SteamWorld Heist has never been what I was expecting. At its announcement I was expecting a follow-up to the superb SteamWorld Dig, a Metroid-meets-Spelunky-but-easier tale of a drilling robot on a water-starved planet. But instead it was announced to be a turn-based combat game set in space!
When I went to preview the game at GDC last year, I played what I was told was an element of the game, the ship boarding, where your robot space captain and her crew would take it in turns to shoot enemy bots and salvage equipment – it was good fun, and, I was told, just an element of what the game would offer.
So playing the finished version and discovering that, no, that was all it was going to offer was a little unexpected too. There was much talk of space exploration, improving your ship, and perhaps most of all, the enhancements offered by hats. None of its there, although entirely inert changeable hats remain. Engineers that took advantage of enemy ship components haven’t materialised, even having crewmates die and need to be replaced by new recruits isn’t a part of it.
But we cannot judge games on what they might have been, but rather on what they are, and I’m rather delighted to say that SteamWorld Heist as it is is rather lovely.
Here’s what you’ve actually got – Captain Piper Faraday is a lean, mean pirate robot space captain, flying her trusty rust-heap with long-time pilot Wonky. As you play through the prescribed order of levels, navigated through what’s essentially a menu presented as a space map, you take on enemy ships with pre-determined goals, perhaps gathering loot, destroying machinery, or killing a boss character.
The combat is taken in turns, but in a splendidly user-friendly way. Forget about action points and the like – it’s all represented pictorially, with yellow and blue lines drawn across the 2D side-scrolling levels showing you how far you can reach. Yellow is the distance you can go and still fire a weapon when you’re there, blue goes further but will end your turn. You’re going to want to choose a distance on either that puts you in cover, as enemies can spring out from behind doors, or after countdown timers expire turrets can descend from above.
Enemies are similarly restricted, each character or enemy type with different distances they can reach, different weapon types equipped, and different special skills to deploy. As your crew grows larger, you can pick the characters best suited to how you like to approach the randomly generated levels, and see how many of them can survive until you reach an exit.
Weapons are the game’s best feature, mostly aimed by eye, as you attempt to judge where you should aim for the best effect. If you’ve a shotgun with bullet spray, you might want to guess at halfway between two enemies for maximum damage, or with an arcing grenade launcher you could ensure it bounces off a back wall to roll behind a shield-wielding enemy bot. My favourite is the sniper rifle, which I keep in the hands of Faraday, that draws a line of its multiple-bouncing trajectory on screen, letting you take outrageously daft shots that ricochet seven times before blowing the cogs out of a robo-head. Making this more interesting are the gentle swaying movements of your team, meaning you have to judge the timing of when you fire as their arm almost imperceptibly bobs up and down – it all adds up to a really satisfying experience.
The better you perform, the more loot you gather, and the more of your crew that survives the encounter, the more stars you’re awarded for a level. Stars increase your reputation, opening up extra areas on the map (as well as cleverly preventing your going too far ahead into ships for which you’re not yet strong enough). Each level can be replayed, with a different version of the ship layout generated but the same goals, until you’ve perfected them for extra stars and loot.
Loot isn’t as complicated as I’d expected. Rather than upgrading weapons and armour, you simply replace. In a recognisable but simplified ARPG way, you simply look to see if a new gun offers more damage, or fewer restrictions, than the one each crew member is currently using, and swap out appropriately. Armour is stripped down to just vests, and these offer negligible extras, such as one more health point, optional along with other bonus items taken on a mission like health packs, bombs, etc. The only complication is your very limited inventory space to store your pool of items from which each crew member chooses – this is expanded by expensive new slots bought with the game’s currency, water. Don’t have enough and you’re forced to sell off some of what you’ve got to make room for new drops. It’s a clever mechanic that forces you to move on from older items you’ve kept just in case.
As you play, you chat to your crew to flesh out the game’s story. It's a tale of multiple evil factions attempting to control the galaxy in which you pirate your ways. There are Scrappers, mean mercenaries whose origins you must solve, the Royalists who serve the horrid Red Queen, and a mysterious alien presence lurks somewhere in the distance. Again, I was a little surprised that this is all presented in order, a series of defined levels, rather than explored by your choice of direction in the region. There are forks you can take for bonus missions, occasional side quests, but this is in the end a far more traditional design.
Which is no bad thing! But there certainly does come a point where you move on from forgetting ideas that had been suggested during development, and onto recognising when something could have been so much more at release. Just as most who played SteamWorld Dig wished for an endless mode, a way to keep exploring farther and deeper rather than being moved on to newer sections to progress through its story, I feel the same longing here for a broader, less prescribed game that otherwise plays the same.
Had the games bars been hubs - rather than dots on a straight line - from which missions were given and then completed by exploring the region, it would have felt a bigger, more open game. As it is, while immensely enjoyable, it feels needlessly restrictive in a way that’s hard to stop noticing.
That’s not to say it doesn’t evolve. As you recruit new crew members from bars (once your reputation is high enough to interest them), they bring different skills to your table. And levelling characters up (XP is shared amongst whichever robots you take on a mission (who survive it) provides them with new abilities that can also affect your tactics. Faraday, for instance, gets an Influence ability that makes other robots more powerful if stood close to her – it makes bunching up far more advantageous, although still very risky. Level her up more and she might unlock an improved version of this, letting influenced bots stand slightly farther away.
It’s also very pretty. With similar graphics to Dig (much more so than what we saw a year ago, which was grimier and less appealing), it’s bright and gorgeously animated. Oh, and there are loads of songs! Songs in bars, songs when you successfully kill certain enemies – this is not to be underrated.
I’m having a lovely time playing the game, keeping the difficulty at a level I find enjoyable. You can put it up or down for any mission, which is ace as it does become a little too easy on Regular after a bit. Pushing it up to Experienced means you need to play a little harder, and there’s still Veteran and Elite above that.
But I also can’t help but think how much more the game could have been with a little more variety. Perhaps it’s something to do with its 3DS origins, but it really does seem that with randomly generated layouts all the ingredients are there to offer much more meandering and side-questing than is here.
I thoroughly recommend it, for those looking for something erring much more toward the more casual end of the strategy world, the only region of the genre with which I’m comfortable. It’s bright, breezy, light and fun, and perhaps, after all, that’s enough.
Steamworld Heist is out now on Windows, Mac and Linux.