Code Name: S.T.E.A.M. is a title that I’ve been curious about since its initial reveal, both because of its intriguing premise and the pedigree of the development team behind it. Intelligent Systems has not only worked on such Nintendo franchises as Paper Mario and WarioWare, but has also been the company’s go-to team when it comes to strategy games. That includes the Advance Wars and Fire Emblem series.
Considering how much I enjoyed 2013’s Fire Emblem Awakening, the idea of Intelligent Systems getting the opportunity to start a fresh new strategy series was very tantalizing. However, the final product, while not bad, falls short of greatness in several areas, be it the presentation, controls, and mechanics. It’s a respectable first attempt, but also one that feels like it could have used some more fine-tuning.
The game takes place in an exaggerated version of 1800s London, bearing a steampunk-styled makeover, and primarily focuses on brawny soldier Henry Fleming, who is recruited by Abraham Lincoln and becomes part of an elite team dedicated to fighting back against a sudden alien invasion. Fleming will traverse and fight across dozens of unique levels and team up with other soldiers during the campaign, with the end goal of defeating the interstellar menace. The playable characters that make up Lincoln’s squad all have their roots in classic writing and folklore (Fleming himself shares his name with the protagonist from The Red Badge of Courage), ranging from John Henry to Peter Pan‘s Tiger Lily, and even the lion from The Wizard of Oz.
The fact that the game has Lincoln commanding these characters to fight aliens with outlandish, steam-powered technology, may lead many to believe that Code Name: S.T.E.A.M has an equally over-the-top and intentionally ridiculous story. However, one of the more disappointing aspects is how straightforward both the story and characters generally are. The plot feels more like a series of thin excuses to visit each level than anything interesting, and the cast is barely developed, despite being slimmer than Fire Emblem Awakening‘s memorable troop of fighters. The title’s stylized, comic book-like aesthetic, and its motion comic-esque cutscenes are more appealing, but I can’t help but to think that more could have been done with its other storytelling aspects.
Gameplay is where this title sets itself apart from most other turn-based strategy efforts. While there’s still an emphasis on grid-based unit movement and the player and enemy AI taking turns, instead of a cursor, you control each of your characters directly with the 3DS analog nub, and manually aim with the face buttons or the touch screen. Furthermore, the Circle Pad Pro and the second analog nub on the New 3DS are also supported for more precise aiming.
Your main ammo, of sorts, is steam, with each character having a finite supply that recharges in-between turns. Moving across each level uses up 1 bit of steam per grid square, with attacks varying in cost depending on their strength. A few levels in, you’ll also unlock a super move of sorts that, while not attributed to any sort of steam cost, can only be used once per level, so it’s a good idea to save those for dire situations.
While super moves and primary weapons are preset and unique to each character, and vary in functionality (Tiger Lily is the best at restoring HP for allies, while Lion can leap a great distance and overcome pits and obstacles with it), there is an element of customization, though nowhere near as intricate as in Fire Emblem. Every character can equip one sub-weapon, and they can be exchanged in-between missions.
Each level also has collectible medals both littering the ground and rewarded for killing air drones, and they serve as the game’s primary currency. While they can be spent at glowing spots in each map to recover your team’s health and steam reserves or perform a quick save, you’re also gradually rewarded with new equipment depending on the total amount of medals banked throughout the campaign, introducing a risk and reward type of system. Each map also has a few collectible gears that can be collected to unlock even more goodies.
The last major gameplay element is called Overwatch, and is put into effect if a unit ends their turn with enough steam leftover to fire their current weapon at least once. If an alien enters their viewpoint during the enemy’s turn, they’ll automatically aim for its weak point and fire. Not only can this prevent a potential attack, but you’ll actually gain more medals than usual for a kill performed via Overwatch, which definitely encourages you to think carefully about how much steam you really want to use during your turn.
These mechanics are all easy to grasp and use, but even though the Fire Emblem staple of characters permanently dying when KOed in battle is thankfully absent (Downed units are revived by the next level, with the only penalty being a lessened bonus of medals when each set of maps is completed), this game gets difficult early on and stays that way. To keep you on your toes, more enemies start spawning after a certain amount of turns pass, and while it’s not displayed, I got the impression that the enemy AI has a similar system to steam, as it’s possible for each unit to attack more than once before ceasing movement. They utilize Overwatch, too, so it’s always a good idea to tread carefully when you see a unit with the laser-like indicator your own units can display.
While the game runs well and its unorthodox mixture of shooting and tactics does work, I still experienced a lot of frustrating moments. It’s very likely that players will encounter several maps that they’ll have to restart from scratch, some of which have gimmicks to their enemies that you can only learn to avoid through trial and error. I’d maybe be more forgiving of this if it was more common in the later parts of the game, but I found myself struggling very early on, often leading to gameplay starting to feel like more of a chore than an enjoyable experience.
Code Name: S.T.E.A.M. also boasts both local and online multiplayer, the latter of which I felt was an unfortunate omission in Fire Emblem Awakening. Though I was unable to try it out since I received the game before launch, there does seem to be a small but welcomed variety of modes. There’s a traditional turn-based deathmatch, a competition to collect the most medals through battle, and an extension of a mid-game minigame where you control a mech in a first-person fight. Unfortunately, the units you can use are limited to the ones you’ve unlocked in the campaign, meaning that players will have to hold off on playing the multiplayer until they’ve finished the story if they want the ideal experience.
While Code Name: S.T.E.A.M. boasts an innovative mixture of action and tactics, its weak narrative, limited character customization, and trial and error-heavy gameplay marred my experience. That said, I would be interested in seeing Intelligent Systems try to create a sequel, both because I always welcome new IPs from Nintendo and because they could possibly expand on the game’s positive aspects. Ultimately, though, this game is best suited for those who already consider themselves well-versed in strategy games, as it’s not as novice-friendly as the last Fire Emblem. This could be the start of something special eventually, but for now, it’s a decent yet flawed first entry.
This review is based on the 3DS exclusive, which we were provided with.
Code Name: S.T.E.A.M. is a novel mix of shooting and strategy, but a drab storyline and occasionally frustrating gameplay keep it from greatness.