If you ever lay awake at night wondering what a turn-based strategy game set in a steampunk fantasy would look like, then Codename S.T.E.A.M. is your answer. The offbeat heir to such role-playing classics as X-Com and Fire Emblem, Intelligent Systems’ handheld darling dabbles in the best of both worlds as master of one. The result is something genuinely entertaining and unerringly charming, if not an ill-paced experience that left this writer wanting a half-hour later.
True to its name, Codename S.T.E.A.M. sets players in a steampunk England – an age where zeppelins flew over the London cityscape and alien ships littered the skies over Big Ben. Inscribing its own alternate history in the manner of H.G. Wells’ War of the Worlds, the game plants you in the middle of it as a part of President Abraham Lincoln’s strike-team tasked with eliminating the alien menace, or S.T.E.A.M. Locked, loaded, and without a clue, you begin the war with the greatest power in your arsenal: steam power.
You begin the game as Henry Fleming of the same name as the Red Badge of Courage’s own hero. Alongside you is John Henry, a fictionalized version of the American legend, only this time, he’s slinging a grenade launcher than a mighty railroad hammer. Joining him is Peter Pan’s Tiger Lilly and The Wizard of Oz’s cowardly Lion, both of them cartoonish resemblances of their literary incarnations.
Together, each of them contribute a unique talent: Fleming has his trusty sniper-rifle, Henry can lob out grenade fire, Tiger Lilly serves as the team’s medic, and the Lion is a literal feline-cannonball throwing himself onto enemies. Despite the absence of the Scarecrow and Tom Sawyer in the demo version, each character lends an appreciated variety to the gameplay and a joyous celebration of the game’s eclectic sensibility.
To say that Codename S.T.E.A.M. is a breath of fresh air would be a bit much in the face of its obvious inspiration – something readily apparent to those familiar with the genre. Two parts X-Com: Enemy Unknown and one part Fire Emblem: Awakening, Codename S.T.E.A.M. puts a foot in both arenas, but more particularly in the former. Like X-Com, Codename S.T.E.A.M.’s alternates between a third-person shooter and its turn-based mechanics across a 3D map complete with Fire Emblem’s RPG classes. The transition between them is seamless and the combat feels all the tighter for it. Adjusting your line of fire is a flick of your 3DS stylus away and there’s minimal draw-distance between you and your target.
Gameplay’s the demo’s true highlight and more demanding than meets the eye. Taking you across a freshly invaded London as Fleming, the game displays a variety of locales, from alleyways and warehouses to Buckingham Palace. Though their lighthearted presentation might fool you, each of its levels feel diverse and enemy types vary across them. Barriers, explosives, and save stations a variety of opportunities on how to continue and careful thinking’s key to avoiding an agonizing death.
Unlike its genre peers, only one of your party’s members need survive in your literal race to the finish line and it’s a thrilling challenge navigating your way through each maze of enemies. Chances to regain health are rare and money used for boosting your party’s stats are plenty. Get in, get out, or risking it all for swag are what each level boils down to strategy-wise and all of them reasons for Codename S.T.E.A.M. to be nothing of not highly repayable. If the game’s slow-poke enemies could take their turns in a reasonable amount of time, then I’d be more inclined in doing so.
The farther I waded my way through Codename S.T.E.A.M., the more I could only think less of its aesthetics, by contrast. The demo itself is a substantial peek into the game’s mechanics and takes place across both the game’s five to ten-minute tutorial phase and its twenty to twenty-five minute first chapter, “Chasing Smoke.” In that time, the steampunk coating seems to sadly fade away as soon their cool comic-book cutscenes end, with “steam” having little bearing on gameplay beyond being what powers your run-meter. In the absence of Valkyria Chronicles’ storytelling or Fire Emblem’s superb characterization, Codename S.T.E.A.M. is a game first. Nevertheless, it’s disappointing that its steampunk fashion should be a casualty in light of that.
The star of Codename S.T.E.A.M.’s core mechanics is “Overwatch,” a countermove meant to strike back at oblivious enemies that cross your path – or vice-versa should that unsuspecting character be you. Keeping yourself out of enemies’ line of sight is a test for the eagle-eyed and it encourages a great sense of stealth on top of the game’s more robust action. The game otherwise performs just like a lighter, more accessible version of its inspirations and much to its benefit, but I hope that there’s more for Abe Lincoln to do than bombastically recite steam puns.
Despite its fine-tuned performance on the 3DS, Codename S.T.E.A.M. performs doubly well on the New 3DS – namely an XL, if you live in the American market. The newest Nintendo handheld’s camera controls are smoother via its c-stick than using its touch-screen controls via the old 3DS’s stylus. The improved 3D further enhances the onscreen spectacle enough to make it worthwhile. That, in tandem with the larger screen space, certainly makes the New 3DS the optimal system for playing Codename S.T.E.A.M. on. Until it’s a different game entirely, I can’t say it’s mandatory.
Codename S.T.E.A.M. has little that defies the imagination, but it performs admirably where it succeeds and seems tolerable where it doesn’t. There’s nigh a time when Codename S.T.E.A.M. doesn’t seem like a labor of love – but love can only conquer so much here. Intelligent Systems has nonetheless crafted a smart if not unrealized vision of the best strategy games on the market all in one and I’ll be surprised if Codename S.T.E.A.M. isn’t given room to grow as a series in the years to come.