I consider myself someone who can appreciate all genres of games, but I still have my favorites, like action platformers. Conversely, I have my less preferred genres, like strategy games. I still enjoy them a lot, and as I’ve said before, I’m a bit of a Fire Emblem fan too. I’m fascinated by long games with definitive fail states like XCOM. Yet I have difficulty immersing myself into deeper strategies and slower gameplay. It’s just my personal preference that keeps me from getting especially into them the same way as the genre’s most devout fans.
So when I walked away from my finished SteamWorld Heist playthrough thinking to myself it was one of my personal favorite games of the year, I sipped from a tall glass of chocolate milk, looked at a mirror, and did a spit take. Of course it’s a good game, but why do I, of all people, consider a strategy game in such high regard? That’s because SteamWorld Heist steps away from conventions of the genre to be more engaging to players that prefer the heat of the action over slower, methodical planning. Even though you definitely are making tactical plans the whole time.
SteamWorld Heist is a squad-based, turn-based, gun-based strategy game with some RPG elements. Aside from its world of sentient steambots scrapping by a mechanical living in the reaches of outer space, what’s so unusual about it? The entire game plays out in a Worms-like perspective, with horizontal and vertical movement rather than an overhead view of north/east/south/west. Maps are procedurally generated accordingly, providing room layouts, cover, and map gimmicks in a variety of combinations. And most importantly, when you shoot, you manually aim the barrel and pull the trigger, your shots moving through the actual 2D space with the ability to bound off other surfaces.
It doesn’t seem like much, but it completely changes how you react to enemy positioning, your abilities, the environment around you… and of course, the act of attacking itself. You no longer have an RNG or a ridiculously high enemy Defense stat to blame for a failed attack. Now, the player is responsible for the success or failure of every shot. You must decide if you are able to hit that enemy on the other side of the room. You must decide if you can find a way around the enemy’s shield. You must decide if aiming at the head for a crit could turn an easy shot into a miss. A random element exists in the shaking of weapons, your aim bobbing up and down slightly whether you tell it to or not, but even this can be negated by the player’s own skill with a smart and fast trigger finger.
This feeling of a skill-based success instead of a statistically-based success feels just as great here as it does with Paper Mario’s Action Commands. Now you’re involved with the execution of every single shot, requiring you to pay more attention in every turn of combat and making it more gratifying to give the game that much attention. Your misses sting more, because you know you could have made it work. Your hits are more rewarding, because you know you made it work. But SteamWorld Heist takes it a little further with bullet ricocheting and environments affecting your shots. Instead of just following instructions to inflict maximum damage like Action Commands, you must re-evaluate your surroundings in every firefight, lending much to the tactical aspect of the game. Is that outcropping in the wall far enough to block the shot? Will that cover protect you if you don’t move an ally to stand guard at the ladder? Or, more excitingly--how can you use the environment to your advantage? In most strategy games, a shielded enemy behind full cover is a big problem. For a skilled shot in SteamWorld Heist, a few well placed walls turns that hinderance into metal-flavored swiss cheese.
The different weapon classes are built around these mechanics to further explore the opportunities they present. Sharpshooters, or snipers, are armed with laser sights. Not only do these make hitting distant targets a cinch, but laser sights also reflect off walls, helping you set up elaborate trick shots… though, you might need to get into an optimal position in the previous turn since half of them can only be used while stationary. Assault weapons, or shotguns and assault rifles, fire many weaker projectiles which add up to a lot of damage in a wider range. Since individual projectiles don’t pass through enemies, but a unit loses their hitbox the instant they get scrapped, Assault weapons can easily clear multiple weakened foes… provided you can get close enough to take an accurate shot. Heavy weapons, like rocket/grenade launchers, use AoE explosives that may (grenade) or may not (rocket) obey the laws of gravity. This can be used to land a shot that’s otherwise just out of reach, but AoE damage also weakens the farther the target is from the center, which asks shooters to optimize their marksmanship to maximize potential damage… just don’t blow yourself up. This isn’t even getting into how the unique abilities of certain allies and enemies change up how their attacks work, such as Valentine’s skill to make his shots pierce enemies.
A lot of little decisions built across the game add up to keep the player involved at all times, affirming the sense of action. Turns are quick and snappy, including the enemy’s, which keeps things moving along at a constant pace. Missions (on Experienced difficulty, at least) are similarly short and sweet, which encourages weighing one’s options and making the most of every action rather than rushing through to get everything over with. Numbers for damage, health, and other stats are low, which means altering a stat by a single point has an easily and quickly calculated impact in the result of an attack. Every shot fired has a satisfying bwang and trail of gunpowder to add a punch and illustrate where they went. Environmental hazards that interact with your shots, such as oil spills that ignite on contact with bullets but don’t stop their trajectory, propose new options or challenges to consider when you plan your attack. Shooting enemies just above their noggins allows you to collect their hats. That last one has no meaning beyond cosmetics and feeling cool, but trust me, that Uncommon pirate hat is worth sparing an enemy and risking the lives of your crewmates. They’ll get better. They want the hats too and you know it.
SteamWorld Heist is an excellent strategy game for action-oriented gamers like myself. Instead of using dozens of statistics and units to propose decision making challenges, SteamWorld Heist accomplishes similar challenges using the spatial arrangements of firefight elements and active mechanics. The foundation of gameplay boils down to the same as any other turn based strategy game; look at what’s going on around you, consider what the enemy could do on their turn, weigh your risks, and choose the most appropriate course of action. But by simplifying the statistics to instead work around physical space and logical physics, SteamWorld Heist presents these decision making elements in a way that can be easily enjoyed by players who could otherwise be disengaged from them.
This is a formula to make strategy games engaging to players like me, who are engaged more by action than planning and analyzing. Thanks to giving my itchy trigger finger some much appreciated scratching, it’s my pleasure to plan and analyze my way through hours of tactical fun.