SteamWorld Heist Review — Strategy Among the Stars
To be fairly blunt, SteamWorld Heist was not what I was expecting. A spiritual successor to Image & Form’s SteamWorld Dig, Heist riffs the same art style, comedy, and timeline that its predecessor pulled off, yet in an entirely different genre. While Dig was equal parts Super Metroid and Dig Dug, Heist introduces turn-based strategy gameplay. But even with that said, the most surprising element was how much I enjoyed that paradigm shift, regardless of my love of SteamWorld Dig.
While SteamWorld Heist is new to the PlayStation 4, the game has been out for roughly half a year on Nintendo 3DS. And though this is a 3DS game, don’t expect downgraded graphics to match the handheld’s 400p display. Indie developer Image & Form have apparently spent the past few months upgrading the game for 1080p visuals to great results — for an idea what this looks like, check out the comparison gallery between the 3DS and PS4 versions below:
SteamWorld Heist‘s story is one of intergalactic conquest — following the events of SteamWorld Dig (plus a couple hundred years), the SteamBots have fled to space following the destruction of their home planet. The robots are in pursuit of one fundamental resource necessary for their life — water. In that life-or-death search, there are multiple factions that reside in the surrounding galaxies: the down-to-earth Cowbots, maniacal Scrappers, and facist, diesel-fuel Royalists. You play as Piper Faraday, a smuggler (and part-time space pirate) in her quest for riches and to spread liberty among the stars, with the help of an ever-growing cast of characters.
While the story, banter, and occasionally awful robot-based puns offer a nice incentive to progress the story, the true hook of Heist is the addictive gameplay itself. As mentioned previously, SteamWorld Heist implements a fairly basic turn-based strategy shooting system. Your characters have two actions per turn — one always consisting of movement, but the other can be spent attacking, using a special item or pushing forward a few extra spaces. After cycling through all of your characters’ actions, the enemies will be given their turn to effectively do the same.
Before entering the mission, you are given an objective — normally to collect high-level loot, or destroy something — which is your primary focus beyond simply killing all the enemies. In many locations, the latter isn’t even possible; following your turn, the level will create new enemies from an endless enemy closet. After completing the primary objective, an escape pod opens up to exit the level and return to Piper’s main ship.
All levels are graded in a fairly basic three-star system. One star is awarded for mere completion of the level, while the other stars require perfect execution of the level — gathering all loot, completing all optional objectives, and having no member of the team die in the process. As you can see in the image above, you need a certain amount of stars to unlock levels and paths in the game. The rating system is simple, yet effective — however it feels too “mobile ready.” While it matches the easily-grabbed mechanics of the game, I wish this particular component felt less boiled down.
The gameplay itself focuses on cover-based shooting. The team members you choose for each mission will have a selection of guns and explosives at their disposal, along with some special abilities. Most guns have the ability to ricochet off of walls and items until they hit either an enemy or destructible cover. Players have to manually aim each weapon, accounting for the projectile’s possible arc or wherever it may bounce off of. But don’t fret — these predictions, even without guiding laser sights, are fairly easy to direct.
By far, the most rewarding aspect of the game is the loot collection. Each level will have its own collection of randomized loot which will generate either water (currency), secondary items or new weapons at the end of each level. Having four or eight randomized pieces of loot to open often felt like Christmas morning, and generally gave me the motivation to continue playing “one more level.”
However, there is a cautionary warning about loot — it does become a tad unwieldy and difficult to manage at times. There is only a limited amount of inventory spaces available (with more being purchasable or earnable), so you are too often juggling and destroying weapons and objects. While this item management isn’t ideal, players can (for the most part) avoid this buildup by keeping that minor shortcoming in their mind from the get-go. If you aren’t using something, and don’t want to test it out on later missions — scrap it for some water.
SteamWorld Heist is by all means a “Turn-Based Strategy-lite” — in many ways it is the perfect game for those looking to explore the genre for the first time. Also, the graduated difficulty levels (which provide for extra loot and experience for each progressive difficulty setting) adds some difficulty for more experienced players, and replayability for those looking to dip into the game after beating it.
While I still don’t think the game is as successful or accessible as SteamWorld Dig, I applaud Image & Form for flipping the series entirely on its head while still being able to provide an amazing game. If you are new to the series or genre and want to try it out, SteamWorld Heist should be a no-brainer to pick up. Meanwhile, more hardcore turn-based strategy fans should be able to enjoy the interesting setting, light-hearted humor and graduated difficulty modes.