While Nintendo has produced arguably some of the most iconic characters and franchises in gaming, such as Mario, The Legend of Zelda, Pokemon, and numerous others that have filled our Game Boys and taken up our time on the Wii, truly new and original IP are always a surprise from the Big N.
Standouts within the last decade aside like Pikmin, Animal Crossing, Advance Wars and a select few others, the chance to experience something new from the same company that produced Mario, Link, Pikachu, and so many other classic characters is one worth cherishing.
In the case of the big 3DS-exclusive Code Name: S.T.E.A.M., at the very least it will be a much different experience than what the normal Nintendo fan might be used to.
Developed by Intelligent Systems of 2013’s well-received Fire Emblem: Awakening, Code Name: S.T.E.A.M. is definitely “original.”
Even on a system that houses an Italian plumber, an amorphous living pink blob, and air-combat savvy foxes, S.T.E.A.M. is easily one of Nintendo’s most intriguing offerings in quite some time, banding together a collection of America’s finest heroes in the fight for greater good against evil forces.
The premise may be a little out there for some, as President Abraham Lincoln (in his own presidentially-suited mech armor) assembles a team of America’s mightiest heroes from classic 19th and 20th century literature to fight off an incoming alien menace; hence, what the game’s title alludes to (“Strike Team Eliminating the Alien Menace”).
Gathering together the likes of The Red Badge of Courage‘s Henry Fleming, American tall tale legend John Henry, Peter Pan‘s Tiger Lily, The Wizard of Oz‘s Lion (no longer “cowardly”), and numerous other familiar faces, Code Name: S.T.E.A.M. is the equivalent of an elementary school history class team-up of The Avengers-scale.
As the name also implies, aside from its struggle between Henry Fleming and Co. against an incoming alien menace, the game is also heavily rooted in the imagery and stylings of the steampunk genre.
Each of the characters are decked out in gears and cool retro-future tech, levels adorned with pipes and levers all around, and of course the titular “steam” serving as the primary source of fuel and game mechanic.
As Code Name: S.T.E.A.M. visually and conceptually looks unlike anything that Nintendo has produced before, its gameplay and central mechanics also heavily differ compared to the “standard” fare that fans of the company have enjoyed for decades.
Taking the form of a strategic turn-based third-person shooter, the closest comparison many have drawn is Valkyria Chronicles with a dash of XCOM thrown in. This allows for players to control their characters in real-time but also use elements from strategy games to think through their moves and plan accordingly.
As each of the maps are assembled as a grid structure, each character has a set amount of “steam” they can use for movements, attacks, and other options.
With a party of several characters at a time, the meat and potatoes of comes down to planning ahead of where to move your characters, how to attack, and how to defend, leading to a satisfying cycle of switching between party members and making the most of each character’s “steam” levels before they…well… “run out of steam.”
Each action uses a set amount of steam, whether it be moving a character to the closest piece of cover or plotting an attack, leading to a nice variety of strategies that depend heavily on enemy placement, map layout, and which characters you have on-hand.
“Overwatch” attacks come into play as special counter maneuvers that players can use if they play more on the defensive side.
After players move a character that has enough steam left to pull one off, an “Overwatch” attack is set that will catch any enemies that wander into their eyesight and deal some nasty damage.
However, not every character has actions or weapons that can use Overwatch abilities, leading to additional layers of strategy and depth — not a surprise coming from studio Intelligent Systems.
As a premise, S.T.E.A.M. is the type of idea that should sour in the hands of both Nintendo and Intelligent Systems. Unfortunately, it does.
While the game provides a kooky premise — Abraham Lincoln assembling a squad of steam-powered soldiers to fight aliens — alongside a nifty combat system and strategy, the title is plagued by numerous poor design choices and, to put it bluntly (pun intended), loses steam as it goes on through a lengthy 15-20 hour campaign (at the minimum).
With combat taking place in turns, players swap between the members of their party and choose their actions, whether it be to move to a new space on the board, initiate an attack, or reserve steam for an Overwatch maneuver.
When it works, it works extremely well; figuring out which combinations of attacks to try and how to combo them in a way that other party members can take advantage of is genuinely strategic. This game is not afraid to be difficult right from the get go, and it is easy for characters to go down due to a poorly-planned attack or a bad maneuver.
While on the player’s side combat is exciting and makes careful planning a huge priority, when it comes to the aliens’ turn things come to an unbearably grinding halt in which combat slows down tremendously as you must patiently watch the aliens’ move around and coordinate attacks.
As an intentional decision by Intelligent Systems to increase strategy, it lacks an overhead map to be able to see all players, enemies, and more on the board at once.
This decision may makes sense on paper in order limiting what players can see to only what their characters can see, but in hindsight introduces a number of issues within the core combat system.
With character visibility limited to a certain area around each party member, determining what can and can’t be hit is often a case of taking a lucky chance and rolling the dice.
While the decision makes for tense encounters of carefully looking around corners for enemies in Overwatch, trying to get the upper hand and initiate an attack but being either too far away or missing entirely due to the limited field-of-view can be incredibly frustrating.
When combined with the game’s pretty steep difficulty, this makes it all the more punishing, as an accidentally missed attack can be devastating for the rest of the match, forcing a restart on that particular section.
Likewise, the biggest flaw of the combat portions of the game comes down to the aliens’ turn — without an overhead view, players are stuck mostly staring at walls or obstacles in the environment for several minutes at a time while the aliens make their maneuvers.
Though a counter at the bottom shows the progress of the alien units taking their turns, the process still can take an unbearably long amount of down time before they finish, on top of being unable to see (most of the time) what actual moves and placements have been completed.
While the dev team mastered this in Fire Emblem: Awakening by making combat fast, Code Name: S.T.E.A.M. instead feels slow and clunky, offering no options to either skip the alien’s turn phase or, at the very least, provide a feature to fast-forward or even skip the turns altogether and hop back into the action.
Intelligent Systems offered a combat system that is unique; even though the decisions in the title do make careful planning a must in every turn, the limited field-of-view and perspectives introduce other problems within the gameplay, if there perhaps a happy medium that could have been placed.
From its early trailers, screenshots, and artwork, the gae does pop vibrantly on the 3DS (even more so with either the 3DS XL or New 3DS XL), and even more shockingly, manages to blend together a wide-variety of influences and inspirations into a semi-coherent story.
Blending together its obvious steampunk influences with classic 19th/20th-century literature and its bold comic-book art-style, Code Name: S.T.E.A.M. does visually present a great-looking 3DS title, aside from some wooden character animations and bland enemy designs.
For all its entertaining cut-scenes and (surprisingly) well-acted voiceovers, the game never quite lifts off to anything spectacular, with a story that could have promised something wild and silly.
Instead Code Name: S.T.E.A.M. never fully commits to its zany premise and has fun with it. Its bland story and little character development squander some of the opportunity to play around with its particular premise and characters.
However, the game’s cutscenes and voiceovers still lend the game some fun to hear as well as see, in particular with the cheekily-voiced Abraham Lincoln played by TableTop‘s Wil Wheaton.
When revealed at E3 2014 last year, Code Name: S.T.E.A.M. was probably not quite the game that fans of either Nintendo or Intelligent Systems were expecting.
With its unusual premise and even more unusual gameplay, it still manages to pop as one of the 3DS’s more unique entries on the platform – well, until the next steampunk-influenced American tale of good vs evil comes around, but that may not be for a while.
Filled with a distinct art style and a satisfying focus on strategic gameplay, it manages to bring together plenty of influences and mesh them together surprisingly well — except gameplay-wise.
With Abraham Lincoln commanding the greatest heroes of the early days of the United States armed with steam boilers and super-powered weapons, any fan of Nintendo or Intelligent Systems should hop on board for the experience alone.
However, poor design decisions that impact the game’s main combat mechanics may make for a much longer trip than anyone could anticipate. Code Name: S.T.E.A.M. has the visuals and concept to go the distance, but unfortunately through some of the game’s more ill-advised ideas and concepts, it runs out of steam pretty quickly.