SteamWorld Quest (NS) – a card-carrying role-player
After the platform action of SteamWorld Dig and the turn-based strategy of SteamWorld Heist, comes the series’ take on the role-playing game.
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As the relentless churn of new sequels makes new entries in even once beloved franchises seem like a chore, one thing we always look forward to is a new SteamWorld game. Although SteamWorld Dig did get a (very good) sequel most of the games have been in completely different genres with no connection beyond the fact that all the characters are robots. That makes less sense than usual in the context of a fantasy role-playing game, but that’s just all part of the fun.
The SteamWorld franchise began, innocuously enough, in 2010, with the largely ignored SteamWorld Tower Defense on DSi. After that came the original SteamWorld Dig, which can loosely be described as a cross between Metroid, Dig Dug, and Boulder Dash. Then there was SteamWorld Heist, which is a turn-based strategy game something in the mould of a 2D XCOM. And then after that followed 2017’s SteamWorld Dig 2, which also started off as Switch exclusive but, no doubt like this game, was eventually released on other formats.
SteamWorld Quest is told as a story by a robot pirate to its child but we wouldn’t worry too much about the logistics of all that, as the fact that most of the characters are robots has never really had much impact on the SteamWorld games beyond a few cheap jokes and some gameplay contrivances. Instead, it’s been the strength of the gameplay mechanics which has anchored the franchise and here Swedish developer Image & Form Games offer their take on card-based battling.
If there’s one consistent weakness amongst the SteamWorld games it’s the generally poor quality of their dialogue. Whether or not it’s a translation problem we’re not sure but while the games are clearly attempting to be irreverent and funny they very rarely hit the mark. Unfortunately, SteamWorld Quest has more dialogue than usual, despite the story itself amounting to nothing but a call to arms against generically evil bad guys, which can lead to a lot of frantic button mashing to skip to the action.
Although this is a fully-fledged role-playing game, with exploration, levelling-up, and all the expected trimmings the focus is squarely on the combat. The basics are extremely easy to pick up, as you manage a deck of cards for each character, which are combined together and then plucked at random each turn. Of these you can then choose to use three, for all the offensive, defensive, and stat-nobbling purposes you would see in a normal role-playing game.
The more powerful cards require a certain number of steam points to use, which are earned each round when you successfully use a normal card. This creates a simple but flexible battle system, where the strategies become more and more involved as you collect more specialised cards and add them to your deck. There are also additional factors to consider, such as the elemental weakness of allies and enemies – which in turn often cause effects such as burn damage or poisoning.
But that’s still only the half of it, as you learn to consider addition rules such as the effect equipping different weapons has and the fact that you get to use an extra card if you stick to just one character’s deck. Since you never know what specific cards you’ll be dealt you have to learn to think on the fly, while creating several contingencies based on which cards not present are likely to turn up later.
SteamWorld Quest (NS) – the graphics really are very good
Since the game uses a series of flip-screen 2D screens, not unlike Vanillaware games such as Odin Sphere, exploration is very straightforward and in truth rather dull. The graphics are excellent, and also reminiscent of Vanillaware’s work, with a more detailed, painterly style than previous SteamWorld games. But the layout of the dungeons is so simplistic that, no matter what they look like, trundling around them searching for secrets quickly becomes repetitive.
Card battle game are an acquired taste and if you haven’t enjoyed them in other role-playing games then you’re not likely to here either. Although if you’re new to the concept this is a good place to start… at least at first. There are some unfortunate difficulty spikes that lull you into a false sense of security with ordinary encounters and then suddenly throw much harder battles at you during key story moments.
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The boss battles are the worst and it’s unclear whether this is a purposeful attempt to increase the sense of challenge or a failure to balance the difficultly properly, but it can be very dispiriting when up till that point you’ve been breezing through everything. It’s especially problematic because it appears as if the bosses aren’t using the same rules as you, and lesser enemies, when it comes to the more powerful cards – which is a cardinal sin in any game, especially one with a difficultly level as uneven as this.
The battle system is very well thought out and the variety in the characters and their abilities is excellent but SteamWorld never feels quite as refined as the previous games. That’s perhaps a good reason to hope for a sequel, but to be honest we’re happy for them to simply move on and tackle another genre. Having one franchise take on so many different styles of games is a fascinating thing and even when it’s not a complete success the end result is never less than interesting.
In Short: The weakest of the recent SteamWorld games but still an enjoyable, if rather unfair, mix of role-playing game and card-battler.
Pros: Well-designed and enjoyable combat system, with plenty of variety in abilities and characters. Excellent graphics and fun designs.
Cons: Exploration and dungeon design is very basic, and quickly repetitive. Numerous difficultly spikes and unfair boss battles. Unfunny dialogue.
Formats: Nintendo Switch
Publisher: Thunderful Publishing
Developer: Image & Form Games
Release Date: 25th April 2019
Age Rating: 12
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