on the characters you manage, however, their abilities are dedicated by the cards you use and so deck-building is a big part of the experience as it offers you a great deal of control.
The combat can be compared to something like Paper Mario, even if this is a more nuanced game and perhaps it's best described as a typical turn-based JRPG without all of the Japanese quirks. During our session with the game we understandably didn't have enough time to truly explore the card system (we played an early portion of the game), but in total there will be more than 100 cards and most likely these will allow for some truly humourous situations as you explore how they're best used.
The turn-based battles are divided between the three characters you've picked for your party, their specific cards, and naturally the enemy you're facing. It works out pretty much as you'd expect; different cards have different properties and have both offensive and defensive variants, making the right choice on what card to play (and trying to predict what happens a few moves ahead) is of strategic importance. The three bots that were playable in the demo had their own unique cards that reflected their archetype; one was your typical knight character, while another was a mage.
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You also have a set number of cards on hand and you don't necessarily need to play one card per character (they are colour-coded for easy association), but you can choose to play three of the mage's cards. If you do this you get awarded with a bonus that simply adds an extra card to your turn. On the rare occasions we managed this we were rewarded by an existing card but with added benefits. For instance, the original ability would have created a defensive shield for one character, now instead it extended to all three. The system feels pretty neat, and to successfully orchestrate spectacular card tricks to end particularly pesky enemies is something that holds a great deal of promise.
It may seem odd to squeeze in the lovable Steambots in a fantasy world and make it feel completely natural - but it's not. Image & Form proves once more that their design is so flexible and unique that it simply works. The hand-drawn backgrounds marry incredibly well with the character design and much as the case was with SteamWorld Dig 2 and SteamWorld Heist, we find ourselves mesmerised by the tiny environmental details, the characters, and the overall design. Just the detail that the cards themselves are modelled after old punch cards (an ancient way of providing automated machines with commands) and the holes in these differ depending on the kind of card speaks volumes about the amount of thought that's gone into the design. This is accompanied by the surefire humour that's characterised the franchise, and based on what we've experienced it continues along the same lines here. Fun word puns, cryptic references, and classic bot comedy are mixed up with the fantasy theme; we're confident it will deliver plenty of laughs when it launches.
As we expressed in the opening, it's easy to fall in love with SteamWorld. We're not quite sure how the studio pulls it off every time; it's probably not down to any one single component. The mix of ingredients, the design, the comedy, the playability, and the attention to detail along with the genre switches make for a series that comes across as brand new yet it's accessible and familiar at the same time. Even if SteamWorld Dig 3 would have been the safe card to play, it feels as if Image & Form may be sitting on a royal flush with SteamWorld Quest: Hand of Gilgamech, and we're eager to see how it all plays out.