The best way to follow up your award-winning post-apocalyptic mining adventure game with a highly-addictive gameplay loop is to make a game that’s an award-winning post-apocalyptic strategy game set beyond the first post-apocalyptic world with an equally addictive gameplay loop.
SteamWorld Heist is the unconventional follow-up to SteamWorld Dig, a game that came as if from out of nowhere and charmed the living hell out of gamers everywhere with its steampunk-cum-western story about a robot who takes over his uncle’s claim, only to find a larger adventure as to what’s really been going on underground. Flash forward a few millennia and this world built upon the remains of humanity’s stupidity has blown itself up as well, stranding the cowbots in space. People are scraping by, trying to scour water in order to survive in a world that’s dominated by a regime of diesel-fueled automatons. This is where we find our ragtag band of ne’er-do-wells, led by Captain Piper Faraday, trying to eke out a living in the midst of oppression. Much like Rusty from Dig, things aren’t as they first appear.
It’s an interesting progression system that seems similar at first blush, but fleshes itself out with more answers and a satisfying conclusion. However, plot is only part of the compulsion of SteamWorld Heist; the gameplay, even as disparate as it is from Dig, has an equally brilliant flow of completing capers, finding new crew members and upgrading/outfitting your party.
While Dig touted its randomly generated mines, it didn’t amount to a whole lot beyond loose superficial differences in subsequent playthroughs. In Heist, each new ship you board will for the most part have different layouts that are distinguishable, making repeat plays feel markedly different. The game feels equal parts Worms and Fire Emblem, with you moving and playing your pawns in different areas or behind cover in the hopes of finding an advantageous position. When you’re ready to attack you have to manually aim at your target and hope your angle is fair. The satisfaction of pegging enemies never stops being fulfilling, even more so when you ricochet your shots off of walls and ceilings. At the worst you can fling their hats off and collect them for your own haberdashery.
The enemy variety is solid, with many having the same options you do as far as strength, distance and trajectory are concerned. Their aim isn’t as fair, but considering some of the issues I have with the game as a whole, this turns out to not be such a bad thing. The moment to moment action in SteamWorld Heist is infectious; being both fast-paced but meticulous all the same. I appreciated the breather in between turns, but made sure to watch my foes as they are far better at strategizing advantages than they are at aiming. Each crew member you acquire levels up, which in itself is always an engaging mechanic, but this also means they have abilities such as taking extra turns or getting an extra shot by killing an opponent, which makes each worth investing your energy into and taking into battle. In addition, you can give them their own kit, armaments and hats, so you can personalize each mission to your own tastes.
Where my interest turns to frustration is when Heist tries to up the ante and difficulty by what feels like arbitrary means. At first there are a few missions where if you don’t meet your goals or are trying to trek back to the exit, an alarm will go off and turrets or more enemies will sprout to hinder your forward advance. This in and of itself isn’t an issue, but the reliance on it within the second area and beyond make things feel like a chore. Often you’ll be trying to reach whatever the level’s McGuffin is and find yourself overwhelmed before getting to it. To further belabor the point, bosses, though few and far between, are utter bullet sponges and they constantly call in reinforcements, which often resulted in me losing chunks of my crew in a bid to outmuscle the opposition. Perhaps a little bit of level grinding and better outfitting could alleviate these issues, but the amount of moments where I felt things were a bit unfair cropped up enough to bear mention.
Don’t let that deter you from SteamWorld Heist; even at its most devious it’s still really fun to try and balance or beat the odds against you. Whether inside your base ship or out in the field, you’ll begin to feel a fondness that almost borders on kinship with the crazy clan you find yourself in, which in turn makes you want to do the best you possibly can. The brisk pace and accessibility means that Heist is built in such a way that it shouldn’t be daunting even for the greenest of greenhorns, but it has enough layers that veteran cowbots can get something worthwhile from it too. Belly up to the bar folks, SteamWorld Heist is a game everybody should play.
SteamWorld Heist: Ultimate Edition is available for Switch and includes all previously released DLC. The standard edition is available for Steam, PS4, PS Vita, Wii U and Nintendo 3DS. A mobile version is also available for iPhone and iPad.
Disclosure statement: Review code for SteamWorld Heist: Ultimate Edition was provided by Image & Form Games. A Most Agreeable Pastime operates as an independent site, and all opinions expressed are those of the author.