Steampunk and turn based strategy should go hand in rusty hand. The high maintenance of steam engines explain the limited range of action points. All those gears and their clunky movement explains staccato pace. Of course, Steamworld Heist is themed around intergalactic travel which is where things hang up a little. If water is as precious as Image and Form’s game treats it, (a substitute for cash to arm you with rocket propelled grenades and pointy armour) it must be ridiculous trying to get a steam powered space dreadnought moving.

It seems on the surface that Steamworld Heist couldn’t be further from I&F’s predecessor Steamworld Dig. Replacing solitary descents into deep mines in a Metroidvania are team tactics, building a well oiled team and have them function as an effective unit.
Yet there’s a common thread here of expert pacing and a wonderfully satisfying feedback loop that keep you going.

Unlike other turn based strategy games like XCom, or Invisible Inc, that inject stress and tension into the experience, harshly punishing bad decisions, and goading you into reactionary mistakes, Heist is a friendly game. Its difficulty settings, easily switched between levels, encourage you not to give up on a steep challenge, but what really eliminates a lot of stress and frustration is a sense of control.

The levels here are randomly generated, but apart from that, refreshingly little is left to chance. Hit percentages are out the window, a delight to anyone who positioned themselves directly next to a xenomorph in a certain aforementioned game, and still managed to shoot wide of the mark. You have free aim of your shots, taking  advantage of ricochets (especially wth the marksman class, which gives you a laser sight on weapons) and area damage with heavier arms to do your damage. Pleasingly this gives you a chance to inflict different status effects, with a chance of temporarily crippling your enemies with a leg shot, or dealing critical damage (or perhaps knocking off their hat to add to your collection) if you aim higher up. It’s a half step between the dice rolling of Firaxis or Intelligent Systems’ takes on the genre and the pseudo real time of, say, Valkyria Chronicles, and it feels slick, satisfying, and above all, fair.

Heist is available for consoles and PC, but Steamworld’s origins on 3DS are evident in some incredibly moreish pacing. The game saves constantly, but missions are also just right for a reasonable length commute, and there are always a couple of brief side missions to grind experience and loot on if you don’t think you’ll have time for a boss fight. Especially with reasons to break out the Vita drying up, Heist is an excellent one, and as much as it’s cliche to say, this reviewer legitimately missed train stops home playing. I honestly didn’t mind that much, since the added journey time meant I could play more Heist. The only significant drawback to Vita Heist is a lack of cross saves, though really if you have the choice, the game feels more at home on a small screen curled up on the couch anyway.

Ricochets are an essential part of play, and immensely satisfying to master.

Ricochets are an essential part of play, and immensely satisfying to master.

The reasonably brief stages closes the feedback loop. Steamworld Dig was very economical with player rewards, eking out time until you just felt bored with your current verb set before dispensing a new ability. In Heist, there’s an embarrassment of riches. Loot is so significant that experience is determined by completed objectives and the amount of swag you take from a stage, not by the number of enemies you kill. Each character has slots for a weapon and two abilities, from healing items to spiked armour that protects from melee attacks. You’ll be gaining new toys and new characters at such a rate that tinkering with your load put is a consistent joy. Knowing that better rewards come from higher difficulty levels also increases replayability.

The only let down from a team building standpoint is that characters within certain classes really don’t differ much in terms of ability or upgrade paths. As such, once you have one Vanguard or a Heavy, you’re likely to just min max that character by taking them on every mission and not bother leveling the other characters you gather. The only penalty for character death is reduced experience and a loss of currency; with no permadeath, a well rounded cast isn’t all that important.

Why recruit those characters in the first place, then? For one, they add some flavour between missions. Wandering around your ship between stages, you can chat to your crew or head to a nearby bar for more expository dialogue. The script casts light on an intriguing world, with different factions fighting over the former Earth’s resources after the planet was blown into fragments. It’s all smartly written and enjoyable, though very little of the story is in cutscene form, leaving you to dig it out, and making it seem less essential.

It’s the combat encounters that make you stick around. Its staccato gunplay is a sheer delight, and its enemies, and especially boss encounters, are wonderful tests of your knowledge and abilities. Steamworld Heist cements Image and Form as having design down to a science, while imbuing their games with a rare character.

KAIJU VERDICT
3/4 Pops: Exceptional  A significant cut above the crowd. Though flawed or otherwise not necessarily for everyone, it does things other games in the genre do not, or tries something new with a great deal of success.
PlayStation versions tested.
Review code supplied by Image and Form

About The Author

Gamer, Educator, Writer of Stuff, wrestler of professionals (sometimes)