Codename S.T.E.A.M. is a new, turn-based, tactical action game for the Nintendo 3DS. The game is set in a Steampunk Victorian age during an alien invasion of the planet, and it’s up to your team of S.T.E.A.M. agents to save the day. Can you muster up the…you know…smoky stuff?
The story of Codename S.T.E.A.M. begins with the alien invasion of a fictional, Steampunk earth, and opens with your main protagonist, Henry Fleming (named for the character in the famous Civil War novel, The Red Badge of Courage—for that matter, almost all the characters in the game are literary in origin) doing some work for the American Embassy in London when the city falls under alien invasion. He and an old friend, John Henry (of American folklore fame) become drafted into taskforce named S.T.E.A.M.—Strike Team for Eliminating the Alien Menace. If there was ever a more contrived acronym, I’ve not seen it. The team is led by military genius, Abraham Lincoln (of course). In the team’s quest to free Earth from the invaders, the Lincoln recruits many literary and folklore heroes (ranging from Tom Sawyer from…well…Tom Sawyer by Mark Twain, to Dorothy and her friends from The Wizard of Oz by Frank L. Baum). The character roster is so Americo-centric, I’m surprised that Johnny Appleseed wasn’t part of the story. As seems fitting for such a story, it borrows quite heavily from the works of HP Lovecraft and his Cthulhu mythos, too, and one of the missions takes place in Lovecraft’s Miskatonic University. In fact, if you’re not familiar with the literary borrowings, you’re going to miss out on a lot of the game’s references. The aliens themselves are highly inspired by the Cthulhu mythos.
The game itself is a turn-based tactical third-person shooter, kind of what you’d get if you crossed Final Fantasy Tactics or Fire Emblem with something like Gears of War, with a liberal dosage of XCOM: Enemy Unknown for good measure, with art style by Alex Raymond (the artist for the original Flash Gordon comic) or Jack Kirby, Stan Lee, and Bob Kane (the so-called Lords of the Silver Age of Comics). Your move limit per turn is defined by how much steam you have left in the boiler on your back (indicated by a bar on the lower part of the screen). The steam limit includes both moving and firing, so you have to think very carefully about how much to move and how much ammo you want to expend. And to top things off, certain weapons allow for Overwatch manoeuvres, allowing you to fire upon enemies during their turn, provided you’d saved enough steam in your tanks the prior round. What’s delightful is that each enemy has its own move-set and AI, so you need to adjust your strategy depending on what you’re facing at any one time.
Every now and again, the game switches things up a bit, and instead of a tactical battle, you have a first person battle as Lincoln in his Anthropomorphized Battle Engine, or A.B.E. for short. A.B.E. is essentially a giant, steam-powered robot that gets deployed for special situations. It’s not quite Gundam, but those particular levels are short, satisfying, and a welcome break from the strategizing.
If you find that the enemy AI is a little lacking, you can take your battle online and fight against other players in one of three kinds of local or online versus mode: Deathmatch, Medal Battle, and A.B.E. Battle. Local multiplayer requires two 3DS systems and two copies of the game–no download play (whatever happened to download play?). Deathmatch is a similar game to the standard missions, except it’s your team versus another team. It’s up to you to exploit the team members’ individual weaknesses to win, and against a skilled opponent, this can be very, very hard. Some of the players out there are absolutely brutal. To make things harder, there’s a 60 second limit on making your move, so making your strategy and acting on it quickly is important. Medal Battle is a five-turn race to see who can collect the most medals, with the 60 second limit in place here too. Since the mode lasts just five turns, it’s easy to get into a quick match just for fun. The last mode, A.B.E. Battle, is more fun than I thought, although there’s a lot less strategy involved. It’s a fast battle to see who can defeat the other player’s A.B.E. first. Lots of ducking and dodging out the way here, and it’s even shorter in duration than Medal Battle.
Personally, I found the game an amazing amount of fun to play, but then I love strategy-type games. I found the mix of third-person shooter and turn-based tactical works beautifully well: all of the fun of aiming from behind a wall with none of the frenetic nonsense associated with trying to duck enemy fire at the same time. Or trying to reload under fire. You get an indicator telling you if you hit or not, and how much damage you do. The weapons range from the wondrous—for example the Steam Musket and Steam Crossbow—to the ridiculous (see the Bananapult as a great example of this latter category). You unlock weapons by collecting gears in each level, and thankfully, it’s fairly easy to replay a level. In fact, some levels warrant a replay, because with newer companions that you obtain in later levels, certain earlier stages become a different playground.
The only really big gripe I had with the game disappeared with the game’s major patch release, and if you’re buying the game at retail, I implore you, download the patch somehow. Prior to the patch, you had to wait a ridiculously indeterminate amount of time during the enemy’s turn while the CPU thinks and makes its moves. Obviously, the more foes on the battlefield, the longer the enemy turn takes, and it could take a horrible amount of waiting time. The patch adds a fast forward button that speeds up the enemy turn by two (on the original 3DS) or three (New 3DS only) times. And speaking of the original and New 3DS, the game makes great use of the C-stick, and although you can control the camera with the touch screen or the ABXY buttons, it’s just easier and faster with the stick. If you’re on the original 3DS, I highly suggest getting a circle-pad pro for this game. On the matter of MINOR gripes, however, I felt that despite the literary references and characters, the game pays only lip service, without delving deeper into the characterizations and motivations that made these characters what they were in the books. There was a lot of potential for a much more nuanced story than the plain “Rah Rah America Rah Rah Fight the Aliens” story presented in the game. Don’t get me wrong, the story is fun and exciting, but the possibility for something better is there.
Codename S.T.E.A.M. supports a few amiibo from the Fire Emblem series, but since I don’t have those particular ones, I wasn’t able to test this functionality. Essentially, though, by owning those amiibo, you effectively add up to four extra characters to your roster, giving you more choice of whom to include in your team for missions.
If you enjoy tactical gameplay, you’re going to absolutely love Codename S.T.E.A.M. The art style is delightful, and the game features voice work from a surprising list of actors. You’ve got Wil Wheaton (Wesley Crusher from Star Trek) and Michael Dorn (Lieutenant Worf from the same show), as well as Adam Baldwin (best known as Jayne Cobb from Firefly), Kari Wahlgren (famous for a ridiculous number of voices), Jeremy Shada (Finn the Human from Adventure Time, amongst others), Paul Eiding (also a crazy number of voices from Ben 10 to an appearance on Star Trek), Grey DeLisle (voicework ranging from Daphne on Scooby Doo to Princess Azula from Avatar the Last Airbender), and Kimberley Brooks (Ashley Williams from Mass Effect, amongst dozens of other roles). It’s fun playing “Guess the voice”!
And if nothing else sways you, let me present to you the game’s amazing theme song. It doesn’t always play when you start the game, but when it does…. Feel free to sing along!
Final Score: 9 Steamed Prawns out of 10
Developer: Intelligent Systems
Distributor: Nintendo South Africa
Platform: Nintendo 3DS family
Age Rating: Teen
Release Date: 15 May 2015