Without knowing what other reviewers think about Code Name: S.T.E.A.M. through talking to them, I’m willing to wager ahead of the embargo’s lift that the crowd will be split. The hinging point? The inherent waiting that happens between each and every single turn in this game.
I’m getting ahead of myself here. Code Name: S.T.E.A.M. is the new oddball effort from Intelligent Systems, the same studio behind the likes of Fire Emblem and Advance Wars.
Code Name: S.T.E.A.M. is a third person tactical strategy game. It’s turn based, and it features some genuinely fantastic visuals, points of humor and storyline beats. It also features an inherently annoying design flaw that anyone who played the demo can attest to.
I liked my time with Code Name: S.T.E.A.M., I do want to get that out here before we begin. It’s just that the fun I had with the game was constantly interrupted.
Abraham Lincoln isn’t dead! He’s leading a steam powered Earth defense squad!
Let’s start with the good. Code Name: S.T.E.A.M. is set in London, England in the mid-to-late 1800s. Everything in the world is driven by steam, and that makes for some really odd and interesting tech.
At the start of our adventure, aliens invade and our hero is thrust into a battlefield. Players will use this hero to recruit other historical and fictional notables on their quest to beat back the alien invaders and save the world. You’ll team up with the likes of John Henry, Tom Sawyer, a Lion (I assume the Cowardly Lion from Oz fame) and a whole bunch more. I suggest you don’t spoil yourself and figure out who is in the game before playing, because finding these new recruits is one of Code Name: S.T.E.A.M.‘s true joys.
They intend to go about saving the world through a task force set up by former President Abraham Lincoln. Their steam powered airship is meant to bring them to wherever they need to go, and new upgrades made by collecting gear on each battlefield will push the team to new heights in damage and tactics.
Look, the whole operation is extremely silly. Intelligent Systems were smart enough to build this thing up as a comic book affair, from the intro screen to the art style and the way cutscenes move as panels swipe. So, what’s obviously a massive joke actually works quite well in the context of the game.
Don’t expect a gut-wrenching serious adventure from. Code Name: S.T.E.A.M. is fun throughout its storytelling and aesthetics, and it has the graphical style and voice acting to pull it off. Yep, the cutscenes and key moments in the game feature voice-over, and it actually works quite well.
Steam makes you go and shoot.
The whole tactical movement and ability system works on the steam narrative built into the game. Every character has a full and refillable amount of steam. Movement and abilities cost pre-marked amounts, and how much steam each character has dictates exactly how much they can do in a turn.
Steam can be refilled by starting a new turn, picking up canisters on the battlefield or checking out the help panels on each map. There’s even a few save points that will let you make a decision about saving for free, spending 10 gold to save and replenish yourself or 100 to save and heal up everyone on the map. That even works for knocked out characters who will be revived near the save point.
The steam system winds up working really well, and Intelligent Systems made it so you can move about using steam in an interesting way. Instead of the steam vanishing and never coming back as you move from block to block, retracing your steps in the same move will replenish steam individually. That means, unless you’re interrupted by an alien overwatch (more on that in a bit), you can move about freely within a given range before committing to your destination.
Speaking of overwatch, you’ll also want to switch to an overwatch capable weapon and keep enough steam in reserves if you’re close to the front lines. If you don’t leave any steam in your tank, aliens can approach you unfettered and deal an attack.
A strong balance of difficulty.
Code Name: S.T.E.A.M. is actually rather difficult. The alien overwatch contributes significantly to that, but really the entire core design of using steam, the third-person perspective and the planned inability to look at the map in its entirety add up to a rather trying experience.
You won’t breeze through this game. You will use save spots and revives, and it’s very likely that you’ll lose a few missions.
I’m all for that, especially in a game that requires slow and methodical movement. Code Name: S.T.E.A.M. works well because it’s hard, and I imagine an easy version of this game wouldn’t be substantial enough to really chew on.
If you do turn a corner and stumble upon an alien thanks to the game’s numerous blind spots, there’s a good chance you’ll be hit with an overwatch attack. This kills off a bunch of your steam, and forces you to commit to a nearby location, possibly taking you out of position all because you wanted to scoop up some gear or gold. It’s tough, but it works, and you learn the value of good overwatch positioning quickly thanks to how good the aliens can be at it from time to time.
I did find that, especially early on, my weapons were exceptionally meaningless against the alien hordes. Even after aiming at the bright purple spots on some of these beasts, my weapons did only chip damage. I would have liked more aliens on the map to contend with and a stronger set of weaponry, though that’s just nitpicking.
Boredom, thy name is “Alien Movement.”
So, you take your turn, you line up your heroes, fire off your attacks, heal some units and set up in overwatch positions. You end your turn through some really slick UI animations and, well, you wait. There’s a status bar on the bottom of the screen that fills slowly as each alien makes their moves or, and I absolutely hate this, plays their “I’m sitting still animation.” The bar takes absolutely forever to fill, especially at the beginning of a map, because each alien moves one at a time.
Now, arguably, Intelligent Systems did this because of its decision to omit the overhead view. They wanted players to be able to watch alien movement unfold in order to maintain some semblance of tactical knowledge. The problem? You’re almost always behind cover, and no amount of camera twisting or fiddling will give you a good vantage point over the battlefield every single time.
More often than not, in fact, I’d end my turn and browse the Internet while waiting for the aliens to move through their motions. Again, no skip button and no speed up button.
Think back to Fire Emblem: Awakening for a moment, please. When you engaged in an attack, the screen would cut and you’d see players go at it one on one. Now, the cool thing about this game designed by the same studio? You could speed it up. Holding a button let you zoom through the animations, and it was your turn in no time.
This is such a problem in Code Name: S.T.E.A.M. because of the aforementioned difficulty that I like so much. Look, I want the game to be tough. I want to retry levels several times after employing shoddy tactics in order to learn and improve my way to victory. The issue is that the alien movement phase is so obnoxiously slow that the game turns from fun to instantly boring every single time you end a turn.
It’s crazy to me that no one stepped up and pushed this team to add at least a fast-forward button. Maybe it was a technical issue. If that’s the case, I guess I get it. But, really, if this decision was made because they wanted to let players keep up a sense of battlefield understanding, it was a bad one.
Code Name: S.T.E.A.M. is a wonderful game littered with an ever-present source of boredom.
I mentioned how polarizing I figured Code Name: S.T.E.A.M. would be in my intro specifically because it’s been really internally hard for me to figure out where I stand on this game.
I love the way it plays, how it looks, its brilliant UI, its characters, its voice acting and its very silly storyline. All of that worked for me in a huge, huge way.
But, man, that darn alien movement stuff really soured this experience. It’s constant, and it pulls down what should have otherwise been a phenomenal game.
Here’s my recommendation to you in one of my strangest reviews ever. You’re going to see a really odd Buy/Don’t Buy recommendation below, and I know that’s counter-intuitive. I’m hoping that you’ll read it and hop back up to see what I mean.
Download Code Name: S.T.E.A.M.‘s demo. Try it out. You’ll be waiting in between turns there too. If you feel like that isn’t a hindrance, this game is an absolute buy. Really, everything else is very, very good. If that alien movement phase annoys you? I’d say you should stay away.
If Intelligent Systems patches in a skip or speed up option? This game will be stellar. Here’s hoping they do.
We received a code to download and review Code Name: S.T.E.A.M. from Nintendo for the Nintendo 3DS. We completed the game before starting this review. We did not try the amiibo functionality because, unfortunately, we couldn’t find one of the Fire Emblem amiibo to use in the game.