SteamWorld Quest review – clanking good fun

I bloody love SteamWorld Quest. It just amazes me that Image & Form can seemingly turn their hand to any genre and completely nail it first time. They started off with SteamWorld Tower Defense, then turned their hand to Metroidvanias with the wonderful SteamWorld Dig, followed by turn-based tactics in SteamWorld Heist. And now they’ve aced the fantasy RPG with SteamWorld Quest.

I do have a few questions, though. For a start – and this has been bugging me for a while – how do the robots reproduce? Do a mummy robot and daddy robot get together for a special time and then out pops a baby robot? Or do they make their child from spare parts? Or maybe all the robots were just made by humans at some distant point in the past? Certainly, it’s intimated in Quest that at least one of the robots is hundreds of years old. But then the game also features child robots, so do where did they come from? Do they grow up into adult robots? How? Do they just make their bodies a bit bigger with leftover bits of metal? And can robots ever really die?

I’m so confused.

None of these pressing questions are answered in SteamWorld Quest – but, ultimately, it doesn’t really matter. After all, it’s just a video game – and the wonderful and quirky robot designs are such a delight to gaze upon that we can let slide the urgent question of how they came to be. My particular favourite is Captain Canary, a one-wheeled fella with a robotic bird in a cage for a head. I’m not even going to make a guess at how that set-up works.

You meet the Captain in the ruins of a burned village right at the start of the game, setting up a plot in which your merry band of amateur adventurers fight through an evil army to destroy a potentially world-ending MacGuffin. The story has a few twists and turns but mostly sticks to the traditional RPG formula – although I particularly liked the idea that the Heroes Guild has become essentially a glorified golf club stuffed with elitist layabouts. And the script is full of wonderful wisecracks and charming interactions. By the end I had really warmed to my band of oddball robots.

The fighting itself revolves around turn-based card battles, with the cards representing old-style punch cards used for programming early machines. In a nice touch, the punch holes even accurately reflect what each card does.

There are three categories: upgrade cards that usually provide a buff of some kind; strike cards that usually trigger an attack; and skill cards that do something powerful, like an area-effect spell. But the special cards need varying amounts of Steam Pressure points to activate them, which you can generate by playing upgrade or strike cards. This usually means your focus is on building up a good head of Steam by playing the basic cards, then unleashing a special skill attack.

But the twist is that you don’t know what cards you’re going to get. The eight-card decks of your three characters are shuffled together and six cards are drawn randomly on your turn. You can redraw up to two cards, but otherwise you’re stuck with what you’re given. It means you’re constantly having to make up new strategies on the fly and work with what you’ve got, so combat is always interesting.

There are several layers of strategy, too. Some cards work well in combination, so you’ll be doing a lot of deck tinkering to optimise your attack. And there are around 100 cards to collect in various treasure chests and from the in-game shop, some of which might prove useless at first, but then reveal their true colours in combination with others. Plus you can upgrade cards if you collect the right ingredients. Then there’s the fact that each character has an attack unique to their weapon that activates if you play three of their cards in a row – and there are several different weapons to buy for each member of the team.

All in all, battling through SteamWorld Quest was a lot of fun, helped by the fact that different enemies require different strategies – some might be resistant to physical attacks, for example, meaning you have to switch to magic. There’s a lot of scope for inventive approaches here, in other words.

The only real frustration I had was with the final boss, which has an absurdly long health bar and takes AGES to beat. Then it hits you with the ultimate cheese attack right towards the end, stealing all but one point of each character’s energy. Really? Come on.

It took me four long attempts to beat, interspersed with some serious grinding to level up my characters – and once you’re done with him, there’s not much left to do. There’s a battle arena of sorts, with hard-to-get prizes for winning several battles in a row – but you don’t get any experience for competing, so taking on the higher levels means tedious grinding through the final levels of the game to power up your character to a decent experience level. It’s a shame there isn’t a portal-type area that throws randomised enemies at you to make grinding a bit more fun and unpredictable. And some sort of NewGame+ mode would have been welcome, too.

Still, I got 30 hours or so of entertainment out of SteamWorld Quest, so I can’t complain too much. Having said that, I did spend a while going back through previous levels to collect missed treasure chests, so if you just want to beat the game, you could definitely knock a few hours off that. I’m hankering for more though – hopefully Image & Form will release some lovely DLC down the line to give me an excuse to come back. I asked them about DLC back at EGX Rezzed and they said that they were focusing on releasing the game and seeing how well it does before even thinking about DLC. Hopefully it has sold well enough by now that we can expect some new chapters in the not-too-distant future…

SteamWorld Quest was developed by Image & Form Games and is available on Switch, with a PC version to follow on 31st May.

Disclosure statement: review code for SteamWorld Quest was provided by Image & Form. A Most Agreeable Pastime operates as an independent site, and all opinions expressed are those of the author.