The Nintendo 3DS has had a very solid 2015. The four year old handheld has had a steady stream of good games so far, but there hasn’t been an instant classic like Super Mario 3D Land or Fire Emblem Awakening. The good news is that 2015 won’t end without the portable device receiving one, as Image & Form’s SteamWorld Heist is one of the best strategy games to ever grace a console. Not only has the title exceeded all expectations, but it’s hands down the best handheld game this year.
SteamWorld Heist is the follow-up to Image & Form’s breakout hit SteamWorld Dig. In a risky move, the Swedish studio decided to forego fleshing out the platforming mechanics that received critical acclaim, and instead created a turn-based strategy game in the same universe. This decision paid off, as SteamWorld Heist brings the series to new heights, and proves that Image & Form’s talents aren’t locked into one particular genre.
Similar to other titles in the SteamWorld series, players are controlling a robot. This time around, though, the robot is a space pirate who travels the galaxy raiding rival ships, and spending time in bars (that play some banging tunes from their jukeboxes). While players will start with only the captain of the ship, Piper Faraday, they’ll soon gain access to an entire crew of lovable robotic misfits. Piper’s quest for riches quickly escalates, and she is tossed into an intergalactic power struggle.
Once Piper boards a ship, SteamWorld Heist becomes a turn-based strategy game and her movement is limited. Each turn allows the player to move their pirate crew one-by-one, and then take an action such as using a healing item or firing their weapon. If a player doesn’t want to use an action, then they can sprint to an area that is further away. This mobility is important as fleeing away from an enemy, and being able to fight another turn can be just as important as dealing damage.
The most interesting part of SteamWorld Heist is the game’s genius combat system. Instead of just selecting a target and letting a dice-roll determine if your bullet hits, players have complete control of the character’s aim. This means that combat becomes completely skill based. If you’re skillful at predicting how bullets will bounce (yes, in the future they have bouncy bullets), then you can hit enemies that are even behind cover. Conversely, it’s totally possible to flub a shot, and miss an easy opportunity to defeat a foe. The game is built upon forcing players to calculate both the risk and reward of every single action.
Combat always feels great throughout SteamWorld Heist, with each encounter keeping players’ full attention. Any lapse in judgement can make a mission turn south quickly, but gamers can still shoot themselves out of the majority of holes they’ve dug. One of the ways you’ll get back into the game is by using character’s special abilities. These skills, which are unlocked over time by levelling up crew members, can completely change how you use one of your robotic pirates. For example, once one of my characters was able to regain a portion of health at every turn I wasn’t afraid to take some damage in order to dish some out myself.
Each of the game’s missions has several different objectives to achieve in a level. If successfully accomplished, players will gain stars that are used to unlock gated off sections of the universe. These objectives range from finding a rare piece of swag (which can be a gun, armor or an item) in a level to making sure that none of your robots got temporarily destroyed during a level. Not only does this give you a reason to replay past levels, but it forces you into playing smart.
Despite the game’s immense depth, SteamWorld Heist is still a very beginner friendly title. An excellent tutorial that begins the game manages to explain all of the basic systems at play, and players learn more about how the game operates from experimentation. Image & Form have also included five different difficulty options that make the game both accessible to those new to the genre, and difficult to even the most veteran of players. Pirates are also rewarded with additional experience on high difficulties, so there is even more incentive for you to check out the options.
What really takes SteamWorld Heist to the next level is the overall presentation. The game looks absolutely gorgeous, and every single area is detailed. From enemy ships to the bars where you can recruit new members, there is always something appealing to look at. The character design is top-notch, and the game’s dialogue is hilarious throughout. Add in the fantastic soundtrack and you have one of the most polished games to ever be released on a handheld.
While SteamWorld Dig was a short experience only lasting a few hours, SteamWorld Heist is absolutely packed with content. The main campaign will take over 20 hours to finish, and the loot grind is incredibly satisfying. Players pick up better weapons constantly, so there is always a shiny new gun to use. In particular, I found myself playing the game’s fantastic boss battles repeatedly, as they were some of the most fun (and challenging) missions in the entire game.
It has been impressive watching Image & Form improve after each title they produce. Ever since SteamWorld Tower Defense released on DSiWare, the Swedish developer has been known to deliver quality products, but never to this extent. SteamWorld Heist is not only the most fleshed out product that Image & Form have created, it’s the best handheld game released this year. Whether or not strategy games are your genre of choice, you owe it to yourself to download this gem.
This review is based on the Nintendo 3DS exclusive, which we were provided with.
SteamWorld Heist is the best Nintendo 3DS game released in 2015, and its multiple difficulties ensure that both new and veteran tactical gamers can have fun in its wonderful world of robot pirates.