Over a life time of gaming, I’ve reduced myself to sticking with my favourites. While the intention of the developers may have differed, when it comes to RPGs, I build a party and ride it to the end. This works for me, and when you factor in grinding, this way of playing never became an issue.
Code Name: S.T.E.A.M. doesn’t let me get away with that. It boasts a cast three dozen strong, and it’s best to take each member’s strengths and weaknesses into account before throwing them into a mission. STEAM‘s difficulty is brutal, a game that isn’t afraid to flood the player with enemy forces, but that doesn’t mean you’ll be butting against an endless stream of roadblocks. What Intelligent Systems’ latest taught me is the importance of understanding when the tide has turned.
STEAM puts players in control of the titular squad (Strike Team Eliminating the Alien Menace), a group led by former American president Abraham Lincoln. The cast only gets more odd as the game progresses, drawing from folktales, mythology, and literature. Conveniently enough, the very name this force adopts is also the source of energy for the various pieces of equipment they use. Movement and attacks draw their energy from the steam that builds in each character’s personal, wearable boiler. After selecting a team of four, players head out onto a grid-based map and achieve its objective (get to the goal, destroy the boss, and disarm the bombs to name a few). An interesting facet of the steam-regulated movement is that backpedaling actually earns your spent energy back. This allows for some exploration, or at the least the chance to reclaim some health from a nearby pickup before setting forth on your intended direction.
Combat draws from that same pool of steam, with each weapon pulling its own unique amount. With an enemy in sight, players aim the onscreen reticule and take the shot (preferably at the glowing weak point). But if only it were that easy! An important mechanic in STEAM is Overwatch, a way to put your soldiers in a sort of “guard” mode by ending their turn with leftover steam. And what’s good for the goose is good for the gander, which in STEAM‘s case means your foes can make use of Overwatch as well. And this is where things get tricky. Despite it’s turn-based third-person-shooter leanings, it’s very important to not rush into things. After wandering into an enemy’s line of sight and facing the wrath of its Overwatch attack/s, I learned to take things nice and slow. It was a hard lesson, especially with my goal just in sight. Unfortunately, that methodical pace doesn’t excuse how unforgiving a foe’s Overwatch abilities are. While some encounters provide an opportunity to escape as the alien’s gaze slowly turns to meet your’s, oftentimes the enemy’s placement is just so that an Overwatch attack is instantly enabled. Should you survive the attack you can aim and take a shot of your own, or perhaps make a run for cover, but this tends to just lead into another Overwatch attack. Throughout my entire experience, nothing infuriated me more than adjusting my aim to attack my enemy, only to be assaulted by a second Overwatch attack. While I appreciate the ability as an offensive measure, in the enemy’s hands it triggers far too easily, and doesn’t allow much recourse.
But as I’ve mentioned, the game is difficult. It’s rare to feel that you and the AI are at a level playing field, but I believe that to be true in STEAM‘s case. While Abe Lincoln’s squad has that whiz-bang aura of cool-ness with their robot-penguin bombs and talking lions, the enemies go tit for tat as far as firepower is concerned. Manpower is another story, as your four-person squad is easily outnumbered, with the difference only growing if you plod along the battlefield searching for upgrades. But there are options made available to the player, but so too does the age old argument of whether to take advantage of them or not. It’s simple enough to go back and repeat previously completed mission, picking up any missed Gears (three of which are scattered about and yield new boilers when thresholds are met) and racking up coins through pick-ups or meeting optional (and suitably difficult) criteria. As you build your collection of coins, new secondary weapons unlock, so repeating missions can have an affect on later missions. Another beneficial option are the Save stations found within each map. Outside of their name-sake ability, these stations also allow you to return a team member to full health and steam, or even the entire squadron. This of course depends on two things; the first being that you have earned the requisite coins in that map, the second being that you actually want to do that. It’s a decision that’s caused controversy for quite some time (I even discussed it in regards to Strider 2 on the Enos Lives podcast), but I’ll tell you that I had zero issue taking advantage of it. After all, it makes the game more fun for me, and I am paying a penalty by slowing progression towards earning new weapons. Without any sort of difficulty slider (a feature that brought me into the Fire Emblem series with Awakening), I made use of features that benefited me. If that’s a turn off, then don’t use it. Simple as that.
Outside of the main campaign, the game also offers online multiplayer, which takes the stress of the offline game and ratchets it up a few notches. Some changes are made for balancing reasons (Specials are removed, which are decimating one-time-use attacks in the campaign), and a time of 60-seconds is provided to move all your units. That last bit is what makes my palms sweat, as I’d become acclimated to the infinite time provided in single-player. When it’s your turn, this heart-racing music pumps through the speakers, and the clock begins to count down. Making matters worse (well, better is more accurate as it makes for some great matches) are the maps, designed exclusively around online play. One in particular litters the battlefield with item boxes, the contents of which are always beneficial. However, considering the map’s layout, destroying those boxes also removes any sort of cover from the enemy’s line of sight. It’s a thrilling balance, and I’ve enjoyed the matches I’ve played. Of course, this depends on finding a match, which I’ve had mixed results with. I’ve had times where finding a match with randoms was painless, other times I’ve had to wait or just give up altogether. Nintendo’s recently launched tournament attempts to focus players’ attention on that one event, but participation depends on another player actively looking for a competitor as well. Even playing with friends comes with its hurdles, as the only way to guarantee a match is to set up a private tournament and provide your friend the code used to enter. It’s not intuitive, but at least the reward of actually playing is enough to make up for it.
Code Name: S.T.E.A.M. is a difficult game, but that doesn’t mean a player is hopeless to the advances of its alien menace. It’s important properly address the situation, and swap out team members that may best suit your predicament. There’s no way to level up team members, which means your squad is always on even ground. Even when success seemed unlikely, I always pushed on, trying to learn what I could. In all honesty, full blown failure was rare as I played. Many missions went down to the wire, with a single party member limping along to the goal, but I still made it. And if nothing else I could load up a previous save and remedy any of the predicaments I fell into. In the end, I haven’t felt this much pride in my actions for quite some time. It’s definitely challenging, but one I’d happily recommend for the determined of you.