Review: Code Name: S.T.E.A.M.

Code Name: S.T.E.A.M. feels like a Saturday morning cartoon. It’s a tale about good versus evil, humans versus aliens, and doesn’t bother itself with complicated explanations or exposition. The narrative suffers slightly as a result, but the gameplay is solid enough, despite its own flaws, to overlook that unfortunate fact. Abraham Lincoln’s Strike Team Eliminating the Alien Menace (S.T.E.A.M.) is a ragtag group of patriots, but their adventure is a welcome addition to the 3DS library.

Marrying a steampunk world with visual designs straight out of the golden-age of comics, S.T.E.A.M. is a visually striking game. Intelligent Systems expertly immerses players in its strange alternate reality, presenting its unique tale in slightly animated comic book panels with written sound effects, and along with the cacophony of gears, pistons and puffs of steam that power every contraption in sight S.T.E.A.M. creates and maintains a wonderfully realized world.

A departure from the studio’s past turn-based strategy games, S.T.E.A.M. adopts a third-person perspective that limits the player’s view to whatever is directly before each character. It can feel constricting at first, especially in comparison to some of Intelligent Systems’ other turn-based strategy series like Fire Emblem or Advance Wars, but the unpredictability and realism their bold design decision brings to the experience soon becomes apparent. It forces conservative play, but also makes each victory that much sweeter with the satisfaction of conquering a harrowing challenge.

Each unit of your team has a limited supply of steam at their disposal each turn. Any action, including moving, attacking or healing costs steam, but none is expended until the map is actually interacted with in some way. That means that until you fire at an enemy, hop up onto a ledge, or grab a health item you can move freely around the map, and that extra mobility allows you to really explore your surroundings and plan your next move. If you’ve reserved some steam when your turn ends, certain weapons can unleash overwatch attacks, allowing you to fire on enemies during their turn and catch them off guard. It makes managing your steam infinitely more important, and gives you that much more to consider while planning your attack.

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Every move requires considerable thought, too, because S.T.E.A.M. doesn’t pull any punches. The tiniest errors are punished by your alien adversaries right from the start, and players will have to become accustomed to adjusting to surprising new developments at a wicked frequency. Still, this trial-by-fire approach quickly teaches resource management and environmental awareness, emphasizing the suspense created by the third-person perspective. Intelligent Systems also had the foresight to scatter save stations and steam-replenishing hint modules throughout each stage, however, which means any player struggling to acclimate to Code Name: S.T.E.A.M.‘s unique and rugged approach to turn-based strategy can also have a fighting chance. Even experienced tacticians will likely find themselves temped by the prospect of an extra tank of steam or the security of saving mid-mission, and that’s a testament to S.T.E.A.M.‘s  challenging design.

The maps are all deliciously detailed, designed to accommodate multiple approaches and strategies depending on a player’s particular style of play. Many elements of the environment are destructible, ascendable, and strategically useful, and the most savvy players will use every inch to their advantage. The difference between victory and defeat often comes down to catching a glimpse of a hidden enemy through a bookshelf, dodging enemy fire from underneath a pallet or luring a horde of aliens into a choke point. The scenarios can feel overwhelming, but S.T.E.A.M.‘s creative implementation of its 3D world means there’s usually a tactful solution waiting to be discovered.

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Preparations for each mission begin with selecting a team of four S.T.E.A.M. agents. Each has a unique primary weapon, ability and special technique, but can be customized by equipping the different sub-weapons and boilers unlocked throughout the campaign. Because you don’t have to worry about distributing experience amongst your agents, you’re free to experiment with new character combinations and loadouts on each map, opening up some really exciting opportunities for tactical creativity and variety. New agents join your ranks pretty regularly, and when they do you’re forced to open up a spot in your squad for that particular mission. By doing so Code Name: S.T.E.A.M. challenges players to incorporate new mechanics and styles of play, while giving each new character a chance to shine. It forces you to frequently step outside your comfort zone, while also drawing your attention to each character’s unique abilities and weaknesses.

The characters themselves are colorful, eccentric and surprisingly multi-cultural. S.T.E.A.M. borrows from all sorts of sources for its roster of agents, putting its own steampunk spin on classic characters like John Henry and Tiger Lily. The diversity of the cast is impressive, but unfortunately Code Name: S.T.E.A.M. makes little effort to develop its characters. Each agent has a distinct personality, constantly communicated in cutscenes before and after missions, but despite those distinctions and the game’s strange premise, the characters rarely interact with each other past the obligatory banter. Because of this, the overarching narrative fails to distinguish itself from other alien invasion fiction, and ultimately Code Name: S.T.E.A.M. wastes a fantastic opportunity to re-purpose historically famous characters as memorable, relatable individuals.

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Luckily the gameplay is fantastic, gracefully combining the tactical approach of strategy RPGs with the swift precision of a third-person shooter. It feels great to line up and execute a shot before your enemy catches sight of you and unleashes an overwatch attack, and even better when you utilize the unique ability of one agent to expose an enemy’s glowing weak point for the rest of your team. S.T.E.A.M.’s combat is consistently fun, and with the soundtrack’s mix of thrashing guitar riffs and stirring instrumental work every battle feels like a truly epic encounter.

Sadly, things slow to a crawl during enemy turns. Because of the game’s commitment to a third-person perspective, players are often relegated to merely hearing opponent’s movements while frantically switching between the four agents in hopes of catching the smallest glimpse of an alien. It’s clear Intelligent Systems intended to build suspense with this design, but while it can be foreboding to hear so many different units shuffling around, it’s also incredibly frustrating not to be able to skip or speed up the process, killing the flow of an otherwise engaging experience.

That issue is largely remedied in the multiplayer, however. Whether playing locally or online, each player is limited to only sixty seconds per turn, increasing the tension and putting a refreshing spin on the normally leisurely pace of the campaign. Of the three available modes, only A.B.E. Battle is a let-down, trading S.T.E.A.M.‘s exciting turn-based strategy for a more action-oriented clash between two giant robots resembling America’s 16th president. The other two, Death Match and Medal Battle, each challenge players’ tactical clout in interesting ways and are well worth experiencing.

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Closing Comments:

Bursting with unpredictability and tactical depth, Code Name: S.T.E.A.M. is a solid debut for Intelligent Systems’ latest spin on turn-based strategy. It feels like a foundation destined to be refined in a sequel because of its lack of character development and slow enemy turns, but its excellent action-heavy combat easily overshadows those blemishes. Online multiplayer and a meaty campaign, along with amiibo functionality, mean there’s plenty of fun to be had in Code Name: S.T.E.A.M.‘s unique world, and it’s hard to imagine anybody running out of steam once they give it a chance.