Over the last week, I've put in about 15 hours into Code Name: STEAM, a steampunk turn-based strategy game from Intelligent Systems. As Intelligent Systems has proven itself before with games like Fire Emblem and Advance Wars, it's pretty easy to get hyped up about the idea of Code Name: STEAM. It's a new Nintendo franchise, from excellent developers!
While I haven't finished the game, I've put in enough time to get a feel for it — and so far, while there are some things I like about the 3DS, it's also one of the shakiest Nintendo games I've played in a while. Let me explain.
What It's About
Think of Code Name: STEAM as the American version of The League of Extraordinary gentlemen. There are a variety of different characters, historical and fictional alike, and they come together to try to defeat an alien menace that threatens to destroy the world. In practice what this means is that Abraham Lincoln sends you on missions with people like Tom Sawyer, Henry Fleming, and characters from The Wizard of Oz. Yeah, it's pretty goofy.
How It Works
Everything in this world runs on, you guessed it, steam. That includes your weapons — and this sets up one of the central mechanics of the game. Every turn, you get a set amount of steam, denoted here by little puff icons near the bottom of the screen:
Think of them like action points. Every time you move a tile on the map, you use up one puff of steam. Using weapons also costs steam, though the amount varies depending on what you're using. There are a variety of different weapons, ranging from steam-powered rifles to sillier things, like banana catapults that make your enemies slip and fall.
One of the neat things that Code: Name STEAM does is that it gives you the ability to undo your turn by retracing your steps — but you get to keep anything you picked up along the way, without actually using steam. Notice how when I move back, I use up steam, but when I walk back to my starting point, the steam replenishes? That's what I'm talking about. Even though the game is programmed to let you do this, it still feels like cheating — which is why I love it.
You will, however, use steam if you fire your weapon, or if the enemy ambushes you with an overwatch attack. The good news is that both of you can do overwatch attacks. The way it works is, if you end your turn with enough steam left over to fire your weapon, and if the enemy happens to run into your field of vision, you will attack them during their turn. If you're lucky, the overwatch attack will even stun enemies. It handles "overwatch" (and aliens) much in the same way the newest XCOM does.
Another cool thing that Code: Name STEAM does is that, instead of being a top-down turn-based strategy game, it's actually in third-person. You can actually aim your weapon, like so: Enemies have weak points, and if you target them, you'll hit them for more damage. Neat concept, but the new 3DS's nub actually makes it hard to pull off sometimes — aiming isn't smooth.
Each character has special attributes and abilities that make them unique. One character, for example, can break environmental objects that stand in your way. Another character boosts your entire team's attack power. Many characters attack in a very unique way, too. One character can use a sniper, allowing her to hit enemies from a long distance. Another character can leap over just about anything, landing on the enemy's head:
Yup, that's a lion. Not all of the characters in Code Name: STEAM are human! Other favourites include a scarecrow that can launch pumpkin mines, and a human that can launch penguin grenades.
Since you can mix and match equipment that also influences how much you can move, your stats, and abilities, the game provides you with a very satisfying amount of depth, too.
Mechanically, I love the characters. They're all very distinct from one another, and you can tweak them to your liking. But as actual characters, everyone is lacking. The writing in Code Name: STEAM is really corny, and it was hard not to cringe at what some of the characters say sometimes.
To give you an idea of what kind of writing we're dealing with here, listen to the opening theme song:
THE AMERICAN DREAM WON'T RUN OUT OF STEAM, NOT WITH YOU ON OUR TEAM!
Even if the game is trying to be cute, hours and hours of the Disney variety of American jingoism can get grating. It's especially jarring with characters of colour. This might very well be Nintendo's most diverse game yet — so far I've unlocked a black character, a native American character, and a South-Pacific islander. The native American character also looks like Pocahantas. The South-Pacific islander is based on a cannibal from Moby Dick. They're not the most progressive depictions of people of colour — the characters are entirely defined by their 'otherness,' by how 'exotic' they are. It's something, I guess...but it's still disappointing.
That said, absolutely everyone in the game is one-note and shallow. Really, you can probably ignore most of the dialogue and the story without missing much.
Code Name: STEAM might be one of the most difficult Nintendo games I've ever played. I think I died during the tutorial, and it only gets more difficult from there. The game puts a lot of pressure on you, by throwing enemies at you that can really pack a punch. If you take too long, the game will spawn reinforcements. I swear, I'm playing the game more defensively and tactically than I do in Fire Emblem with permadeath on — and this is that the game gives you multiple ways to heal mid-battle. It's kind of ridiculous, in a good way. I'm a masochist like that. In an ideal situation, I reserve about half of my steam for overwatch, so I can ambush enemies. Often, I beeline for the objective. Maybe it's killing a certain enemy, or getting to a particular point in the map. Anything that will let me survive a level. It's not uncommon for me to barely finish a level, with some of my squadmates dead.
Unfortunately, many of the gimmicks used in levels can be annoying. One of the early missions, for example, has you escorting the queen of England — and escorting missions are never fun. In another mission, I was funneled down an entire level of narrow corridors, making mobility difficult. While I did have to switch things up to win that level, it also wasn't very fun. Situations like that have been common in my time with Code Name: STEAM.
The Wait Times
One of the biggest problems with Code: Name STEAM is how much it makes you wait. Enemy turns take FOREVER. I sometimes had to wait minutes until the enemy was finished deciding what to do. Sometimes, enemy turns could take twice or three times as long as my turns. I often played Code Name: STEAM while doing something else, like reading or browsing Twitter, because I needed something to keep me busy while the AI did its thing. As maps grow bigger and the game throws more enemies at you, things get worse. Multiple times I've sat down to play Code Name: STEAM, only to lose interest midway through, because I was so sick of waiting for my turn.
GameXplain has found that if you hold down the select button, you can speed things up:
But a difference of one second doesn't really make a difference in the big picture.