Created by Swedish developers Iron & Form, Steamworld Heist (and its accompanying expansion, The Outsider) is the third installment in the Steamworld series, following up from Steamworld Tower Defense and Steamworld Dig. The only thing Heist shares with its predecessors is the world in which it exists, a sort of post-human, steampunk/space opera universe populated entirely by robots.
In Heist, these robots have a problem: they all need water to live (thus the Steamworld), but H2O is now a scarce resource. Our heroes travel across the stars in search of the precious stuff, along with other loot and also fancy hats. Y’know, just because.
In practice, this entails travelling from one procedurally-generated 2D ship to another, shooting other robots and taking their stuff. Along the way, new robot companions can be recruited, everyone’s abilities can be upgraded, and something of a story begins to emerge.
Combat is mostly engaged in with ranged weapons, but there’s some melee as well. You move your characters up ladders and through heavy doors, taking out enemies and hunting for resources. Once a level – I mean, ship – is cleared, your ‘bots can go back to base, talk to each other to advance the plot, and sell their ill-gotten goods for other, perhaps better-gotten goods.
At this point, you’re probably already scrolling down to the comments, poison pen at the ready:
“Great, Gwydion, you just wasted a whole bunch of valuable eXplorminate space telling me about a console-style platformer. While you’re at it, why don’t you give me a nice paper cut and pour lemon juice on it.”
Well, there’s one thing I haven’t mentioned. You see, Steamworld Heist is not your usual, run-of-the-mushroom-kingdom platformer. It’s turn based. And that, my friends, is a steam-powered horse of a different color.
Everything that you do, as I’ve described it above, takes place on a 2D plane that wouldn’t be out of place in Metroid or Castlevania. But instead of hopping around, doing twitch-based gameplay, you move your characters, position them, aim and fire, as if you were playing X-COM (or XCOM, or X-Com or… You get the point). This takes Steamworld Heist from being yet another platformer (albeit a well-designed one), to something far more unique and interesting.
Every character acts in turn, based on their initiative. The player has a choice for each movement – go a certain distance and take an action such as ducking for cover OR go twice as far, but be stuck in place when the move is finished. Obviously, moving then hiding behind a barrel is a heck of a lot more appealing than moving behind a barrel and then standing there like a big doofus waiting to be shot.
However, much of what happens in Heist is timed. The more turns you take to rifle through an enemy’s ship, the more likely it is that extra enemies will show up and the less loot you’ll be able to acquire. Thus, you are constantly balancing the need to move quickly with the desire to move safely.
Combat is also turn based, so when you get to that well-protected spot (assuming you saved your extra action) you’ll have the chance to aim manually. Basically, you’ll move your character’s arm to point your gun, then fire. Weapons are generally fun, each with it’s own strengths. Some have laser sights to help you aim. Others pack a wallop but you’ll never know where it’s going. Bullets can bounce off some surfaces, as well, leading to some neat trick shots. When you ricochet your bullet so it hits an enemy in the back of the head, well, you feel pretty cool right then. At least I did – your bar for self-congratulations may be higher, I grant.
The enemy AI is clever and crafty, especially at higher difficulty levels where the enemies will absolutely shoot your face off just for stepping into a room. Enemies will choose smart places to ambush you from. They’re good about grabbing cover and shifting around the room for better vantage points. This is an AI that knows how to play its own game, understands the rules of what it can and cannot do, and will punish players mercilessly for not doing the same. While all AIs cheat to some extent in these games, I never felt like it was being cheap or was only winning because the odds were stacked against me. That’s about as good a compliment as I can give a game.
All of this means that you’ve got a game that looks like an adrenaline fest but that is actually quite think-y. One of the most inexplicable screens in the whole game comes right up front where they recommend you use a controller for the game. I can’t imagine why. A mouse is far more precise and better suited for the actions you’ll be taking. Why is Heist bringing me soup, then insisting I use a fork? If someone reading this has experience playing this game with a controller, let me know in the comments what it’s like.
Heist looks the part of a AAA platformer, as well. The graphics are good with a nice art style that fits the content. The character designs are really unique, giving each participant a memorable look with lots of personality. Music is limited but what’s there is really great with memorable, unique tunes, including a fun cowboy-style song that was clearly written just for the game. Sound effects are nice, as well. A game like this needs some good-sounding guns and you’ve got that. Everything feels like it fits.
But I have one more guilty little secret about Steamworld Heist. This is a well made game, clearly done with care and creativity. It is very well reviewed, including a nomination for best PC game of 2016 from IGN. And I bounced off the game like it was called Rubberworld Heist.
Here’s the thing, if you go into this looking for a platform experience, you’re going to be disappointed. The turn-based nature makes it far too slow and strategic to please fans of Mario or Rayman. It feels like a fun world, this, but it comes off as plodding. If you’re looking for a real PC platformer, you’re going to want to look elsewhere.
But if you’re a big XCOM person, I can’t really recommend Heist to you, either. The fact that the game is 2D really limits your options to make smart decisions. At a certain point, you know there’s a baddy behind that door. You can either open it, or not, and there isn’t much decision-making involved there. Many times, I ran into situations where I felt railroaded, unable to make strategic choices because of the limitations of the setting.
It also hurts that the levels are procedurally generated, since it made many of the encounters feel same-y. There was the possibility for some cool set-pieces, but instead we got generic, repetitive maps with little character or interest. It’s paradoxical that something random could feel monotonous, but in this game, it’s true!
Further, as clever as the universe that Iron & Form created is, I just couldn’t get into it. I found the dialogue stilted. The characters are (I know, irony) two-dimensional. I just didn’t care about their world or their problems and I clicked through their squawky dialogue as quickly as possible. If I had been more enchanted by the heroes or their universe, I imagine I might have been more willing to slog through the gameplay.
This leads me to a conclusion that I’ll rarely make but seems appropriate in this case: I’m wrong about Heist. So even though I don’t see it, I will say that Steamworld Heist is a good game and, if this sounds at all interesting to you, it’s probably worth your time. Especially at $14.99, which is the current price on Steam. And when you’re having the time of your life, blowing up robots and taking their precious water, you can go ahead and point at me and laugh.
I won’t take it too hard, but I will be playing something else.
TL;DR: Steamworld Heist is a game with the look of a classic, console-style 2D platformer and the heart of a hardcore, strategy experience, delivering on neither. The game is well made and a looker, but it somehow ends up as less than the sum of its parts. What should be an exciting, adventure filled universe with interesting characters and smart gameplay somehow settles in as nothing but a slog (for me anyway, YMMV).
You might like this game if:
- You like the idea of the XCOM games, but find them far too complicated
- You like a game with some good graphics, nice music, and polished programming
- You find a universe of water-requiring, space cowboy robots interesting and inspired
You might NOT like this game if:
- You’re looking for a platformer on the PC
- You want a deep strategic experience that you’ll be thinking about hours after the mission is already complete
- You find a group of people constantly bickering at each other to be annoying, not endearing
Joshua played for 10+ hours on a custom-built Maingear X-Cube with an AMD Phenom II X4 processor, 8 GB DDR3 RAM and a Radeon HD 5800.