Review: SteamWorld Quest
Title: SteamWorld Quest: Hand of Gilgamech
Genre: Role playing, adventure
Developer: Image & Form
Publisher: Thunderful Publishing
Platforms: Switch, PC (Reviewed)
Release: April 25, 2019
Nearly ten years ago now, Image & Form made the bold decision to explore different gameplay genres with each installment of their robot-populated and steam-obsessed franchise of SteamWorld. It was a risky decision that does give them a lot of flexibility to make whatever type of game they want, but it also comes with the tacit expectation that they come up with something fresh every time. SteamWorld Quest is suitably unique as it marks the studio’s first foray into turn-based RPG’s, and it’s a surprisingly solid addition to the SteamWorld anthology. Its typical trappings won’t do much for card collecting detractors, but SteamWorld Quest further demonstrates how flexible and capable Image & Form are at skillfully implementing vastly different gameplay styles and rolling with them.
The Tip and the Top
The turn-based combat system utilized by SteamWorld Quest manages to be both accessible and brimming with complexity. You’ll be dealt a hand of cards from your deck in each battle, and you can use three each turn. All your typical RPG actions have a card associated with them: attacks, status effects, heals, and buffs are all here. Each enemy plays their cards immediately after yours, and you’ll be dealt a few cards at the beginning of your next turn to help keep your hand full of options. There are many finer details and systems that can make battles mind-bogglingly complex with things like different card types, the ability to swap cards out of your hand, stat-boosting equipment, type advantages, character-specific deck building, card upgrades, and special sequence attacks to only name a few. It’s a lot to wrap your head around, but the game takes its time to introduce you to everything in a staggered fashion over the course of the first few chapters to help keep you from getting too confused or overwhelmed.
The card-focused combat isn’t only easy to get into and hard to master - it’s also quick and fun to interact with. Cards have large symbols indicating their attack or healing power so that you don’t have to spend too much time reading descriptions, and you can mix and match the three cards you lay down before locking them in for use. While the deck building system can be a bit cumbersome to navigate, it does a great job at clearly displaying which cards you have access to and what loadout you’re currently rolling with for each party member. There was clearly a lot of time and effort put into polishing all the card-collecting combat systems, and it shows.
SteamWorld Quest’s cast of colorful characters is bursting with fun and quippy personality that help keep the dozen hour journey from growing too stale. In typical SteamWorld fashion, all the characters are whacky robots. Each one has their own distinct personality, shape, color-scheme, and well-animated movements that make each one feel like a distinct person rather than a lifeless assembly-line robot. The game’s great dialogue helps you quickly and easily develop an affinity for each character in the main party, and each of the protagonists has a personality archetype that strays away from tired clichés to provide plenty of entertaining conversations over the course of a chapter.
The Flip and the Flop
Despite there being three difficulties to choose from, the complex and nuanced card-based combat system puts up fairly large barriers that you’ll have to plow your way past before persevering through the game’s more difficult encounters. Getting a game over and losing some progress is nearly inevitable, and building your decks around different types of enemies can take a few failed attempts before getting right. It’s frustrating to spend so much time and effort putting together a deck that gets you through all of a chapter’s enemies only to have the final boss use an element or ability you weren’t aware of that wipes out your whole party with one fell swoop. You can grind to level up your characters’ stats to help mitigate the problem, but fighting the same enemies over and over doesn’t help the pacing in a game that’s already over 12 hours long.
While SteamWorld Quest’s colorful cast of characters is fun to watch interact, the plot itself is very thin and doesn’t develop far past good guys vs. big bad territory. The game’s story does have its emotionally impactful moments, but they all come from character interactions rather than interesting plot developments. Thankfully conversations among characters are plentiful and largely remain entertaining throughout, but more meat on those plot bones would’ve helped make every enemy encounter feel more weighty and impactful in the grand scheme.
SteamWorld Quest’s characters are vibrant, colorful, and full of movement; but the same cannot be said of the game’s locales and environments. You’ll have to traverse countless identically-shaped rectangular rooms and areas before getting to the boss at the end of a chapter. It doesn’t help that every setting is either a cave, castle, or forest that doesn’t change things up enough to make you feel as though you’re making meaningful progress on your journey. Many of the backgrounds are static and faded which helps the character models pop, but it doesn’t do much to give any of the game’s settings a tangible atmosphere or sense of place. The game’s areas feel noticeably less lively than the characters do.
Final Grade: B-
SteamWorld Quest is an exceedingly impressive initial outing from a studio that’s new to card-collecting RPG combat. The fights are fun, the characters are colorful, and its systems are deep. The lacklustre environments, plodding pace, and periodically pointless plot don’t keep Quest from being a solid addition to the SteamWorld series; but it isn’t going to win over those that aren’t already sold on card combat.