Review: Code Name S.T.E.A.M

From Intelligent Systems, the studio best-known for the Fire Emblem series comes the steampunk-packed, comic-styled Code Name: S.T.E.A.M! Fight off the alien menace, unlock powerful weapons, and even take control of a gigantic mecha-Abraham Lincoln to save the planet from total annihilation!

From Intelligent Systems, the studio best-known for the Fire Emblem series comes the steampunk-packed, comic-styled Code Name: S.T.E.A.M! Fight off the alien menace, unlock powerful weapons, and even take control of a gigantic mecha-Abraham Lincoln to save the planet from total annihilation!BANNER_STORY_CSHenry Fleming (named after the protagonist of the novel The Red Badge of Courage) oversees security detail in the American Embassy in fair Victorian London during the opening of the Steamgate Bridge, when alien invaders begin attacking the city. Fighting through the chaos and meeting up with John Henry (named after an African-American folk hero, and you’re going to want to get used to these references!), the pair are rescued by none other than President Abraham Lincoln himself, piloting the state-of-the-art airship Lady Liberty.STILL_CS_0002_Layer 14Here the pair are recruited to Lincoln’s task force, known as S.T.E.A.M (Strike Team Eliminating the Alien Menace), and discover that the aliens seek the Necronomicon (H.P. Lovecraft’s textbook of magic) to awaken their leader, the Shugguth. Along the way the team makes the shocking discovery that the beast itself resides under the surface of the South Pole, as it had been left behind millions of years ago.

Recruiting some familiar fictional and folklore-inspired heroes such as Lion, Tin-Man and Dorothy, as well as Tom Sawyer and Queequeg (Moby Dick), the agents of S.T.E.A.M fight their way across America and even traversing to the magical Land of Oz in order to stop the alien menace and save the planet from being frozen over.BANNER_PRESENTATION_CSCode Name S.T.E.A.M is presented to players through a comic book aesthetic; with each level of the game representing a new chapter of the comic. Cutscenes are rendered as comic panels, right down to the onomatopoeic action words and speech bubbles for characters. This look is retained for the gameplay segments too; a sort of partially-modeled comic book cel come to life. The visuals are bright and entertaining; the consistent use of golds and browns to highlight the steampunk influence on the game helps it to stand out, which is coupled with an abundance of steam pipes and valves littered throughout environments.
The vibrancy of colours isn’t limited to environments and playable characters either; the alien enemies are contrast to the protagonists; shades of blue and purple highlighting how cold and evil they are compared to the warm and heroic good guys. (It was hard not to describe them as ‘steamy’).
Those familiar with Star Trek will notice that the characters of John Henry and Abraham Lincoln are voiced by none other than Michael Dorn and Wil Wheaton respectively. And the voice talent doesn’t suffer like other games either; each character is given a voice, and the acting is actually half-decent. The only gripe is that after a while, each character’s catch-phrases begin to get repetitive and annoying, making you wish they had have just recorded that bit extra.STILL_CS_0003_Layer 13The game also draws from so many forms of lore; almost all characters are representations from books or novels from literature history. The biggest influence is H.P. Lovecraft; things such as the Shugguth and the Necronomicon coming straight from his works, as well as Professor Randolph Carter. Add this to the likes of the Wizard of Oz references and classic literature throwbacks and you get a mish-mash that works really well.

Even the score of the game is of a decent quality; a mixture of rock and orchestral bars littered throughout each level and menu screen makes the game a lot more fun and adds just a little bit more depth to the gameplay. Every weapon has a unique sound to it, blended with the sounds of steam-powered mechanics just to aid in creating the world, and the screams and roars of the aliens as well as the splats when they are destroyed give the player just a little more satisfaction in taking them down.
The biggest annoyance is the consistent announcement of “Player’s Turn” and “Enemy’s Turn” at the start of each round. It can’t be turned off, and after a while it begins grating the ears and being just generally annoying.
BANNER_GAMEPLAY_CSIn S.T.E.A.M’s gameplay we can already see elements of Intelligent System’s history with turn-based games; the game focuses on a turn-based movement system where characters are powered by steam units. Each steam unit represents one space to walk, and weapons use steam units as well, making the player think strategically about each move. Heavy weapons such as Lion’s “Lion Launcher” and John Henry’s “Bear Grenade” use four steam units, whereas Tom Sawyer’s “Punch Gun” and Henry Fleming’s “Medi-Carbine” use one and two units respectively. Steam tanks and billboards scattered throughout levels replenish steam reservoirs, otherwise the player must wait until next turn for the steam to replenish via the character’s boiler backpack. Boilers can be swapped for more efficient ones, or for tanks that give the character stat bonuses to help them fight the enemy better as well.STILL_CS_0001_Layer 15The game employs a system called “Overwatch”, in where characters can defend from aliens during the Enemy’s Turn. Overwatch is enacted by leaving steam in the character’s tank and having a weapon with Overwatch ability equipped; this allows for the character to attack an enemy when it comes into range of the character during the enemy’s attacking stage. The enemies also have the ability for Overwatch, and it is here that the game gets a little annoying; where the player character’s attacks are limited to how much steam is in the tank, the enemies seemingly have an unlimited Overwatch ability. This can lead to frustration, as each movement that a character makes can seemingly be countered by an enemy’s Overwatch, whereas sometimes a player may only get one to two Overwatch attacks in per turn. Sometimes even with the best of strategies, enemies can knock out multiple team characters because of this, and it adds a degree of difficulty to the game that is quite annoying.

Each character has strengths and weaknesses on the field, too. Characters equipped with heavy weapons such as John Henry and Lion tend to have bigger health bars, but their steam gauges drain quicker due to the weapons using more. On the other end, characters such as Scarecrow and Tom Sawyer use single units or two units per attack; their attacks aren’t as strong, but there is more chance for movement and defense this way. Some characters such as Tiger Lily and John Henry can also heal, and Tin-Man can replenish steam with his weapon. Finding the right balance of characters can be difficult as there is no warning about the enemies in the level prior; in some scenarios heavy force is required, but a balanced team may struggle due to the lack of heavy support. In other scenarios a lighter or quicker team may suffice. Each character also gets a special move that can be used once per mission, which does not affect their steam gauge and can cause major damage to enemy units.STILL_CS_0000_Layer 16Enemy movement is also not established to the player, and sometimes it seems like the enemy units have an unfair advantage even with Overwatch employed. Some enemies seem to be able to travel great distances and give the player headaches. There are strategic save points littered through every level that, if used correctly can greatly assist the player as they replenish both steam and health of characters. This can strategically be used not only to restore characters to full health, but also to extend turns beyond the initial steam capacity.

The one upside to the steam mechanic is that the majority of collectibles in range, such as coins and gears, can be collected without wasting steam. Each step taken into a new space uses steam, but if you step back into that space the steam recovers; provided you are not attacked or do not reach a save point, you can test out the best routes to progress through a level without wasting steam. This can allow you to collect coins and gears which give you new equipment when collected. Once you fire a weapon, your steam meter drops down and cannot be replenished until the next turn.BANNER_CONCLUSION_CSCode Name S.T.E.A.M is a great game that takes many cues from both literature and comic history, and throws it into a fun fantasy steampunk world. But where the story is fun and unique, the gameplay begins to get annoying and may seem like a challenge at times. With great voice acting and a wonderful comic book aesthetic, S.T.E.A.M gives an atmosphere that not many games manage to pull off these days; of adventure and excitement while not getting too serious. While not the best of Intelligent Systems’ games, S.T.E.A.M is still a worthy foe for your free time, and a great game to pick up on the 3DS.

Great voice acting
Steampunk done right
Variety of characters
Changing degree of difficulty/slight learning curve