Maybe it’s because I’ve been re-watching the series this past week, or maybe it’s because I read a review once that brought up a similar comparison, but Steamworld Heist reminds me a lot of Firefly — and that’s all kinds of okay. With the cowboy talk and the outskirts of civilization/frontier feeling (but in space, naturally) it’s kind of hard to avoid it, really.
Captain Piper Faraday has a problem: a bunch of nasty scrapper bots have been muscling in on her territory, kidnapping settlers, hijacking ships, and generally making life (and semi-honest careers) very difficult. After a chance encounter goes bad, Faraday finds herself with barely any gallons to her name (because steam powered robots, har har) and a skeleton of a crew at her command. Things aren’t going well, basically. Somebody has to deal with the scrapper problem, and it might as well be her – and any other bots she can persuade to join her along the way.
Between the overall setting and the characters I can’t help but find Steamworld Heist captivating. I love the Old West meets space mash-up (even though it’s been done before, obviously), I love how the crew roster begins to fill out as you bring more hands aboard, I love how each crew member has their own distinct look and personality, and I love the futuristic steampunk art style. I mean I really love the art style. Everything has a vague sort of painterly quality to it, and the designs themselves are really clever with how each bot looks totally unique and sometimes a bit cobbled together.
I know, all those words and no mention of the gameplay, right? Well that’s great, too. Each level plays out using 2D turn-based squad tactics. Characters can be moved XCOM style, with a “safe” range that will let them attack or otherwise act after repositioning, and a “dashing” option that allows them to move farther by sacrificing their chance to act for the rest of the turn. Cover also plays an important role, but those metal barrels and whatever else aren’t indestructible, so you won’t be able to hunker down for long.
Attacking also works quite well. You just tap an enemy to bring up a targeting reticule (or press the “shoot” button), then drag the target around until you decide on an angle. It’s a simple system that is a bit trickier than you might expect. It could have simply been a matter of point-and-shoot, but characters’ arms will waver slightly while you’re aiming, requiring you to pay extra close attention to angles and timing. Firearms with laser sights do make shots a little bit easier – especially at long range – but there’s still a fair bit of uncertainty to it.
Then there’s the potential for a bit of crew customization. Each bot you bring aboard will belong to one of a few general combat classes, but there’s a fair bit of wiggle room within them. Some might start to learn skills as they level-up that make them more adaptable to a broader assortment of combat situations while others may become even more specialized at whatever it is they do best. Weapons can also be a good determining factor in how you use certain crew, and everyone can equip extra gear that will have all sorts of effects. So if you want to have an extremely nimble close combat specialist or a heavily armored sniper you totally can.
Plus, there are also lots of hats you can collect, often from shooting them right off of enemies’ heads. They’re purely cosmetic, but it’s still neat.
I have zero complaints when it comes to the touch screen controls as well. Everything works extremely well and does a good job of preventing players from taking accidental actions (which some touch screen games have issues with). I do have a couple of complaints that have carried over from the earlier console and handheld versions of Steamworld Heist, though. First is the inventory management, which seems arbitrarily limited and requires either finding or buying items to increase available space. In the early game it’s not really noticeable, but later on when you have a larger crew it starts to become a pain. Having to micro-manage my inventory after a mission because I ended up finding more stuff than I can carry only serves to slow everything down.
The other issue is one that I really hoped would be addressed for the mobile port: saving. Steamworld Heist doesn’t let you save anywhere. Instead, it saves automatically at specific points – namely once your ship docks with another ship or station. This means if I want to buy stuff in preparation for an upcoming mission before turning the game off, I have to visit the shop to buy my stuff, then leave, then come back again to save what I’ve done. I don’t think it’s the worst problem to have, and one could argue that simply suspending the game by pressing the Home button is enough, but I still think a slightly smoother save system would have been better – especially on a mobile device.
In a word, Steamworld Heist is great. From the world to the characters to the style to the gameplay, it’s a lot of fun and pretty much a no-brainer if you like turn-based tactics. Or robots. Or Firefly. Really, the only reason I’d suggest giving it a pass is if you already own it for another platform.