Code Name: STEAM



John Henry is a folk hero who in­spires many emo­tions, poured out in bal­lads, sto­ries and plays across decades. One hith­erto-ab­sent re­ac­tion to such works is a de­sire to gag the most recog­nis­able vic­tim of su­per­man syn­drome ever. It took Code Name: STEAM – a turn-based squad strat­egy game from Fire Em­blem cre­ator In­tel­li­gent Sys­tems – to achieve that.

It wouldn’t be easy, mind, this leg­endary hulk bulked up by the boiler on his back and the steam-pow­ered ar­ma­ments in his hands, plus two me­chan­i­cal limbs. Yes, this pa­tri­otic comic-book rein­ven­tion is hardly faith­ful to the source, but it does look the part, and the same goes for his league of ex­tra­or­di­nary team­mates. The hor­rors begin when they open their mouths.

“Musta heard me clankin’ around,” he booms with mind-numb­ing reg­u­lar­ity when he passes within sight of an alien. “I never was any good at hidin’,” he bel­lows, even when enemies stum­ble across him dur­ing their turn, as if a tell were needed when the fol­low-up is two shots to the face. “So much for stealth!” You don’t say?

But per­haps th­ese too-fre­quent quips would sting less were they not re­minders of how of­ten Code Name: STEAM punc­tures its own com­bat sys­tems, let­ting the air out of a tem­plate of no small prom­ise. There is still much to like: your squad, which soon fills out to four, is picked from a grow­ing se­lec­tion box of quirky lit­er­ary char­ac­ters, each with a main gun, a se­lectable sub­weapon and an of­ten de­light­ful one-shot spe­cial abil­ity. Th­ese are di­rectly con­trolled dur­ing your turn in real time, with moves be­tween the grid squares su­per­im­posed on top of charm­ing 3D maps con­sum­ing a unit of steam from your tank. Fine ad­just­ments on a tile are ef­fec­tively free, and you can also backpedal, re­claim­ing your steam. You aim man­u­ally, us­ing ei­ther New 3DS’s sec­ond-stick nub, the touch­screen or the face but­tons, seek­ing the weakspots on en­emy forces to in­crease dam­age. The re­sult is a tac­ti­cal sys­tem that em­pha­sises fi­nesse and spa­tial po­si­tion­ing – at least when it isn’t fight­ing against the lack of a tac­ti­cal map, and the over­watch me­chanic.

As in X-Com, both your team and ranged aliens can adopt a state where they’ll take a snap re­ac­tion shot at op­po­nents that move into sight and range dur­ing their turn. All this re­quires is enough steam left in the tank to fire your equipped weapon, and a gun that sup­ports it. But there’s a de­cided in­equal­ity be­tween the two sides, em­pha­sised par­tic­u­larly in the mid-game, where the dif­fi­culty spikes re­peat­edly. Weapon ranges are am­bigu­ous, so it’s hard to judge ex­actly when aliens pose a threat, and the chunky na­ture of move­ment and aim­ing means that you’ll al­most al­ways trig­ger re­ac­tion fire be­fore you can loose your own shots (at least un­til you un­lock two char­ac­ters with very long-ranged guns deep into the cam­paign). Your foe suf­fers no such dis­ad­van­tage, lead­ing to painful mo­ments where you view a squad­mate on over­watch get by­passed or rid­dled from just out of range with­out an­swer­ing fire.

Ev­ery mission, mean­while, is de­signed to keep your squad mov­ing, fresh enemies spawn­ing in to dis­cour­age dawdling. Early in the cam­paign, sce­nar­ios are also in­tro­duced where you’ll face or­bital bom­bard­ment if you don’t crack on. In short, this is a de­sign where a spiked wall pushes you for­ward into the snare traps in your path. At least a patch that speeds up en­emy turns means it will no longer drag while it does so.

Pub­lisher Nin­tendo De­vel­oper In­tel­li­gent Sys­tems For­mat 3DS Re­lease May 14 (JP), 15 (EU), out now (US) Where the game par­tially re­deems it­self is in its hammy tone, and va­ri­ety of in­ven­tive guns and mis­sions

Pun­ish­ing sys­tems are part of this de­sign doc­u­ment, of course, but In­tel­li­gent Sys­tems doesn’t al­ways know when to end the pain. Some enemies barely move, leav­ing mul­ti­ple re­ac­tion shots in the tank. Since th­ese are an un­known quan­tity and will be trig­gered by the tini­est frac­tion of move­ment, you can take sev­eral hits once you’re in dan­ger. Even X-Com never pun­ished you for turn­ing on the spot to aim. Re­ac­tion shots also come with a chance to in­duce stun, rob­bing a team­mate of the rest of their go and mak­ing them more vul­ner­a­ble to dam­age. Fail­ing in a Hail Mary sprint to the goal be­cause the game spawned two enemies out­side the exit this turn, which dish out a hail of re­ac­tion shots and stun your last man, is sure to raise your blood pres­sure. You’ll also face tiny in­sects in the sky whose ev­ery shot stuns and are near-im­pos­si­ble to hit, bob­bing teas­ingly out of your crosshairs even when di­rectly over­head. The thing is, while all the aliens have harsh tricks, sev­eral are far more man­age­able, so the sen­sa­tion flip flops be­tween fight­ing stacked odds and ill-tuned sys­tems.

Where Code Name: STEAM par­tially re­deems it­self is in its hammy tone and va­ri­ety of in­ven­tive guns and mission types. For a tale that draws heav­ily from HP Love­craft, there’s some­thing en­dear­ing about putting Abra­ham Lin­coln in a wheez­ing, steam-wreathed mech suit to battle a gi­gan­tic blue mon­ster in a minute-long boss fight, and sprin­kling the script with hot-air puns. And Wil Wheaton’s Hon­est Abe is so tonally right as to al­most jus­tify leav­ing the voice vol­ume slider alone.

There is guilty plea­sure to be had in wield­ing shuriken launch­ers and ex­plod­ing metal pen­guins, too, or us­ing Henry’s Bear Grenade to set up sym­pa­thetic ex­plo­sions with the de­layed-fuse jack-o’-lan­tern bombs that The Wiz­ard Of Oz’s scare­crow can lay down. King Queg’s (AKA Quee­queg) har­poon spe­cial is an an­i­mated treat; Tiger Lily’s heal­ing mor­tar en­livens a tra­di­tion­ally bor­ing role. The mission ob­jec­tives are no less var­ied, with sav­ing civil­ians, hunt­ing queens and de­fend­ing air­ships all com­ple­ment­ing the get-to-the-goal ba­sics.

None, how­ever, can grant enough cle­mency for the thorny, regular game­play fail­ings. Clank­ing is fine on an aes­thetic level, but Code Name: STEAM’s rat­tling parts would have had a lot more ap­peal if they had stayed con­fined to th­ese he­roes’ backs.


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