I don’t think I could love the setting and look of a game more than I love that of Codename STEAM. Set in an alternate 19th century, it stars a variety of characters from tall tales and literature, who team up using steampunk weapons to fight cthulhu monsters. All led by Abraham Lincoln and his Lincoln mech. The characters designs are reminiscent of Jack Kirby (actually, it might be more like Mike Mignola) comics and the graphics are some fine cell shaded goodness. It is such a shame that the game is chore to play.
Really, it comes absurdly close to being excellent. There are just a few problems that derail the whole experience. In theory the game plays much like Sega’s PS3 masterpiece Valkyria Chronicles. It is a strategy game where each character’s turn plays out a little more like a shooter. It doesn’t translate perfectly to the 3DS’s one stick set up (I don’t have a New 3DS, which might alleviate this small problem) but using the touch screen for aiming is functional. The first big problem is that the game features no map. In Valkyria Chronicles the game gives the player a map of which to formulate strategies. Even Intelligent Systems’s, the developer of Codename STEAM, other strategy game Fire Emblem let’s players see the whole map before making their moves. Codename STEAM only lets the player see from each unit’s perspective in a tight over the shoulder view. It makes it all but impossible to determine the best course of action.
That is a small problem and one that can be overcome with just a little bit of annoyance. The real problem is with the game’s turn system. It is set off of each party member carrying a steam tank on their back. They can store and use only so much Steam. This means that the player has to balance moving and attacking and storing up steam for counterattacks or the next turn. The only problem is that holding enough steam for counterattacks means barely moving on your turn. Enemies seem to be able to move much farther and attack more often than the player. To have any chance, the player has to plan around counter attacks, which slows the game to an intolerable crawl. This is made worse on maps with the little drone enemies that call in mortar attacks on squad members close enough to attract their attention. That means moving as far as possible, which means no counterattacks.
When the system works, it works really well. There are maps where it just clicks and provides a tense, strategic experience. Each character is unique enough that knowing them and their individual strengths helps to inform the player’s strategies. For example Lion, the Cowardly Lion from Oz, can perform a jumping attack that gets him around certain obstacles. That allows for pincer attacks and the like. Tom Sawyer can fire his weapon many times, though it only does a little damage. That makes him great for scouting and stunning enemies. Too bad things do not work smoothly all that often. Often situations spiral out of control with little the player can do to stop them. It ceases being about making good tactical decision and becomes about already knowing what is coming next.
Despite all of its flaws, I still think I kind of like this game. I am putting it away for now, a little over halfway through, but I expect to come back to it after the spring rush of 3DS RPGs is over. It is a noble experiment for Nintendo to invest in a new property, too bad it didn’t work out as well as Splatoon did. It seems unlikely, but I would meet a sequel to this game with open arms. The problems with this game could easily be fixed with just a few tweaks and then Nintendo would have another strategy series to set next to Fire Emblem and Advance Wars.