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I think there's a pretty good argument to be made for Steamworld Heist being the best tactics game of the year. It's a great example of a host of elements coming together into one wonderful and cohesive package - great art, a strong setting, a distinct personality, and lots of weapons.
It's one of the many smaller games to have followed in the footsteps of XCOM: Enemy Unknown, which revitalized the market for turn-based tactics in 2012. As with XCOM, you have two choices when moving in SteamWorld Heist - you can either move a certain distance and shoot, or you can dash further at the expense of a follow-up action. This system has served as the bedrock for tactics games for many years now, and it works just as well in Heist's 2D setting, which superficially resembles a platformer.
In many other respects, however, SteamWorld Heist differs significantly from its inspiration. Set in a world that bears some resemblance to Firefly, it is a lively sci-fi adventure in which you travel from station to station earning loot, recruiting new crewmembers, and buying more and more hats. As with its predecessor SteamWorld Dig, it derives much of its charm from its terrific art, which shows no lack of imagination in rendering robots large and small, ordinary and crazy.
Aside from its lack of a strategy portion, where SteamWorld Heist differs the most from XCOM is in the fact that it's in 2D. While initially a bit odd, you will soon find yourself using the level design's verticality to your advantage as you move up or down to get a good angle on your foe. Like XCOM, SteamWorld Heist also includes a destructible cover system, which is essential if you don't want to get shot up. In an interesting twist, Heist requires a bit of skill, with accuracy being determined by how well you manually aim your weapon. It's a bit of a departure from the usual strategy fare, but it's nice not having to rely on a random number generator to determine whether you can make a crucial shot. It also makes it easier to implement richochets, with sharpshooters able to bounce a bullet off a wall into the back of an enemy, and grenades occasionally rocketing back to blow up in your face. Thankfully, friendly fire is mostly not an issue as your party will fade into the background as you take aim.
Another way in which Heist differs from XCOM is in its cast. Rather than handing you the keys to a complex character creator, Heist puts in you in the role of Captain Piper Faraday, an independent trader rebelling against the Royalist Empire any way she can. She is accompanied by Sea Brass, a perpetually put-upon whaler turned space pirate. As the game progresses, your crew steadily grows to include a Russian bodybuilder, a commando, a redneck, and a number of others - all of them robots with distinct designs and personalities.
Heist's established cast allows it to tell a more straightforward story while dispensing with permanent death. When a robot in SteamWorld Heist takes enough damage, they fall to pieces in and are removed from the mission at the expense of receiving any XP - a solid compromise that is also consistent with the world's lore. After being reassembled back on Faraday's ship, they'll complain about getting shot up, but they'll be ready for the next mission.
As with most tactics games, you'll eventually put together a core party that will serve you throughout most of the game. Each character has their own specific set of abilities and weapons that they can wield; and while they fall into certain archetypes like "leader" or "tank," their differing stats and gun preferences help keep them unique. Most of the time I've rolled with Faraday, whose passive Inspire ability makes her indispensable to the party, the extremely mobile Sea Brass, and Beatrix, a commando capable of clearing out a room with a well-placed blast from her rocket launcher. Requirements vary from mission to mission depending on the party count and the enemies, though, so I've had to be flexible when deciding on my strategy.
Interestingly, experience points are pre-determined, meaning there's no benefit to just sitting around and grinding through enemy units. This has the effect of allowing a given map to continually send in reinforcements without fear of players becoming overpowered. On the other hand, if you feel stuck when fighting a particular boss, you don't have a ton of recourse outside of altering your tactics or maybe buying some new weapons. You can't just grind your way out of trouble in SteamWorld Heist; not unless you're willing to sit around for hours doing the same mission over and over again.
This can be frustrating at points, particularly when fighting the bosses at the end of each act, who tend to be quite difficult. But the distribution is also balanced enough that other party members never fall too far behind; and if you really need to grind some money or build up a team member, there are special challenge missions that offer unique rewards. Just know that you won't be able to easily brute force your way through SteamWorld Heist, and that's the way it should be.
Across the Universe
When you're not in a mission, most of your time is spent on a space map plotting your next destination. Each area is filled with shops and other areas of interest that open up as you beat more and more missions. Progress is gated by missions as well as your reputation. Most missions are scored between one to three stars depending on how much loot you collect, which in turn translates into reputation points.
Reputation determines more than progress, though. If you earn enough points, you can access special stores, recruit new party members, and buy powerful weapons. It also serves as catnip for the obsessive compulsive set, encouraging them to ace every mission and beat every challenge mission while collecting every possible item. It's a system that does a nice job of adding to SteamWorld Heist's replayability.
Once you leave an area, your reputation will reset and you will encounter new challenges, weapons, and enemies, lending Heist a pleasant amount of variety. It's been more than enough to put to rest my fears that Heist would ultimately be too limited and repetitive, with not enough weapons or interesting enemies. Even late in the game I've had to readjust my tactics as I've encountered enemies who can teleport, or are protected by shields, or are capable of decimating my party with a massive laser weapon.
I've also been very pleased with the gun selection. Heist's weapons are broadly split between sharpshooter, assault, heavy, and handgun categories, then further broken down into sub-categories like RPGs and shotguns. Probably my favorite weapon in the game is a laser cannon that I found in the third act, which has proven to be an absolutely devastating sniper weapon in the hands of Beatrix, who can fire two beams capable of destroying enemies across the room.
The weapons are further bolstered by sub-items, with each party member able to carry up to two addition items aside from their gun and their hat. They can include armor, sidearms, health packs, and grenades, which are useful for covering up a party member's weaknesses while augmenting the team's existing capabilities. I suppose I would be remiss if I didn't also mention the huge number of vanity hats to be found - trucker caps, royal crowns, berets... the list goes on. I spent more time than I care to admit finding the perfect hat for Beatrix, finally settling upon a tattered cowboy hat. Sea Brass, for his part, looked absolutely ravishing in his fancy top hat.
That brings me to my only real criticism of SteamWorld Heist - I don't like the limited inventory system. For whatever reason, you can only carry a certain number of weapons items at any given time, with no way to store the excess until you need it. You can buy additional inventory slots, but most of the time you'll be forced to sell off old loot while hoping you won't need it down the line. I ended up really regretting selling my multi-shot RPG for a grenade launcher, which was more unwieldy and seemed to do less damage than advertised. The RPG wasn't available in a store, though, and my bank account was depleted anyway. I wound up making do with the grenade launcher, but it would have been nice to have been able to keep the RPG just in case.
While annoying, though, it didn't ruin my overall enjoyment of the game. It's just one of those niggling little issues that deserve to called out. The rest of the game consistently exceeded my already high expectations with its excellent amount of variety, fun cast, and surprising amount of depth. There were points when I simply couldn't put it down, wholly succumbing to "just one more mission" syndrome because I had to see how a new party member or weapon (or hat) would work out.
It's a wonderful tactics game packed with tons of content; and in what has been a quietly been a disappointing year for the Nintendo 3DS, SteamWorld Heist stands out as one of the platform's best.
InterfaceMenus are large and attractive, and everything loads up very quickly. I think the inventory system is questionable, but in the grand scheme of things, it's fairly easy to ignore.
Lasting AppealThough the actual campaign doesn't run much longer than 10 hours, Heist's bonus missions, reputation system, and wide number of difficulty levels all serve to bolster its replayability. Suffice to say, there's a lot to do in SteamWorld Heist.
SoundThe audio is subdued, with the steambots sounding much like the characters in the original 16-bit Star Fox. The music is subtle but atmospheric.
VisualsI love the art in SteamWorld Heist. It's beautiful, and it's absolutely brimming with detail and personality. It's secretly one of the better-looking games on the 3DS.
ConclusionWhat more can I say? I loved SteamWorld Heist and I think everyone should play it. Even if you don't normally like tactics games, Heist might be able to change your mind. It might not make a lot of Game of the Year lists, but I can assure you that it is one of 2015's best.