Image & Form, the Swedish development studio that shot to prominence with the success of SteamWorld Dig on the 3DS eShop, which was subsequently ported to Wii U and other platforms, has announced the next game in the SteamWorld franchise. This isn’t a straight-up sequel, however, but a spin-off into a new genre for the series — SteamWorld Heist.
The setting for this new adventure is outer-space, as you captain a ship to build a team of steam-driven robots and raid other ships. The gameplay is driven by a dynamic turn-based strategy mechanic with a 2D perspective, as you explore rival ships and engage in gun battles with opposing robots. Speaking to Nintendo Life in an extensive interview to be published later today, Image & Form CEO Brjann Sigurgeirsson gave the following summary of the new title:
It’s a game about space adventure and survival, where you recruit this team of rag-tag robots and explore what’s left of a destroyed earth. The idea of the core gameplay is that you board enemy ships and command this crew in a unique variety of turn-based combat — but obviously it’s not only about this combat, it’s like Dig, it’s going to be story driven. There’s going to be a start, there are going to be characters with quite a bit more depth hopefully than we got to with the characters of Dig, and there’s going to be an end to the game. So in those respects they are similar, but otherwise the gameplay, as you have seen, is really quite different. Where Dig was a Metroidvania digging platform adventure, Heist is a turn-based combat game set in space featuring steam driven robots. So they’re very, very far apart in terms of gameplay.
SteamWorld Heist is targeting a February / March 2015 release, and will ultimately arrive on 3DS, Wii U, PC/Mac/Linux, PS4/Vita and Xbox One; the order of release across platforms is yet to be finalised.
We’ve been fortunate enough to have had a first look at this new title, and you can read our impressions below.
Aside from its visual style, SteamWorld Heist — at least in its early form — shares one defining characteristic with SteamWorld Dig: it encourages thoughtful progress and punishes sloppy mistakes. While the build we’ve played is admittedly described as a “cruel demo” and doesn’t include any tutorial or story aspects, it taught us to consider our moves carefully. Diving in over-enthusiastically or failing to think more than one move ahead will not work — the danger’s not in getting trapped in a mine with no escape but self destruction, as with Dig, but in meeting a tragic end by being shot up into a pile of nuts and bolts.
Beginning on our own aboard a ship, our first task was to select a ‘tier one’ target — from a map screen — to raid on our own in a desperate search for money. Docking with an enemy ship immediately switches up free movement in a 2D plane to turn-based strategy, with clear lines determining your limitations of movement in each turn. Environmental features can serve as cover and once setup in your position of choice you have the option to manually aim your weapon and fire at opposing robots.
The combat is surprisingly complex, and in practice appears to be rather like a 2D version of Code Name S.T.E.A.M, as you weigh up your travelling distance and must account for what opponents will do next. Strategy is allied to execution, as missing a shot or failing to make a turn really count can bring great pressure. You must also account for your robot’s capabilities, and the implications around their weapon of choice — a range attack with a shotgun is foolish, for example, while a sniper may have terrific range but be rather weak if targeted by the enemy.
Like any strategy game, in that respect, your task is to work within a team and utilise each unit’s strengths. In this case we used our initial earnings to pick up a powerful robot with a short range weapon, and after more successful heists went back for an old — and no doubt needing an oil change — robot with a sniper-pistol. In an early run we got an attack horribly wrong and lost a team member, and in this build it was gone forever; our only recourse was to steal more money and buy the model again, which also set us back a stage in the tiered upgrades of robots available — rather cutely — from a bar; as Star Wars taught us, if you need a mercenary hit up the nearest pub.
After some tough early defeats we quickly settled into the rhythm that SteamWorld Heist imposes; the objective isn’t necessarily to storm the enemy ships and obliterate all on board, but in basic raids you want to avoid as much trouble as possible. Upon arrival a move counter tells you how long you have before enemy reinforcements arrive, and being caught with these hefty backups between you and your escape is a recipe for disaster. It’s all about being smart, dividing the team sensibly — you’re exploring multiple routes with no map, as it’s not your ship — and making off with as much loot as possible in the limited time you have. If you can sneak by an enemy without engaging them, then all the better.
This early build didn’t have any story elements, it was raw concept gameplay, but it points to what could be an intriguing title. It won’t simply be about quick raids over and over again — there will be variety — but the core mechanics are fundamentally solid; a clear user interface and design that forces caution and problem solving is already in place. It’s already possibly to crouch behind a barrel and ricochet a bullet off a roof to blow up an explosive canister, if you’re being clever, so we’re intrigued to see what more environments and refinement can bring. Our ship also had limited travelling range to match a modest number of initial levels, but the scope for upgrades and managing exploration with upgrades is rather promising.
As we’ve described in the announcement article above, this isn’t a sequel in the classic sense, but rather a spin-off into an entirely new approach. Despite this fans of SteamWorld Dig will find sources of comfort — the designs of the robots and the steampunk aesthetic are still in place, and the limited range of music here suggests that won’t be taking a step backwards, either.
It’s not SteamWorld Dig 2, but that shouldn't be a source of disappointment; at the moment there’s not much like SteamWorld Heist in the market, and we look forward to following its progress into 2015.
Let us know whether you're excited about this release, and be sure to check back later for an extensive interview with Image & Form.