For a company like Intelligent Systems, one that is responsible for a number of major Nintendo franchises such as Fire Emblem and Paper Mario, there is something very good about tackling a project like Code Name: S.T.E.A.M. Instead of dealing with the constraints naturally brought by traditional properties, which are expected to deliver certain elements, it frees developers to work far outside any kind of comfort zone; it stretches the creative muscles of a number of professionals that might be tired of working on titles whose gameplay pillars are well-set in place.
If the overall result of Code Name: S.T.E.AM. is to be seen as some sort of indicative of how shackled the brains of Intelligent Systems were, then one thing is for sure: they were pretty goddamn frustrated, because – at least from a thematic standpoint – this is as insane as it can get. The game brings together a ridiculously wide assortment of references and influences and tries to stitch them together to form one cohesive universe.
Here, Abraham Lincoln – with the help of other historic figures – is the leader of a secret agency tasked with defending the world from an alien invasion (hence the extremely appropriate and bafflingly direct Japanese title of the game, Lincoln vs. Aliens). Piloting a gigantic flying ship whose design resembles a stylized Statue of Liberty, he recruits a team of characters ripped straight from American literature and folklore to combat the rising extraterrestrial menace.
Henry Fleming, from The Red Badge of Courage; Queequeb, from Moby Dick; Scarecrow and Lion, from The Wizard of Oz; Tiger Lily, from Peter Pan; and others come together on a steam-punk cell-shaded setting whose lines and motifs were clearly inspired by comic books. One cannot help but wonder what kind of creative oppression could possibly lead to such a sudden wild outburst, but the bottom line is that the final result is mixed.
Occasionally, players will be intrigued by watching personages from outrageously disparate universes interact with one another and join forces under the same banner. However, at times, the whole fabric sewn by all these patches does not seem to work; the game is too random and shoots at way too many directions for its own sake.
True the game’s inconsistent thematic, its gameplay also alternates moments of sheer brilliancy with dullness. S.T.E.A.M. borrows a page from Sega’s stellar Valkyria Chronicles and embraces an ecosystem where turn-based strategy meets a third person perspective. Characters advance through grid patterns on 3-D scenarios, with their movements being restricted by the amount of steam produced by their boilers, while having no clue whatsoever of what might lie ahead.
Given there is no overhead map, navigating the battlefield is delightfully tense. Players must balance actions of reconnaissance – as they try to grasp how exactly enemies are currently positioned and how they can use the terrain’s setup to their advantage, while playing a game of cat-and-mouse against the alien army to determine which side will be caught off-guard and – therefore – have a huge disadvantage on one-on-one conflict. It is a exercise in setting traps (which is done by conserving a certain amount of steam by the end of the turn, hence allowing a character to fight back when the foes are on the move), avoiding being cornered by aliens, shooting, healing, working together, and slowly making the four S.T.E.A.M. soldiers head towards their goal.
Each of the available units – a group that eventually features twelve members – has a set-in-stone main weapon and an adjustable secondary arm, and that variety supports an impressive amount of strategies that need to be chosen carefully according to each map. While Henry Fleming carries a riffle, Scarecrow has a pumpkin launcher whose explosions stun enemies, Tiger Lily is a skilled healer, Tom Sawyer uses a wacky long-ranged but low-damaging Punch Gun, and John Henry specializes in explosives. It is a pleasant mixture of over-the-top weaponry with traditional firepower that provides gamers with intriguing choices whenever they are faced with choosing the quartet that will go out onto the field.
The gameplay, however, has two central problems. First, there are the infamous lengthy enemy turns. Even with the patch that works towards reducing their duration, they are still a bit too long and break the pace of the battle by forcing players to sit and wait for between 10 and 30 seconds depending on the quantity of hostile units that are active. It is clear Intelligent Systems decided to implement turns in such a way to give players the chance to observe – even if it is via sounds, camera tilts, or quick glimpses – alien movement in order to estimate where the foes are, but it is an option (perhaps caused by a lack of funds to optimize the code in order to allow those turns to be completely skippable) that is detrimental to the experience.
Secondly, the stage design is a bit irregular. Whereas some missions are spectacular, offering amazing challenges that must be overcome by strategical thinking; others feel lazy due to the fact they rely on endless and constant enemy re-spawns to achieve a level of difficulty that, sometimes, turns out to be exaggeratedly high in the worst possible way. When in the first group of missions, it is impossible not to feel like Code Name: S.T.E.A.M. is indeed a product of the same studio that put out the masterpiece that is Fire Emblem: Awakening. However, while navigating through the latter, there is an overwhelming feeling of frustration in the realization that in lieu of using intelligence to construct a challenge, the developers opted to mindlessly throw enemies towards the screen.
When looking at those issues, Code Name: S.T.E.A.M. comes off as a disappointment – particularly given the astounding pedigree of the company that is behind it. Yet, to those who are willing to make their way past its flaws, there are some rewards to be reaped along the way. It does not come through as a completely solid product, but it can be a good diversion, especially to fans of the strategy genre.