SteamWorld Quest will neither stun in writing and world-building nor make a run for the money of any RPG classics; still, it is competent, creative, and pleasant enough to satisfy those that are already converted to the franchise and lure in a batch of new fans
Through the various installments of the SteamWorld saga, the Swedish gaming studio Image & Form has found a way to tackle a myriad of distinct genres. More importantly, in bringing all of those disjointed pieces together as part of a single property, developers have been able to not just give them the same overall visual theme, but also place them inside a uniform universe. With the brand’s point of origin being traced back to a simple and charming take on the tower defense gameplay that was released as a downloadable title for the Nintendo 3DS, it would be no exaggeration to claim the line of titles has come a long way since that humble start.
After all, besides putting a rather unique twist on the Metroidvania staples and progression via the pair of efforts that form the SteamWorld Dig series, the franchise has also gone on to merge shooting, turn-based strategy, and sidescrolling action in the delightfully idiosyncratic SteamWorld Heist. As successes accumulate and the fame of both the company and its products naturally grow as a consequence, Image & Form seems to inflate in ambition, available resources, and flexibility, for with each passing project that the studio puts out, one can sense that the production values increase and the scope follows suit. Inside that narrative, SteamWorld Quest: Hand of Gilgamech appears as the boldest and biggest entry in the franchise until the point of its release.
A lot of that, of course, has to do with the genre upon which SteamWorld Quest was built: role-playing, a niche where some of gaming’s grandest adventures exist and an area into which not too many indie developers venture, perhaps aware that the demands usually involved with producing a notable work in that field are too elevated for their generally short resources.
Still, with their confidence and pockets certainly boosted by previous achievements, Image & Form treads into that dangerous realm and the world is slightly better for it, because although SteamWorld Quest will neither stun in writing and world-building nor make a run for the money of any RPG classics, it is competent, creative, and pleasant enough to rate as a worthy purchase to those who are crazy about the genre, as a must-buy to players who have been following the saga for a while, and as a warm welcome to anyone looking to debut in either front, qualifying as yet another success under the company’s ever-growing belt.
SteamWorld Quest: Hand of Gilgamech is only loosely tied to other titles of the series, with its main connection to its peers being the fact it stars a bunch steam-powered robots that inhabited – at an unknown point in time – the same universe as the mechanical protagonists of Tower Defense, Dig, and Heist. The adventure opens up with the telling of an old tale in which Gilgamech, a legendary warrior, fought and defeated a behemoth that – awakened by a dark relic – threatened to destroy the world. As time passed, though, the story of such victory and people’s admiration for the ancient hero grew thin, to the point that heroic deeds and bravery started being seen as concepts of the past.
One of the few who has kept these ideas in her heart is Armilly, an aspiring knight who lives in the village of Goosebucket and is often shunned by members of the local guild of heroes. After going out of town, alongside her friend, Copernica, to look for a batch of wild mushrooms, she returns to her home to find that houses have been set on fire and the whole place has been thrown into chaos by an army called the Void. Too slow to act, Goosebucket’s heroes did not do much to stop the destruction, and realizing those supposed warriors are more worried about carrying badges and squabbling than about figuring out the source of the sudden attack, Armilly heads out to take the matter into her own hands and prove her worth.
As expected, what Armily ends up uncovering during the nineteen chapters and fifteen hours of gameplay contained in SteamWorld Quest turns out to be a threat of historical proportions; one that despite not being exactly shocking in its twists or astonishing in the good sequence of events it portrays, does provide dialogues and situations that bring a nice touching level of character development to the main hero and, to lesser degrees, to those that join her.
Where the game fires on all cylinders is in its technical departments, which are pushed to unforeseen heights as far as the saga is concerned. Its visuals are gorgeous hand-painted canvases that brim with details, and the full extent of their colors, assets, and curves are finely explored as the protagonists are sent all around the land through towns, castles, bogs, forests, fields, and dungeons. Meanwhile, its soundtrack is music that is lush and well-produced, featuring great tunes performed with a wide assortment of classical instruments, a choice that is a surprisingly perfect match for a time period in the SteamWorld universe when the robots lived in a society that was very much medieval in technology.
When it comes to gameplay, SteamWorld Quest is clearly divided into two facets, exploration and battling, and it will not take long for players to figure out into which element of the pair the biggest amount of effort was placed. The chapters of the adventure, always bookended by a good slice of dialogues, take place in self-enclosed environments, which means that rather than having a fully connected immersive world, the game unfolds like a book, with characters being able to return to previously visited locations by selecting a chapter from the tome’s index.
Each of the areas where the story takes place is, in turn, made up of a large chain of rooms, and if there is one comment that can be made about the action that happens in them is that it is all quite simple. Firstly, because the hero that is on the screen is only able to walk around, use their weapon to break obstacles, or interact with a few objects. Secondly, because there is not really much in terms of discovery, for a map on the bottom of the screen always displays all possible exits a newly entered room contains. Yet, despite that straightforwardness, SteamWorld Quest does manage to keep gamers attentive since it has: a couple of dungeons and a few other segments that, although not complex by any means, do require very light puzzle solving; plenty of branching paths that invite the main party to do some exploring; and even a handful of hidden rooms that are hard but perfectly possible to find and that hold treasure chests with valuable contents.
All in all, even with those nice little twists in mind, what the exploration component of the game mainly does is play second fiddle to the battles that occur whenever Armilly and her friends come across a foe. When that happens, the turn-based combats of SteamWorld Quest are triggered, and in spite of how they develop in pretty much the same way as they do in other titles that go for that format, with both parties first being able to choose their moves so that, afterwards, their members can perform the chosen actions one at a time, the game gives those encounters originality by making them be centered around cards.
Like it regularly happens in role-playing adventures, the stars of the show form a large party of unlikely heroes, and a certain amount of them can be taken into each battle; in the case of SteamWorld Quest, there are five brave robots and – in most fights – three of them will be able to enter the fray. Also sticking to tradition, all protagonists possess characteristics that allow them to play a specific part in combat, with Armilly dealing mighty physical damage; Copernica being a witch with all sorts of elemental magical attacks; and other members of the gang having an equal lean towards certain roles, such as that of a healer. However, instead of displaying those inclinations via abilities, the robots of SteamWorld Quest show them through the cards they carry.
Starting with a limited deck, Armilly and her friends slowly expand the variety of what they hold, as cards can be acquired by being either found inside chests, obtained as a natural ramification of plot-related developments, or purchased from the game’s weirdly omnipresent merchant – where they can also be upgraded and items can be bought. In fact, the range of cards SteamWorld Quest offers is so large that there are over one hundred of them, giving each hero more than twenty moves to work with; however, in an implementation that greatly powers the game’s strategic value, only a fraction of them can be carried into combat, as the active deck of each bot can just contain eight cards.
As such, much of the fun of SteamWorld Quest and a big portion of its strategy lie in assembling the moveset of the characters, as they are – effectively – empty shells that need to be filled up by players as they see fit. The combinations are nearly endless, and given a single type of card generally has multiple units, gamers can choose to either add a few extra instances of their favorite moves to the deck or construct it out of entirely unique pieces in order to cover more ground, and between cards that deal damage, cause harmful stats, hit multiple targets, heal, or even have some weird combination of those effects, there is a lot to choose from.
It is not just in the building of the bots that the card-based nature of SteamWorld Quest’s combats comes into play; it also greatly affects how battles unfold as a whole. Randomly drawn from the joint deck of all heroes, in every turn players will have six cards at their disposal, and they will be able to select three of them to be put to use. A few details, however, make the choosing of which skills to deploy a very instigating affair.
First of all, if three cards from the same robot are activated, an extra special move – which depends on the character and on the weapon they are currently equipping – will be triggered. Moreover, a handful of skills become more effective if deployed right after a card from a specific hero. And finally, some moves – frequently those that are specially powerful – can only be used if the team has accumulated a certain number of units of steam, with one being generated after the usage of a card that does not have such requirements. Those traits add very interesting dynamics to the combats, making the planning and searching for combos as well as the careful managing of the party’s steam meter be constant themes in players’ minds as they think about what they will do in every turn, particularly during encounters against bosses, where those elements can be the difference between victory and defeat.
Despite the very obvious successes found in the battle system, which has the potential to make every run through the quest entirely different, it is also in that area where a few of the game’s issues find their home. For starters, although there is good variety in the foes and bosses players will bump into, at no point whatsoever will gamers be truly pushed to alter their deck so that it is better suited to take down the enemies of a specific area or chapter. Surely, there are bad guys that are immune to certain stats, particular elements, or physical blows; likewise, while some of them specialize in dealing damage, others have a clear focus on slowly disabling the heroic bots via poison, paralysis, confusion, and other tricks.
Nevertheless, if one has landed on a relatively solid deck, they will be rarely pushed into incorporating new pieces into it unless they feel like doing so. The value in the title’s massive rage of cards is also somewhat harmed by the way battles work, because some of the moves turn out to be ideal for situations that are so peculiar that selecting them as part of a character’s deck becomes problematic; after all, since cards are randomly drawn from the stack of the whole party, sometimes the scenario in which more specialized skills would be ideal will come only for them not to be available for use.
Still, those flaws are clearly not enough to dent SteamWorld Quest, not only because they are rather small, but also due to how the adventure is very well-designed on all fronts. Its difficulty is balanced, with no grinding ever being necessary, and the game offers three different levels of challenge which can be selected when the story kicks off and also be altered at any time during the journey, a measure that will make the experience accessible and satisfying to just about anyone.
In addition, the title’s save points are carefully positioned, always directly preceding major battles and appearing with enough frequency so that not a lot of progress is lost if the whole party falls while in combat; as an added twist, saving and restoring the health of the heroes will cause all of the area’s enemies to immediately re-spawn, a decision that will certainly lead players to consider whether they should make use of the mid-chapter checkpoints or keep on trekking without registering their advances and healing everyone. At last, those that want to squeeze as many hours out of SteamWorld Quest as possible can, besides replaying the adventure by using new decks, trying other difficulties, or looking for all chests, enter the Colosseum of the Cursed, a battle-based challenge that includes ten cups – with multiple rounds each – that get increasingly brutal as the protagonists go through them.
SteamWorld Quest: Hand of Gilgamech ends up being pleasantly enjoyable as a whole, displaying a good deal of competence in the building of all parts that constitute it. It is true that, when all of these elements come together, what is formed is an experience that – inside the RPG genre – does not quite produce ripples as strong as those generated by Dig and Heist in their respective niches, which makes the game’s overall impact feel somewhat subdued in relation to those caused by its peers.
Nonetheless, even if it does not put a fight against the major actors of the role-playing field, SteamWorld Quest qualifies as another successful venture by Image & Form, because its plot flows nicely and stars likable heroes; its technical features exhibit a quality in production that feels like a new frontier for the SteamWorld property; and its card-based battling mechanics are original and flexible. Due to that, regardless of how it does not possess the makings of one of those special indie efforts that challenge products made by much larger companies, SteamWorld Quest is likely to satisfy those that are already converted to the franchise and lure in a batch of new fans.