Burn the Land and boil the sea,
You can’t take the steam from me
SteamWorld Heist is, without hyperbole, the finest example of the turn-based tactical RPG genre on the PlayStation Vita. For those of you who know me – you know that I love my tactical turn-based action. I loved XCOM on the Vita, regardless of its technical issues, and I have been a huge advocate and fan of the Valkyria Chronicles series since it first launched on PlayStation 3.
In SteamWorld Heist, Image & Form Games have taken the genre and added their own flavour and twist on the archetype – and the result is something truly unique and wonderful.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. For those of you who don’t know, Image & Form studio struck gold (literally and figuratively) back in 2013 with their incredibly enjoyable title SteamWorld Dig. A fun little game that took inspiration from the metroidvania genre and mixed it up with elements of procedurally generated rogue-like games such as Minecraft and Terraria. The result was a winning combination and it could have been very easy for Image & Form to go on releasing sequels to Dig, adding minor tweaks and improvements here and there.
However in a move which puts me in mind of Drinkbox Studios, Image & Form didn’t rest on their laurels and instead went on to release two more incredible games that, although would be set in the same steam driven universe, would be vastly different from eachother. The first of these was SteamWorld Tower Defence and the second was SteamWorld Heist. And although Tower Defence never made it as far as the Vita – Heist thankfully did and it is my absolute pleasure to bring you the review of this fantastic game.
SteamWorld Heist is (as the title suggests) set in a beautifully realised universe that is centred around steam power. There are no soft and squishy humans taking up room in the game’s narrative, instead you take on the role of Piper – a steam powered robot who must traverse the galaxy, recruiting a vast array of colourful and lively companions in order to take on the diesel driven Royalists!
The main story in Heist is fairly standard as far as narrative arcs go and apart from one discovery that mixes things up in the latter half of your intergalactic adventure, it never throws any big surprises, twists or game changers your way. However this is more than made up for by the pirate banter (#PirateBants) you share with each and every member of your crew as and when you recruit them.
This not only serves to add some real depth and character to the universe, but also really fleshes out (metaphorically of course) your teammates. In fact I fell in love with some of my clanking companions so much I found I was choosing the characters whose personalities I liked the most to accompany me on missions, rather than the ones whose skills would prove most useful. I became obsessed with finding out about circus strongman Ivanski’s soft spot for ballet and loved listening to old Seabrass wax lyrical about his obsession with whales.
For anyone who has played titles such as Final Fantasy Tactics or XCOM then you are going to feel right at home when booting up Heist. In fact I think the simplest way in which to describe this game is ‘2D XCOM’, but without the threat of permadeath looming over your chrome domes. When playing on normal difficulty the biggest penalty you will face for a mission failure is the loss of 25% of your total water (money).
As the title of SteamWorld Heist suggests – stealing is the name of the game and it’s up to Piper and her scurvy space dogs to board enemy vessels and plunder to their hearts content. When boarding one of Heist’s many procedurally generated ships you and your invading crew will take turns with the enemy to duke it out (often against a countdown) and make off with as much loot as you can carry when evacuating the ship.
Similarly to XCOM your squad can move and then shoot/heal/perform an action before their turn is over. Each member of your team is assigned a predetermined class, which dictates what weapons and skills they can wield in the heat of battle. For example Beatrix is a sentry who can wield handguns and heavy weapons, and as such unlocks a very useful ability early on that allows her to fire a powerful rocket which deals massive damage. That means that if, instead of a rocket launcher, you wanted to equip Bea with the more accurate pistol – you are not left entirely without explosive support during your raid.
All of the characters have a vast array of skills both passive and non-passive that they unlock as you level them up. This not only keeps the gameplay refreshing and exciting as you switch up your tactics on the fly, but also encourages you to switch up party members occasionally to see if anyone has a unique helpful skill just waiting to be discovered.
The weapons and support items also feel great to experiment with and try out – none of your armoury ever feels pointless or just there as filler, everything you scavenge or buy has a purpose. A special shout out of course has to be made to the sniper class weapons. These deadly guns give you a laser sight, which can be used to pull off incredibly satisfying and devastating trick shots that would be near impossible to achieve otherwise.
The environments also deserve special mention, as they are the secret stars of the game. Each of the three main areas you will be exploring in the galaxy feel very different from one another and offer their own unique environmental hazards, which can act as a help or a hindrance depending on whether or not you’ve got your tactical thinking cap on. Speaking of which…
There is also a substantial (if slightly odd) obsession with hats in Heist. Most enemies you come across will be adorned in either a hat or helmet of some kind, and if you manage to shoot them off and collect them they then become available to wear throughout the rest of the game. Although they offer no bonuses or advantages to your defence, precision etc. they act purely as visual flavour. And nabbing a rare hat off of a particularly hard boss felt incredibly satisfying, especially when wearing it in the following level and feeling like a complete badass!
Finally – the music in SteamWorld Heist is phenomenal. Not so much for the score (although that itself is incredibly atmospheric, especially the very Mass Effect sounding ambient tones that accompany Piper as she sails across the galaxy map), but for the absolutely wonderful vocal tracks that are primarily heard whenever Piper stops by many of the shops and bars littered throughout the universe. Not only are the tracks clever, witty and often funny, but they also feel so appropriate to the world that Image & Form have built. Every time I entered a dive bar to mingle with the hive of neon lit patrons I felt like Han Solo sauntering into the Mos Eisley Cantina. It is such a little touch, but one that really gave each location a real sense of character and uniqueness, and I appreciated that to no end throughout my travels.
SteamWorld Heist is an incredibly accessible and challenging adventure with a completely spot on difficulty curve that made it a thoroughly challenging and satisfying experience to play through. There is great replayability to be had in the latest offering from Image & Form as you try to collect all the hats, get the maximum number of stars on every level and tackle new game plus with your tough crew of robots. It is at once charming, funny, tough and rewarding. SteamWorld Heist’s bite sized levels are perfectly suited to a handheld device, with colours and animations that vibrantly pop off the screen. Heist showcases a development team at the top of their game and I cannot wait to see where their vision takes us. To infinity, and beyond!