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!
But for a truly long, strange trip, one must venture to the New York Public Library, where there resides the recently rediscovered video game ventures by 1960s counterculture icon Timothy Leary.
As outlined in The New York Times in 2013, librarians rediscovered a trove of experimental PC games created and inspired by the famous psychologist and endorser of LSD. The games are mostly incomplete, though at least one managed a small commercial release: Mind Mirrorarrived on various home computer platforms in 1985 with the help of a little publisher known as Electronic Arts.
If you’re curious, you can try a modern incarnation of Mind Mirror for yourself right now on Facebook. And if you’re in New York, be sure to pay a visit to the library for a unique peek into video game history from the most unlikely of sources.
Here’s great news for video game historians! The Washington Post features this write-up on an expanded repository of old PC-DOS games, now playable for free in your browser (while it lasts).
It’s somewhat haphazardly organized — there’s no alphabetical or chronological listing, you just have to search for the game you want (unless I’m missing something). Titles include The Oregon Trail, Master of Orion, The Lion King, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, Boulder Dash, Cannon Fodder, Street Fighter II, Bust-a-Move, Lemmings, and many more. Click here for the entire shebang.
A feature in the Post does not bode particularly well for the future of this service, since so many of these games are clearly still active IP owned by major publishers, so do check it out before the Cease and Desist orders arrive. (UPDATE: I’m told these games are posted with permission, so perhaps they’ll remain available indefinitely!)