By transforming technological ships in outer space into saloons of the wild west and replacing human cowboys with metallic heroes, SteamWorld Heist manages to be a fantastic mixture of genres and styles
While some gaming franchises are perpetually stuck inside the confines of the same genre, something that is certainly not inherently negative, SteamWorld has built its reputation on a series of titles that are completely different from one another. The self-explanatory SteamWorld Tower Defense introduced the world to a desolated future Earth inhabited by steam-powered bots that tried to protect their loot from a degenerated and zombie-like species of humans, while SteamWorld Dig sent players towards the core of the planet as they uncovered the secrets of a deep mine that was set up like a big maze. Appropriately, and keeping such tradition intact, SteamWorld Heist ditches all elements from its predecessors – save for their universe and robots – and bets on turn-based gameplay that is centered around shooting, an unusual mixture that besides working wonderfully also lends the game a great deal of originality.
Being original is not exactly new to the SteamWorld saga, but Heist comes off as the culmination of a process in which Image & Form’s developers slowly gained more confidence in their product and, therefore, progressively felt more comfortable to tackle new ideas. Tower Defense approached a style that is frequently explored by smaller developers, but with a few curious twists in setting and gameplay; Dig used Metroid’s general structure as the starting point for the construction of something relatively new; and Heist dares to throw most influences out the window to create its own sandbox.
Just like the events portrayed in Dig occurred long after those of Tower Defense, Heist also takes a considerable leap through time. Hundreds of years after Rusty explored his uncle’s mine with a trusty pickaxe, the Earth has broken into thousands of pieces which have become mining colonies floating amidst the stars. Among the Steambots that have taken the role of space cowboys – struggling for resources, protecting those that are oppressed by an authoritarian government and dangerous outlaws alike, and looking to make ends meet – is Captain Piper Faraday and her crew. Thrown into illegality after refusing to complete an official mission that would have killed numerous rebels, she roams the outskirts of space in her ship, trying to hide and survive.
Naturally, as it happens in all games, Piper’s regular life of boarding the vessels of criminals in order to acquire much needed water gallons – which are essential for the Steambots – eventually stumbles upon a much greater thread that sends her on a collision course with the rulers of the galaxy. And so begins the action. Heist is curious not just in its merging of shooting – which requires that players find the correct weapon inclination so that the shot will hit foes – and turn-based movements, but also because it does all of that in a sidescrolling perspective. As Piper and her teammates enter hostile ships, then, a game of cat and mouse ensues: players must simultaneously move their units onto positions that will give them an advantage (and hopefully a clean shot at the enemy) during the next turn, and that will provide some sort of cover from foes’ lines of sight.
Smartly, Heist breaks up its big ships into various rooms of different sizes; a solution that makes battles extremely tense for two reasons: firstly, because its conflicts will happen in tightly enclosed spaces; secondly, due to the fact unvisited rooms appear as black shadows on the map, leaving players completely in the dark regarding their structure and how many enemies are in there until they actually dare to open the doors and enter them.
Moreover, the strategic value is greatly amplified thanks to the intricate design of most rooms, as they are usually multileveled – with lots of catwalks and ladders connecting them – and offer plenty of cover opportunities, explosive barrels, and other assets. That reality becomes even more impressive when one considers that most ships are randomly generated, a feature that causes some difficulty inconsistencies (as some setups, particularly related to the starting position of enemies, are easier than others), but that compensates such a punctual problem by considerably boosting the game’s replayability.
Broken up into three sectors and split into over thirty missions, Heist is a pretty lengthy game, especially when its price is taken into account. The twelve hours it takes to clear its campaign, though, are expanded not only by the randomized nature of its level generation, but also by a whopping five levels of difficulty – which can be adjusted at any time – and a rating that is awarded to players after each level is complete, with the number of stars received depending on how many team members made it out of the ship without being blown to pieces and on the full collection of all the loot scattered around the level.
Within the realm of its simple hide-and-shoot gameplay, Heist is able to find a good degree of complex undertones. As Piper advances through space, she comes across bars in which she can buy weapons (such as machine guns, simple revolvers, rocket launchers, and more), other useful items, and also recruit new Steambots. In total, there are nine unique playable characters, which belong to a number of different classes – hence being able to carry specific weapons, gain unique abilities when leveling up, and offer available slots into which utility tools like armor that increases HP, special grenades, and etc. can be equipped. Gamers, then, have, at their disposal, a flexible army that allows the construction of an incredible range of strategies.
SteamWorld Heist, however, does not soar solely due to its gameplay. Under that solid fabric, the game is able to build a world that is utterly fantastic. Image & Form combine various styles and artistic influences into one remarkable and cohesive setting. Most of the title’s visual elements have blatant steampunk inclinations, with that technology having great prominence in the post-apocalyptic scenario that is described. That look, however, pleasantly contrasts with the fact that these robots are still cowboys, as their demeanor is firmly attached to that of the wooden towns in the middle of the desert that served as the background for its two prequels. All of those pieces are, then, complemented by a vintage aura that is exhaled by Heist’s music and cutscenes, which seem to have come out of the 40s, giving birth to an awesome old-school wild-west story supported by steam-powered technology and starred by cowboy robots.
Still, SteamWorld Heist is held back by a few problems. Missions, despite being extremely tense and fun, have little variety to them, with most being focused on going into the ships, killing enemies or destroying a certain structure, and evacuating with gathered treasured. Likewise, boss battles suffer from some lack of creativity, as all of the bosses are more focused on summoning hordes of minor enemies than on presenting some sort of creative challenge that is considerably different from what is seen on a regular level. Finally, the limitations of the crew’s inventory and the harshness of the punishment for failing missions or choosing to abort them once one realizes their situation is hopeless are a bit extreme. The former is simply too small, and forces players to buy extra slots one by one for steep prices, therefore greatly reducing the variety of tools and weapons one can carry. The latter, meanwhile, eats half of Piper’s wallet, causing those who have been saving to buy the more expensive items to lose absurd amounts of cash just for making a mistake or wanting to restart the mission from scratch right away.
In spite of those issues, though, SteamWorld Heist absolutely nails its turn-based sidescrolling shooting. The unlikely combination of seemingly heterogeneous genres is matched by the equally wild mixture of artistic and visual influences the game drinks from, and – in both cases – the outlandish combinations are successful. Piper and her crew of Steambots are amazing characters, and the world in which they exist is as alluring as the tension-filled shootouts they constantly find themselves engaged in. Image & Form transforms technological ships in outer space into saloons of the wild west, replaces human cowboys with metallic heroes, and comes away with one astonishing game.