Game – Code Name S.T.E.A.M.
Version – 3DS
Rating – Teen (Blood, Fantasy Violence, Mild Suggestive Themes)
Price – $39.99 MSRP
Developer – Intelligent Systems
Publisher – Nintendo
Obtained – Review code courtesy of Nintendo
Code Name S.T.E.A.M.’s announcement last year at E3 was met with a fair amount of bewilderment. After all, it’s premise is a bit much to take in: characters from classic folk tales and stories must fight back hordes of horrifying alien creatures in a steampunk dystopia through a combination of third-person shooting and turn-based strategy. Given that the game comes from Fire Emblem developer Intelligent Systems, I had very high expectations. Now that I’ve been able to sit down with it for over 20 hours, I have to admit that I’m quite disappointed. There are a lot of things that I want to like about Code Name S.T.E.A.M., but more than a handful of issues prevent it from being an experience that I can truly, unquestionably recommend.
Lion can jump on top of objects to scope out the battlefield.
Each map pits four members of S.T.E.A.M. (Strike Team Eliminating the Alien Menace) against some of the alien foes that are overwhelming the planet. The goal is usually to get from point A to point B while defending yourself from enemies, but some missions have special goals, such as requiring you to rout all the aliens in an area or escort a vulnerable target to safely. Along the way, you’ll need to carefully portion out your steam, as it’s what governs all your actions, from moving and climbing on top of obstacles to firing your weapons and setting traps. When I say “carefully”, I really mean it. Code Name S.T.E.A.M. will absolutely destroy you if you aren’t able to manage your actions efficiently and cleverly. You might need to open up an alternate route, drop a chandelier on your foes, or set up an ambush in order to be successful. It’s never a simple matter of running in guns blazing.
Each level in Code Name S.T.E.A.M. feels varied thanks to different enemy types, layouts, setpieces, and goals. In one stage, one of my characters was able to jump onto a ledge and sneak through obstacles to take out foes from the rear while the others powered through the enemy lines. In another, I needed to avoid floating eyeballs that would reveal my units’ locations to the enemy, causing them to launch cannonballs my way. At one point, I accidentally blasted open a wall only to find that there was a tank inside. Many of the stages are distinct, but unfortunately all these varying factors make for a really inconsistent difficulty curve. Some maps are pretty easy, while others had me restarting over and over again. When the third map kicks your butt repeatedly, it can be quite a turn-off for new players.
The Fox can take down foes from afar with her special rifle.
The camera is in a fixed third-person perspective, and since you are never given any sort of map or overhead view you’ll need to find clever ways to position your teammates in order to maximize the amount of terrain you can observe. This gameplay decision makes battles more tense and realistic, and truly encourages the player to be strategic with their character placement. Because you can’t see everything going on around you, the enemy’s turns can be quite tense, as they might sneak up behind you or pop out from somewhere unexpected. When there are no enemies in sight, all you have for sensory feedback are the far-off skittering of aliens and a small progress bar. A recent game update allows players to fast-forward through the enemy’s turn so they pass by twice as fast on a regular 3DS and up to three times as fast on a New 3DS, and this significantly improves the flow of the game.
If you reserve some steam after your turn ends, you can perform an Overwatch Attack, where you fire at any enemy that comes into your line of sight in an attempt to keep them at bay (and sometimes even stunning them, making them unable to move for the rest of the turn). Unfortunately, enemies can also perform Overwatch attacks, and these are nearly impossible to predict. If you walk into their line of sight they will turn to face you and a reticule (indicative of an Overwatch attack) will quickly drift your way. There is a very small window for you to duck behind cover or fire at the enemy, but more often than not you will be hit. This wouldn’t be nearly as frustrating if foes could only perform one Overwatch attack, but occasionally you will stumble into the line of sight of an enemy that can perform more than one of them. They can’t attack you twice in a row while you are immobile, but as soon as you expend more steam by moving or firing they will shoot at you immediately and may continue to do so until you are out of range, take down the enemy or are defeated. Nothing in Code Name S.T.E.A.M. feels quite as frustrating or unfair as sustaining three Overwatch attacks in a row from an enemy and then being stunned, losing the rest of your turn as a result.
Overwatch Attacks will help to keep your opponents at bay.
Each level features two types of collectibles: coins, which unlock sub-weapons that can be switched out before a mission starts, and gears, which are much harder to find and unlock boilers that modify the amount of steam you recover at the start of your turn, change your stats, and sometimes grant you additional abilities. These unlocks are tiered, so as you acquire these collectibles you receive predetermined gear. The lack of choice is disappointing, but at the very least all the sub-weapons are different and grant new strategic possibilities. The rattle cannon will distract your enemies, the banana launcher shoots fruit that will stun any character who slips on them, and the Steam Crossbow deals major damage to weak points.
There is some depth to the combat in Code Name S.T.E.A.M. beyond customizing sub-weapons and boilers, though perhaps not as much as fans of Fire Emblem would like. Most enemies have weak points to which your attacks will deal significantly more damage, but as enemies have idle animations that cause them to move around you’ll need to time your shots well to hit them most of the time. Some enemies cannot see and will travel towards any source of sound, others burrow their way underground, and a few fly above the action and are nearly impossible to hit unless you have the right weapon. Because of the different foes and obstacles that appear in each level, you can never just stick with the same characters throughout the game. It forces you to think about which characters are best-suited for the job, and usually means attempting a stage more than once with different loadouts and characters. It’s not quite trial-and-error, as spending a couple minutes in a level should tell you which characters are best-suited for the job, but I can still understand how it might be frustrating to some players.
The character customization screen that appears before each mission starts.
The agents of S.T.E.A.M. are all of different genders, backgrounds and sometimes even species, and come from a variety of public domain stories including Tom Sawyer, Moby Dick, The Wizard of Oz and Peter Pan. Given the characters’ literary backgrounds, it’s fascinating how little personality they are given in Code Name S.T.E.A.M. Intelligent Systems managed to take beloved cultural icons and suck all the soul out of them. The action goes by so fast that no time is dedicated to making the player care about them. There are also a number of background story elements that hint at a remarkably interesting world, such as a news bulletin expressing the populace’s fear of a machine uprising and the untold way that Abraham Lincoln was able to avoid his grisly death in Ford’s Theatre, but these are all just referenced in passing and are never truly expanded upon. There’s so much potential for an interesting story, but it almost all feels wasted in favour of explosions, gunshots and action.
While the story is quite dry, its comic book narrative frame redeems some of it. I’m still not entirely keen on how the 3D character designs and 2D panels mesh together, but the little “to be continued” signs, comic book onomatopoeia (such as large, colourful text that says “BOOM!”, accompanying an explosion) and text bubbles are too well-done to ignore. The game also takes players to a number of different locales including storage facilities, massive libraries, rocky canyons and some surprise fantasy sets. Each map feels different from the last, and it’s always exciting to see where the agents of S.T.E.A.M. will head next.
The music in Code Name S.T.E.A.M. is a mix of heavy rock themes that during your team’s turn and strange electronic sounds that accompany enemy movement. The dichotomy makes for some fascinating sound designs and helps to set the mood whether you’re sneaking around, under heavy fire or waiting nervously while unseen enemies skitter around. A few of the pieces are memorable, but they work best when paired with the gameplay and wouldn’t be nearly as appealing in a standalone soundtrack.
All things considered, Code Name S.T.E.A.M. is a difficult game to recommend. It has a number of gameplay mechanics that make it very challenging, occasionally unfair, and undoubtedly frustrating. Limited character progression, both narrative-wise and in terms of gameplay, leave a lot to be desired. If you have the patience to stick it out, however, you’ll find that each victory is incredibly satisfying, and when you are able to string together multiple strategies to take out a handful of enemies in a single turn you may physically leap with joy. I sincerely hope to see a sequel that will fix many of my complaints, because I truly believe that what Code Name S.T.E.A.M. does well is worth experiencing.Final Score: 7/10
+ Competent strategy gameplay
+ Challenging stages that encourage creativity
+ Varied missions, characters and weapons
- Boring characters
- Frustrating Overwatch system
- Inconsistent difficulty curve
- Weak sense of progression