Nintendo has created some of the most bizarre intellectual properties in the medium, but the latest strategy game from Intelligent Systems (the studio behind Fire Emblem and Advance Wars) may be among the strangest. The adventure follows Abraham Lincoln and a crack team of agents conscripted from American folklore and classic literature on a mission to repel an alien invasion.
What’s more, the Nintendo 3DS game is set in a steampunk universe. Meanwhile the art direction draws inspiration from the Golden Age of Comics. It’s an extraordinary pastiche, to say the least. However, despite its originality of the concept, Code Name: S.T.E.A.M. never quite lives up to the intrigue one might expect, given the project’s pedigree and fascinating pool of influences.
Code Name S.T.E.A.M. (Nintendo 3DS)
Developer: Intelligent Systems
Released: March 13, 2015
The tale begins in an alternate version of 19th century London, where everything runs on — yes, you guessed it — steam. Suddenly, aliens attack the city and it’s up to Henry Fleming, a character based on the protagonist from American Civil War novel The Red Badge of Courage, to save the day. Soon enough our hero joins forces with S.T.E.A.M., a group helmed by Abraham Lincoln as a Strike Team tasked with Eliminating the Alien Menace. Hence the catchy acronym.
Throughout the story, various literary characters, historical figures, and tall tales (such as Tom Sawyer, Queen Victoria, and John Henry) will join the team, creating an interesting ensemble cast — at least in concept. The portrayals are shallow and kitschy, as one might expect of an experience striving to style itself after old school comics, rather than create some sort of sophisticated rendering of these personalities.
Despite some flat performances, there is some humor to be found in a narrative that never takes itself too seriously. The characters frequently seem to acknowledge the absurdity of their coexistence, something typified by the title’s amiibo functionality, which allows players to summon Fire Emblem characters (Marth, Ike, Lucina, and Robin) onto the battlefield.
The combat at play in Code Name: S.T.E.A.M. has often been compared to Valkyria Chronicles, though the juxtaposition doesn’t do Intelligent System’s latest effort many favors. Both games hybridize third-person shooting with turn-based strategy, but the similarities don’t extend much further. I would caution anyone hoping this game will carry the torch for Sega’s modern classics to temper those expectations.
In both single and multiplayer missions, players can take up to four characters onto the grid-based battlefields at any given time. There, each unit is given a set amount of “steam,” a resource shared for both movement and weapons fire. Steam regenerates between turns and a limited supply of unused steam can be carried over between turns as well. Since the systems are linked, players must constantly weigh the importance of mobility against offensive firepower and defense when deciding how and when to best utilize this important resource.
Defense comes into play with the “overwatch” system. Overwatch attacks are counter maneuvers which can be employed during the enemy’s turn. However, they require foresight. Players will need to leave enough steam in reserve at the end of their turn to fire a weapon. Any unit that wanders into the line of sight of a character performing overwatch will be frozen dead in the tracks and riddled full of bullets.
There’s another catch, though. Only certain types of arms can be used to perform an overwatch attack, so players have to remember to switch to the appropriate weapon before handing over the reigns to their opponent. It’s an exceedingly useful ability, but it requires some thought and comes with an opportunity cost. You could always be moving or shooting in your own turn.
Movement is a critical element of battle, as well. Each square on the grid is large enough to field multiple units, meaning your squad can be positioned in various formations. It’s possible to heal multiple characters if they’re bunched up. Similarly, you can attack enemies who crowd together with radial ordnance fire or spread out characters in adjacent squares in opposite directions to prevent your foe from doing the same.
There’s also an element of stealth beyond just hugging cover for dear life. Some opponents rely on sight, whereas others are blind and pinpoint targets based on sound. Moving slowly and quietly really can make a huge difference in some battles. Slipping past a sightless opponent and concentrating attention elsewhere can sometimes be the key to victory.
While I’m not the biggest fan of the art style or story, the gameplay here is reasonably solid, if unspectacular, with one minor exception. The enemy movement phase is hellaciously long. A turn can easily last for well over a minute, and you don’t always have a view of what’s going on. Boy, does staring at the same ugly walls sure get old fast.
Your foes will oftentimes just shuffle around in the background or totter around in slow, awkward patterns, getting hung up on terrain and having nice long thinks about what it wants to do. I often found myself setting down my 3DS during enemy turns, only to have one of my idle characters break the fourth wall with a snarky comment like “I’m tired of waiting.” Me too, dude. Me fucking too.
Truth be told, I feel incredibly conflicted about Code Name: S.T.E.A.M. The idea of a Nintendo studio authoring a western comicbook-inspired steampunk tale about American folk heroes is just so off the wall it’s enthralling. However in practice, it really underdelivers.
Meanwhile, the gameplay is a heady, engrossing experience. But it’s also one that is frequently undermined by the tedious and protracted nature of enemy turns. Code Name: S.T.E.A.M. is a decent, respectable game with some truly euphoric highs amid equitably frustrating lows.
[This review is based on a retail build of the game provided by the publisher.]