A good strategy game is often defined by the balance of the tools at your disposal, a nice mix of utility and damage options, and a well-designed interface and mission structure. A great strategy game is when all those tenets go out the window in moments of sheer panic, cringing at every barely-missed shot and barely holding your plan together.
I recall a specific moment like that in Code Name S.T.E.A.M., in a mission where I was tasked with defeating a large Queen unit in a spooky graveyard. Enemy forces bore down on me, as the Queen was able to spawn her own reinforcements and send them in nigh-suicidal attacks on my four-man squad. Grenades rained down and enemy fire was flying over the small area, and alien worms lurked just beneath the surface, waiting for a single misstep to become their next meal.
I cautiously advanced, always leaving enough steam in my squad’s boilers to keep on overwatch every turn. I had devised a devious interplay between two of my squad members: one could launch pumpkin-shaped stun bombs, while another would shoot them to detonate them on top of enemies and provide a safe advance.
I neared the Queen, after downing what seemed like thousands of aliens, and when I delivered those shotgun blasts directly to the glowing purple weak point on her backside, I breathed a sigh of relief. The mission that had brick-walled me, forced me to use caution and clever planning, brutally punishing every unit out of place, was over.
And I was immediately on to the next one.
Code Name S.T.E.A.M., like many great strategy games, has that insatiable feeling of “just one more turn,” a symptom of an infectiously addictive and entertaining game. A hybrid of squad-based games like XCOM and third-person strategy akin to Valkyria Chronicles, S.T.E.A.M. is a strong step for Nintendo’s bright and ambitious new IP.
Set in an alternate version of history where steampunk engines dominate the world, you’re introduced to the first of many American historical figures in your party, Captain Henry Fleming. The Red Badge of Courage lead is head of the US Embassy’s security, alongside fellow American icon John Henry. When aliens invade during the launch of a new airship, Fleming and Henry find themselves aboard the Liberty, assisting US President Abraham Lincoln in his fight against the alien menace.
It’s a lot to take in, but there’s a lot of charm to the game’s overly-patriotic and cartoony squad members, who each pack their own special weapon and ultimate attack symbolic of their legacy. Fleming chucks bald-eagle-shaped grenades called Star Spangled Slammers, Tom Sawyer has a mine-flinging slingshot, and Moby Dick appears in the background of Queequeg’s harpoon attack. It’s a motley crew of both fictional and dramatized American characters, and the variety keeps the gameplay and squad fresh every fight.
The story of S.T.E.A.M. is a little over-the-top, which fits comfortably with its cast, but more importantly allows a great variety of locales and situations. There’s even a section where you take control of Abe Lincoln in a giant robot that looks like Abe Lincoln, and go completely Pacific Rim on a giant alien that had been pursuing your squad for several chapters. It’s zany and wacky, and you shouldn’t expect any twists or turns, but the characters are so fresh and entertaining that it creates a compelling story all its own.
On the battlefield, however, the cartoony antics are starkly contrasted by the punishing alien enemy you face. Code Name S.T.E.A.M. may seem childish at first glance, but the difficulty and AI are not playing games. Enemies range from simple melee-range Slashers with a mind of their own, to highly-coordinated and perceptive Prowlers, the bulk forces of lategame firefights that seem to have an endlessly amount of overwatch opportunities.
Many mainstays of the genre make their reappearance here; both you and the enemy can stay on overwatch instead of expending all their allotted action points for the turn, notated as “steam,” allowing free shots at any enemy who comes in range during their turn. While moving, aiming and shooting resembles a third-person shooter, range and movement is determined by a tile overlay on the field.
There’s a lot of clever additions to the formula, though, that make S.T.E.A.M. stand out above the pack. Weapons often have a clever mix of utility and firepower, like Tom Sawyer’s signature boxing-glove weapon that is cheap, efficient and knocks enemies back. Ultimate abilities also allow you to quickly turn the tides, or take advantage of an opportune situation. Some are flat damage, like Fleming’s Slammer and John Henry’s Hammer, but others reward the player who uses them intelligently. The Fox’s ability refills her steam and doubles the range and damage of any overwatch attacks taken on the next enemy turn, allowing the clever player to place her on a risky ledge and capitalize on the enemy’s panic to get out of her massive firing range.
Customization comes in the form of secondary weapons, which you can earn from gold medals obtained either on the ground or from defeating enemies, and alternate boilers, which you earn by finding cogs hidden around every map. Secondaries can give a healer or utility character a decent firearm for when things get hairy, or provide an interesting method of tackling situations with weapons like the Bananapult and Stun Mortar. Boilers determine how much maximum steam you can hold and how much you recover each turn, while also bolstering your offensive and defensive capabilities. While some are sidegrades more than straight-upgrades, others are definitely big boosts to certain characters’ roles in the squad.
There’s also a great deal of extras to be found to assist you, whether its an abandoned tank to give that extra “oomph” of firepower, or a well-placed turret that rewards the adventurous player. Positioning and exploration is a major component of each level, as it can often make the difference between an elongated slugfest or a quick rout of the enemy. Characters like Tom Sawyer and Lion will likely become part of your starting lineup for any mission, as it’s easy to miss cogs and secret areas quite easily without them.
The mission design often subverts your expectations as well, as developer Intelligent Systems put a lot of work into making each area feel new and exciting. One mission had me assaulting an enemy artillery emplacement, who spotted me using invulnerable eyes that only disappeared if they couldn’t see any of my squad. Another took place inside a library, where the high bookshelves offered both a vantage point and narrow corridors, which both myself and the AI used to our own advantages. You’re often taken out of your comfort zone in S.T.E.A.M., forced to use strategies that you may not prefer or risk being stuck on a mission for quite a long time.
The flipside of the missions, however, is the enemy respawn time. Many missions have infinitely respawning enemies, often at areas you’ve already cleared behind you. While in one mission I caught on and left a squad member there to farm easy kills while the rest of my team finished the objective, in others it forced me to play overly-cautionary, and dictated my windows of opportunity to its own artificial clock, rather than letting me progress effectively as my strategy unfolded.
Thankfully, those are the only wrenches in the cogs of an otherwise wonderful title. While sometimes punishingly difficult, S.T.E.A.M. does a good job of never making you so frustrated that you feel like slamming the lid shut. Each lost mission is simply a step in the process, as you learn from your mistakes, switch out some squad members and continue on. Code Name S.T.E.A.M. is a strong start for Nintendo, and a critical component of any handheld tactician’s library.