As the third game in a burgeoning universe, SteamWorld Heist goes to show just what Image & Form is looking to accomplish with its franchise. While it would have been easy to develop another SteamWorld Dig, Heist shares enough in common to feel reasonably connected, but much more noticeably differentiates itself mechanically. It's a nearly unqualified success for all the reasons Dig was such a revelation, and establishes the "SteamWorld" name as one of flexible genre mash-ups.
Cowbots and Engines
Whereas the last game was something of a roguelike Dig-Dug, Heist successfully blends even more ingredients into a steamy stew. It has elements of procedurally generated dungeons, a turn-based strategic pace reminiscent of XCOM in 2D, RPG leveling, loot drops, and even the light puzzle-like sensation of planning a proper bank shot to catch enemies off-guard with a ricocheting bullet. As a result, it defies easy categorization.
Its story premise is simple enough. As a roaming Cowbot, you're the captain of a plucky (and constantly growing) crew of ne'er-do-wells and mercenaries. You fly about the galaxy, stumbling upon adventures and occasionally upsetting powerful factions by interrupting their plans. It's a concept that draws heavily from the cult sci-fi show Firefly, especially with the heavily western-inspired motif.
The missions themselves are somewhat randomized, though the story of a mission will dictate key elements like which types of enemies appear and where your goal rests. Your small band of mercenaries have a two-tiered movement system, the first allowing them to take a shot and the second for covering longer distances at the expense of a battle action. Once you complete the goal--clear the enemies, or disable a certain component of the ship, or grab some particular piece of loot--you're told to evacuate. Then you reap the rewards of loot, hence the "Heist" part, and move on.
Procedurally-generated stages are unpredictable, however, and that can lead to hiccups. While I generally felt stages were tuned correctly, I would very occasionally hit one that the dice simply didn't roll in my favor. I would die, lose some of my money, then try the stage again and find a much easier version of it had been randomly pieced together.
Characters felt fairly similar at first, but as they developed down their job types the differentiation became much clearer. By the end-game, I had particular roles for each of my Cowbots, be it charging into the fray with a shotgun and some hearty armor, hanging back to make a perfect banked shot off a corner for the kill, or clearing out multiple enemies who were already softened up. The constant loot and level grind makes each engagement feel rewarding, with just the right amount of strategic depth to match my current power level.
I did find it difficult to justify picking characters with more specialized roles, like a melee brawler or sniper, because the randomized stages meant I never knew if they would be useful. Instead, I felt funneled towards more general-purpose characters, with my sniper tagging along on the rare mission where we'd have room for a fourth member. I'd like to go back and develop those specialized members more, since I'm curious to see how their own character progression works, and that's saying something.
With so many characters, inventory management is something of a chore. Inventory spots are extremely limited, and it's expensive to buy upgrades that expand it. Worse yet, those inventory slots don't get freed up by equipping items on characters, making a constant juggling act of items. Simply having enough tools to equip on my main three characters with a few alternates for specialized missions meant most of the spots were eaten up all the time, forcing me to sell off equipment meant for the characters I used less often. The system discourages experimenting with all of your crew, which feels counter to the game's larger intent.
You Can't Take the Sky From Me
Still, the fact that I want to go back and grind some missions to level up my less developed characters speaks to SteamWorld Heist's longevity and satisfying appeal. Image & Form has another retro-inspired gem here, and has further established that like its denizens, SteamWorld stands for piecing together something great from a box of spare parts.
This review is based on a 3DS download code provided by the publisher. SteamWorld Heist will be available on the Nintendo eShop on December 10, for $19.99. The game is rated E-10+.