If someone heard that SteamWorld Heist is a 2D, turn-based strategy game, they would probably shrug and pledge to check it out later. If someone told the same person that the game features a wild west shootout in space, complete with ricocheting bullets, they might roll their eyes a bit. The game’s premise is deceptively simple on text but that’s alright. Players don’t need gobbledygook when reading about a game.
SteamWorld Heist was originally released for the 3DS in 2015 after the breakout success of SteamWorld Dig. It was vastly different than its predecessor not only in gameplay but also in its setting. The protagonist is no longer digging for riches underground with a pickaxe. This time, everyone’s in space, shooting other bots away so that the team can make off with that sweet loot of water. Image & Form definitely took a creative risk and their bet paid off with multiple successes.
Heist starts as simple as it claims its premise to be. After planet Earth exploded, bots turned to space to continue their lives. Some groups of bots have taken prominence, for better or worse, each with their own agenda to advance. Meanwhile, our protagonist is a steambot named Capt. Piper Faraday, and she is aboard a hostile ship that she needs to escape. This first ship is also where newbies can learn essential controls: moving, choosing a skill, aiming, and shooting. On the way out, Capt. Faraday retrieves a cohort before escaping back to the safety of her own ship.
Turn-based shootouts are the meat and potatoes of Heist. With the help of just three buttons – R button, analog stick/directional pad, A button – players can eliminate a number of enemies and clear a load of missions. While Faraday’s guns are usually scoped (and therefore have aiming guide), most of the weapons leave the aiming to the players. Taking aim at enemy bots, either from afar or at point-blank range, is always satisfying. Executing a well-planned shot with a carefully (or haphazardly) calculated trajectory takes that satisfaction to an even higher level, even if just for the sake of collecting a silly hat.
A huge part of what makes Heist so addicting is the portability of each randomly generated mission. With the help of the trusty difficulty setting, each mission can be as smooth or as rocky as possible. “Swag” (this game’s term for loot) is the same regardless – the only difference between difficulties is the amount of experience earned. This means that the first playthrough can be intended for storytelling, and then go back to strategically steam roll every enemy in New Game+. And because the game’s autosave functionality is dependable, missions are playable in quick bursts without ever losing any progress.
Mission-based progression also means that everyone will always have a point to safely exit the game. It’s never a necessity to have to find the nearest save spot or go back to town. Players are never asked to artificially prolong their play time just to keep their progress safe.
But on the flip side, this also means that Heist will always evoke a “one more try” feeling out of anyone. It’s a clean, yet sneaky, way of keeping players hooked. The game dangles story progression in front of everyone, and it’s always tempting to play just a few more missions in order to find out what happens.
Of course, no strategy game is complete without a variety of characters and their respective classes. Aside from Capt. Faraday and her sea-loving colleague Sea Brass, more bots can and will join the player’s team. Some recruits join you without asking for anything, while others have associated costs. Players are never required to spend any of their hard-earned money, called Gallons, just to progress. Each one is there to suit every play style, thanks to their own set of specialties.
And each bot is not just a generic, soulless character. They all have their own quirks and personalities, complete with charming dialogue for each one. It’s never a requirement to talk to them, but doing so reveals a bit more about their background and the game’s general lore. During missions they also utter a word or two, allowing their personalities to still shine through in the middle of battle. Even during key cut scenes, these recruits always have something to say about the situation, which makes the game more colorful.
Character recruitment is not the only accommodation that Heist offers for its players. As mentioned earlier, the difficulty changer is available anytime outside missions. There’s no need to get stuck for hours on end just to clear a map because there is always the option to abort the mission and retry at a lower difficulty. This also makes leveling new recruits a breeze. Each difficulty level affects the number of enemies on a map, along with the damage they do.
This also means that story progression is never hindered. You, as the player, can dictate how fast or slow the story goes by just changing the difficulty. No one has to feel as if the story is sweeping them away without any input. Heist skillfully offers a sandbox-like experience of allowing players to set their own pace while still keeping a mostly linear path to story completion.
Painstakingly going after each swag bag in a mission map also ensures that the gang is swimming in Gallons and items. With enough patience, the team can get weapon and utility upgrades without ever spending a single Gallon. The swag bags have a very fair drop rate for items, ensuring that progress is never at the mercy of currency. Even inventory expansions, though rare, appear in these swag bags.
Loading screens are also cleverly hidden in this game. This is important because each mission is randomly generated. Image & Form achieved this by incorporating the ship’s docking process before and after each visit to another location. No inputs are allowed during this time, but the presence of something going on gives players a chance to watch something other than an idle screen.
Time to fly home
There are a lot more small conveniences here and there that would take an entire day to explain. Needless to say, Image & Form really knows how to respect the player: by letting them craft their own enjoyment out of a prescribed environment. They respect that it’s up to the player to experience a game their own way, and SteamWorld Heist is a testament to that. Its ability to respect player decisions without making them feel guilty about it is impressive.
So the next time you find yourself craving a game that’s perfect for quick bursts, give this one a try. Regardless of whether you consider yourself a master strategist or an expert at “winging it,” you’ll be glad you did. It’s the perfect game to cap a stunning year of video games, and you owe it to yourself to be a part of it.