Image & Form Games returns for its second outing on the indie scene with SteamWorld Heist, a game which comes out just at the right time for our Game of the Year discussions. Make no mistake, this is a title worthy of mention in that forum, and the established studio doesn't come within a 30-mile blast radius of a "sophomore slump."

SteamWorld Heist returns players to the steampunk western setting of Image & Form's previous indie darling, SteamWorld Dig. Returning on the surface are the colorful graphics, quirky music arrangements, wonderful sound effects, and hilarious robots that inhabit this world, but both excellent titles share more than just aesthetic similarities.

Despite being from totally different genres, SteamWorld Dig being a spin on the "metroidvania" title and SteamWorld Heist clocking in as a side-scrolling tactics game, both encompass a very important methodology in keeping its players interested. Image & Form once again has mastered the art of tapping that section of the brain which craves…

That being "Just one more round!"

Miracle shots

As mentioned before, SteamWorld Heist is a side-scrolling tactics game which pits a rogue band of "cowbots" against hordes of evil space pirates, oppressive imperialist soldiers, and mind-garbling aliens fight after fight after fight.The mechanical crew sails around the remains of a shattered Earth, taking up odd-jobs and salvaging whatever water they can to help generate the steam that keeps them functioning.

While cruising around the wrecked planet, the protagonists will dock with enemy ships and basically ransack the place. Mission objectives typically boil down to one or two varieties: gathering the "swag" and eliminating all opposition. Squads of one to four, depending on the mission, will be chosen from the crew of colorful steambots, and each of their unique abilities must be utilized if they are survive their assault on the randomly generated maps.

Once on board, players control each of the bots on a side-scrolling map covered with "fog of war." Only opening doors will reveal the lurking baddies within. Like the recent XCOM games, charging in with the intentions of a full-frontal assault will only get allies killed, so it's best left to look for some cover. Behind barrels, under a wall, whichever obstacle gets the character safely out of enemy's line-of-fire.

Managing motion and firing weapons is of course key to all of this. Movement range is marked with orange and blue distances, and running to an orange spot means a character will still have enough action points to fire. Likewise, sprinting to a distant blue spot will only allow for movement without the opportunity to squeeze a bullet off. Firing at an enemy requires manual aiming that comes with no penalty for taking too much time. Rotate the gun, aim squarely at an opponent's head, and fire. Simple as that, and no dice rolls are involved with the accuracy of the bullets like in most strategy games.

Of course, if a direct shot proves to be impossible, longer range weapons also encourage the use of ricochets, the same improbable variety which makes Halo players scream "bull&@*&$!"

Progress through the levels carefully, take out enemies one at a time, collect bags of loot or enemy hats scattered among the remains, and safely evacuate survivors once all objectives are complete. Afterwards, rewards are left for the reaping, and that's the whole game. Rinse and repeat.

SteamWorld Heist isn't going to win a lot of points for the originality of its design, taking a lot of cues from XCOM: Enemy Unknown and the Worms franchise, but it still excels in every single aspect of its execution. Its genius control scheme takes very little time getting used to, and the crew should be pulling off miracle shots by the third mission. Enemies have a lot of variety. Boss battles are a lot of fun and challenge you to rethink the basics.

Everything SteamWorld Heist does, it does perfectly, but what fun is a strategy game that provides little to no incentive to come back to it? Well, Image & Form has that covered too.

Just one more round!

Much like XCOM, the plucky band of robots is backed by a minor RPG system that rewards after every fight with stat boosts, money, and of course, "swag," the in-game term for loot. Characters who survive the brawl gain experience points, and as usual, that experience will boost their statistics and teach them important new skills.

Protagonist Captain Piper Faraday masters a unique job class which allows her to raise the attack powers of nearby troops and heal them in a fix. In the meantime, her eight crewmen recruited over the course of the game also master one of five other job classes. Some are best used as snipers who take long shots before moving, and others are best utilized as bodyguards thanks to empowered melee attacks and self-regenerating health.

The limitless combinations of teams provide plenty of ways to approach a battle, and each of them adds to the depth with a customizable item loadout. Characters can equip special weapons that play up their unique abilities or grant them a skill they don't already have. Laser-sights ensure characters won't miss and can ricochet without a hitch. Shotguns and SMGs will hit enemies more than once, and some of the more powerful characters can even equip rocket launchers to blast away pesky foes hiding behind cover.

In addition to weapons, characters can bring up to two items into battle. These provide a range of additional abilities like healing, providing a defense boost, allowing them to move further, or boosting the chance of a critical hit. Some items will make bullets stronger, and my favorite allows for characters to make any jump regardless of the height of the platform they are trying to reach.

Items can be found as loot or purchased from stores with the "water" salvaged from the holds of enemy ships. Others will only become available if the team meets a certain level of reputation, SteamWorld Heist's three-star system. To gain reputation, missions must be beat flawlessly with no casualties suffered and the "epic swag" chest uncovered.

Reputation also unlocks secret missions and allows the recruitment of certain crew-members. Without it, the team is nothing.

Between weapon loadouts, unique abilities, and the distinguishing tactics of each robot, there are plenty of ways to approach battles, and SteamWorld Heist excels in pushing and inspiring players into seeing them all. The true drive of this game comes from the lurking desire for "just one more round." Like its predecessor SteamWorld Dig, which encouraged fans to jump down into its mine "just one more time" to get that stat boost or that extra weapon, SteamWorld Heist always leaves just enough dangling encouraging the crew to raid another ship.

Missions are brief, fun, and only repetitive in the sense that something like Final Fantasy Tactics gets repetitive. The looming presence of great rewards outshines the notion that this might be the the third time clearing this map, and the ease and speed of battle disguises the grind as pure fun.

Bang for your buck

It's safe to say I'm a huge fan of SteamWorld Heist, and I recommend it to anyone who might be interested. Now, the sticking point for some might be the price tag. At launch on the Nintendo 3DS eShop, Image & Form is asking for $20, knocked down to $16 until Dec. 31, a bit steeper than the average indie title.

I don't enjoy rating a game by the price, but I'll step in to say that this is definitely fair. SteamWorld Heist's main campaign only lasts about 10 hours, but thanks to five different difficulty levels, plenty of "rare" weapons to seek out, randomly generated dungeons, abilities tucked away at higher levels, the reputation and other New Game+ options, Image & Form's latest provides the bang for all those bucks.

Buy it now for the discounted price and makeaway like a robot bandit with one of the Nintendo 3DS' best exclusives of the year.


Disclaimer: We were provided a review copy of SteamWorld Heist by Image & Form for the Nintendo 3DS, and we played 10 hours of the single player campaign on Regular difficulty before writing his review.