Intelligent Systems’ attempt to step out of the conventions of the strategy genre is a mixed, yet pleasant, bag of successes and issues
An evil alien force is attacking the planet and it is up to President Abraham Lincoln to lead a team of agents on a mission to drive the intergalactic menace away from our home. That is a premise that, by itself, is already sufficiently outrageous and over-the-top, but Code Name: S.T.E.A.M. takes it a few steps further. Intelligent Systems, the incredibly talented company behind the strategic masterpiece that is the Fire Emblem franchise, tries to make it blatant that its new property is meant to be an opportunity for developers to step out of any constraints imposed either by the traditional bones of the genre or the expectations attached to long-standing beloved lines of games, and they do get their point across.
The journey of Lincoln’s force – appropriately called Strike Team Eliminating the Alien Menace – is depicted through comic book lines presented via cell-shaded graphics portraying a steampunk universe. The influence of the superhero magazines is omnipresent; the whole plotline and all cutscenes are shown via panels, with extravagant onomatopoeias and word balloons included, and they develop as if strips were being read and pages were being turned. Moreover, the action scenes and mission introductions exhale an urgent epic air that is closely attached to that sort of media.
As if that impressive blend – which is sure to put a few gamers off especially due to the shaky quality of the art style – was not enough, the work throws even more ingredients into the boiling pot of its thematic mixture. The President’s secret agency, which starts out as having a sole available combatant and eventually branches out to include other members that are found along the way, is made up of characters taken from American literature and folklore. Henry Fleming, from The Red Badge of Courage, is the leader of a group of agents that includes personages taken out of The Wizard of Oz, Peter Pan, Moby Dick, and a few other famous tales.
While commendable and intriguing (there is an incredible joy in watching Tom Sawyer interact with the likes of Dorothy and Peter Pan’s Tiger Lily) the general fabric, occasionally, feels disjointed. The references it makes are so broad – even going as far as including historic figures such as Queen Victoria and Ulysses S. Grant, not to mention numerous nods towards the oeuvre of H. P. Lovecraft – that sometimes the overall package comes off as random and unfocused, as if throwing various clever elements inside the same universe was all that it took to make it soar.
As a result, although its setting is indeed effective in making players get pumped to tackle a set of missions and watch the story unravel – which are its most important goals, by far – it does not succeed in pulling gamers into its grasp; its capacity to fully immerse is inconsistent.
Irregularity also hits the title’s gameplay. In order to deviate from the top-down turn-based strategy that the company deeply explores through Fire Emblem, Intelligent Systems opts – perhaps inspired by Sega’s Valkyria Chronicles – to keep the same grid-based progression of their main long-running saga and pair it up with a third-person perspective. Therefore, instead of having a full vision of what is going on around the map so that an optimal approach to defeating the enemy can be reached, players are restricted to working with what their characters can see from their current position.
Undoubtedly, some will be bothered by the lack of a map or overhead view, but the limited vision does wonders for the experience. Firstly, moving around becomes an engaging game of cat-and-mouse where Lincoln’s agents must advance towards a certain goal while trying to figure out how exactly foes are positioned so that they are not caught off guard by surprise attacks or traps. Secondly, the design of the terrain comes heavily into play as finding high vantage points and other safe corners from which a large part of the battlefield can be scanned becomes key. In a way, it could be said the third-person view gives Code Name: S.T.E.A.M. a whole new dimension – literally – to its strategic undertones when compared to Fire Emblem.
In theory, all those elements set the table for one rousing strategy game. In practice, the execution is uneven. Some of the stages are utterly brilliant and put the team in situations that require a great level of reasoning and planning from players. Others, which are fortunately the minority, feature little cleverness in their setup and choose to, instead, achieve challenge by endlessly throwing waves of enemies towards S.T.E.A.M.
The quartet of agents chosen for each mission moves through the scenarios via the steam generated by their equipped boilers, with one cloud of steam allowing a character to move one space. In order to attack, the enemy must be targeted and – provided that the unit in sight is within the weapon’s range – shot down, an action which will require a certain amount of steam clouds depending on the gun. As a twist, all aliens have glowing weak spots that, if hit, deal increased damage. Therefore, positioning becomes crucial because sometimes those critical regions can only be hit from certain angles. Moreover, given some foes have protected weak spots, it is critical to calculate whether the process of uncovering those and then taking the enemy down can be achieved in one turn since attacking a rival unit will invariably draw their attention towards your team.
It is not all about spending steam madly, though. Not only does conserved steam in one turn carry over to the next one, saving a few puffs makes agents go into overwatch mode while the enemy is moving. Thanks to that ability, if an alien crosses the line of sight of one of the characters they will fire away, which gives players the opportunity to set up traps and defensive schemes. However, the mode goes both ways, so moving around requires an extra level of care due to the fact that aliens on overwatch can fire and even stun one’s soldiers.
The battles’ greatest flaw is the length of the enemy’s turns. Although a post-release patch has reduced that time by a certain margin, players must wait between fifteen and thirty seconds to take control once more, depending on the amount of units the opposing side still has and on the model of the 3DS on which the game is being played. Even though there might be a certain tension in hearing aliens move around without knowing exactly where they are, the bottom line is the whole process of waiting that long to play again is bothersome and breaks the gameplay’s flow in a terrible way.
On the other hand, one of the game’s greatest aspects is its difficulty. It is far from being ideal for sometimes brutal levels that occasionally become hard in cheap ways, but whose brutality is alleviated by the presence of in-battle save points, are followed by challenges that are relatively a walk in the park. Still, since characters do not level up, players can never grind their way towards clearing a mission via sheer brute force; they must think about what went wrong and map out a new plan.
Coming to a different strategy goes far beyond distinct approaches in battle, as Code Name: S.T.E.A.M. features a total of twelve characters with very unique quirks. Each of those has a set-in-stone main weapon and special move, and an adjustable secondary gun. While some handle standard fire power (Henry Fleming has a riffle and The Fox has a long-range gun with pin-point precision) or bombs (John Henry launches grenades and Califia throws explosives that follow a straight trajectory), others go for a far quirkier arsenal, such as Tom Sawyer and his weak yet far-reaching Punch Gun, The Scarecrow and his stun-pumpkins, Tin Man’s steam-regenerating assist weapon, Queequeg’s Penguin Launcher, Tiger Lily’s healing gun, and Randolph Carter’s baits.
With that incredible assortment of options and setups, Code Name: S.T.E.A.M. features a good replay value that is further supported by collectible gears that unlock more powerful boilers, which can make some battles even harder to those who are looking for all of them ; missions that can be replayed with special restrictions; additional sub-weapons unlocked via coin-collecting; and best scores.
Although not as easy-to-recommend as a masterpiece of the caliber of Fire Emblem, Code Name: S.T.E.A.M. is certainly better than average. Not all of its experiments click, and some of its flaws have the potential to completely alienate a considerable audience, but to those who are fans of the genre and are willing to try something drastically different and that packs quite a punch when it comes to challenge, giving it a try might prove to be the unearthing of an unsung little pleasure.