I just love the story of developer Image & Form. After a modestly-selling mobile title and the muted response to a Nintendo DSiWare release, this group of plucky Swedes decided to put everything on the line for one last, everything-or-nothing attempt at a commercially successful game. The result was the brilliant, wonderful, critically-acclaimed, and best-selling SteamWorld Dig. If you haven’t played it, please do — it’s available on just about every platform.
Anticipation was high for a sequel. I was particularly excited, as SteamWorld Dig was (and still is) one of my favorite games of this generation. I wanted more of its procedurally-generated mining / platforming / puzzle goodness! So I was a teeny bit apprehensive when I&F announced its next game would not be a true sequel, but an entirely different genre of game, set in the same universe.
My fears were wholly unfounded. SteamWorld Heist — out today on PlayStation 4, PlayStation Vita, and PC — proves Image & Form’s success with Dig was no fluke. It is a phenomenal game in its own right, and an experience made all the richer for its collection to the ever-increasing SteamWorld lore.
Heist is a little bit difficult to fit neatly into any particular genre, and that’s what makes it so great. It’s a turn-based strategy game at its core, but it isn’t an RPG at all. Heist looks and feels a bit like a platformer, but at a much more deliberate pace. It gives the player plenty of time to think and plan ahead, while keeping a tense atmosphere of near-constant danger. SteamWorld Heist does all this while presenting itself in a charming, beautifully-rendered 2D package, wonderfully scored by the beloved indie rock band Steam Powered Giraffe. (I can attest to their popularity — the line to meet them at A-Kon here in Dallas last weekend was two hours long!!!)
In SteamWorld Heist, the player controls Captain Piper, a steam-driven robot space pirate, and her motley crew of renegade automatons, in their fight against diesel-powered robo-punks, a tyrannical robot kingdom, and another mysterious force. Piper’s band boards various enemy spacecraft — most of them randomly-generated — and fights off robotic fiends, while scooping up loot, weapons, and other goodies.
Here’s the hook: instead of the typical run-and-gun action found in many games of this ilk, Heist implements a turn-based system of battle. Each robot has a limited number of spaces they can move per turn, during which they can also aim and fire their various weapons at enemies. A few guns come with helpful laser sights that will show the expected path of the bullet or missile, as well as any subsequent ricochets the ordinance will undertake. Most weapons lack this feature, so careful aim is a must to hit one’s target. Adding to the challenge: these ‘bots don’t have the steadiest of hands, so the player must time shots just as the firearm’s barrel is squarely aimed where desired. On top of that, various ammunition types may arc, spread, bounce, or even cause “friendly fire” damage to allies.
It sounds complicated, but the designers did an excellent job of making it easy to learn without an overbearing tutorial. After a few simple missions early on, the challenge picks up steadily — but it can always be adjusted between missions. Even beginners are accommodated with a “casual” setting. And if you find the going gets too tough later on, you can go back to earlier stages and grind some experience, thanks to a nifty level-up system. I spent many hours happily grinding away, to better prepare my crew for the teeth-gritting final chapter.
I have only one minor criticism of the game; there is no reward for skill shots, trick shots, or any other methods of dispatching enemies. While the animations are lovely and frequently quite funny as bad ‘bots collapse or explode, and we do get some “bullet time” slowdown with particularly tricky shots, no bonus is provided. The game even tells you this in the occasional on-screen hint, reminding players that there is no score given for kills. If nothing else, I would have liked a “instant replay” of great kills that could be uploaded to the internet in some way, but that’s really a luxury and doesn’t detract from the game’s value at all.
Skilled players can probably complete SteamWorld Heist in under ten hours. As you can see in my screen-grab here, I spent considerably more time with it — not just grinding, but working to improve my scores. Each mission has a star-rating system, a little bit like Angry Birds, judging the player on how well they completed objectives while keeping everyone in the crew intact. I’m not often a completionist, but the random nature of missions (most starships have a different layout each time) and the seriously addictive gameplay kept me coming back.
Today’s launch of SteamWorld Heist on PlayStation and PC platforms comes with optional paid DLC, already available on the 3DS. I haven’t had a chance to try it yet, but I urge you to play through the standard campaign first, as the DLC may be a teensy bit spoiler-y.
Image & Form assures us SteamWorld Heist is also coming to Wii U and Xbox One, so you won’t have any excuse to play it if you don’t have one of the above options. And remember to try SteamWorld Dig, too!
Consider this: after releasing the first six “primary” games in its beloved and genre-defining Final Fantasy series exclusively on Nintendo platforms, the company that would become Square Enix has not returned to a Nintendo system for its main numbered series. From the classic Final Fantasy VII to the upcoming Final Fantasy XV, every main title has appeared on PlayStation consoles, and, usually, been ported to PC and sometimes Xbox or even mobile. But Nintendo was done, for the main series, with 1994’s Final Fantasy VI.
Square Enix hasn’t abandoned the Japanese console giant entirely, with a variety of spin-offs appearing on various Nintendo devices, mostly in handheld form. This tradition continues with last week’s release of Final Fantasy Explorersfor the Nintendo 3DS.
Right away, it becomes apparent to any FF fan or well-seasoned gamer that this is not a typical FF title. The obvious comparison is Capcom’s mega-hit Monster Hunter series — one of the best-selling franchises in Japan in recent years, and finally catching on in the West thanks to last year’s acclaimed Monster Hunter 4 Ultimate. From there, we can point out other influences, such as the seminal MMORPG World of Warcraft, and perhaps a little bit of Nintendo’s Xenoblade Chronicles.
I don’t want to *kill* chocobos. I want to RIDE them!
Whatever genre it belongs in, FFEX is unique if for no other reason than its position as the sole action-RPG representative of its franchise on the Nintendo 3DS. Only two other Final Fantasy titles have made it to Nintendo’s five-year-old handheld, and both are music and rhythm games — Theatrhythm Final Fantasy and its semi-sequel / remake Theatrhythm Final Fantasy: Curtain Call. Both are good games for what they represent and should be appreciated and enjoyed by any Final Fantasy fan, but they stand out, like Cloud Strife in Super Smash Bros. or FFEX on 3DS, for what they intrinsically represent: a tribute to a series of beloved games that, for the most part, are not playable on any Nintendo platform.
It is something of a strange mix, and one that shows the increasing blurred lines among platforms and the absurdity of the so-called console wars. There are plenty of PlayStation / Xbox / PC acolytes who also own a 3DS, Wii, or Wii U as a supplementary console, though these gamers are likely outnumbered by the Nintendo fanboys and die-hards who refuse to adopt a competing game environment. FFEX is aimed more toward the former than the latter; as good as the Theatrhythm games are at sharing the amazing library of Final Fantasy music, and as interesting as the fan-service in FFEX is, neither is likely to convert many Nintendo-only households to one of the “major” platforms, simply to experience a “proper” FF game.
In any case, Final Fantasy Explorers relies heavily on fan-service and brand recognition, because in its absence what we have here is a fairly unsubstantial game. Square Enix knows this, which is why they sold a Collector’s Edition of the game to chumps like me, who adore the series even if its quality has waned somewhat in recent years. Much, if not most, of the series’ references and callbacks in FFEX will be lost on a Nintendo purist who hasn’t played anything since FFVI, and a total stranger to the series will be slightly bewildered and probably bored.
I see what you did there, Square Enix localization team.
For a game with the word “Explorers” in the title, there isn’t a whole lot of exploring to do. The world map, while of a decent size for a short RPG, is mostly linear and limited in scope. There are a few open areas, several narrow corridors, and various stepped terrains, with so many barriers and guideposts that getting lost is impossible. A player with any MMORPG, action-RPG or Monster Hunter experience at all will likely lose interest quickly — this game is definitely geared toward newcomers to the genre, like myself. As a Final Fantasy fan who never played FFXI or FFXIV, this is doubly true for me.
Oddly enough, one of the biggest complaints I’ve seen mentioned in the reviews for this game concerns repetition and grinding. This actually appeals to me! I spend about half of my time in any RPG grinding away, ensuring I’m OP enough to overcome whatever boss battle lies ahead. I don’t know what it is about grinding that I find satisfying and enjoyable. I suspect it is the comfort that I find in mindless tasks that are actually accomplishing something; it’s sort of the antithesis of what I do at work, and it helps my brain unwind. Grinding and leveling up is pretty much what got me into RPGs in the first place.
My first JRPG — or RPG of any genre, for that matter — was Super Mario RPG: Legend of the Seven Stars for the Super NES. I played it on Wii, some 13 years after its initial release, and only because of Mario in the title. It completely changed my feelings about the RPG genre, which I had always considered too complex and inaccessible for my tastes. Learning it was made by the same folks who created Final Fantasy led me to next try the original NES release in that series, and a love affair with one of gaming’s biggest brands was born.
Perhaps I’ll experience a similar catharsis through Final Fantasy Explorers, setting me up for a Monster Hunter addiction. I certainly hope not, because I don’t have that kind of time on my hands.