Nintendo produced an eShop surprise this week with the sudden arrival of a demo for Code Name S.T.E.A.M, the next release from the strategy masters at Intelligent Systems. Revealed at E3 2014, this title arrives in North America on 13th March and Europe two months later on 15th May; as a result this free download has arrived earlier than we'd perhaps expect.
In this impressions article, then, we're going to tackle two topics - our thoughts on the game itself based on the demo's content, and then the rationale behind the demo release itself.
Kicking off with impressions of the game itself, this writer's in a mixed place at the time of writing - on the one hand the strategy-genre experience of Intelligent Systems shines through, while on the flipside we're a little unsure over whether the concept and approach is quite on the money. Working through the demo was enjoyable enough, but it didn't feel like a top-tier Nintendo release that's comfortable in its own skin.
For starters it's a pretty generous demo, with multiple stages that - when blasting through - can offer around 90 minutes of play. It's not the length that's key so much as the fact that it introduces various vital elements; we get a good taste of the setting and early storyline, while we learn about core mechanics such as upgrades through collecting medals, refilling a steam tank by accessing information screens and 'overwatch'. The latter is vital, as certain characters can counter-attack during enemy moves to disrupt their assault, yet 'only' when steam is left over. Managing steam supplies for movement and attacks is a clever idea that works well.
The big change from the standard Intelligent Systems fare, of course, is the over-the-shoulder perspective and fully 3D environments. It's an interesting approach that immediately feels a little uncomfortable, but as your team grows you can survey the map by switching characters and looking around thoroughly. While you also have a choice of weapons - there'll be three per character in the final game - the approach to attacking is rather different, as you manually aim your shots with the touch screen or - when using the New Nintendo 3DS - the C-Stick. This mechanic's given added depth courtesy of flashing weak spots on enemies that do more damage.
Conceptually it seems smart, but we're a little unsure on execution. Precision aiming can be fiddly on the C-Stick but more precise on the touch screen, so the ability to make minor adjustments is welcome, but defining a strategy feels rather hit-and-miss. An enemy's capabilities only become clear after they attack you - some are melee while others attack from range - and there seems to be little way to gauge how far an opponent can move before they're in range, for example. The pieces fall into place with more play as you identify foes and remember their capabilities, but there's still a lack of precision due to the fresh camera perspective; we're not fully convinced that the genre and approach blend seamlessly.
There's potential here, though, and as your team grows and introduced new abilities there's an increasing sense of control and logic to proceedings. The slapstick setting - a steampunk London that's actually a US city - is rather entertaining, with the various cutscenes and settings doing an entertainment job of mimicking an alternate universe of the 1920s, with the comic book influences also shining through.
Overall, this writer enjoyed playing through this demo and is still anticipating the final result, albeit with a few question marks and niggles over the blend of 3D environments and turn-based strategy.
A final note - the aliens take far too long to make their moves; it feels like a hidden loading time, but we hope it's sped up in the final product.
Nintendo's recent strategy with demos has been interesting, reflecting the common perception that free excerpts of titles don't always lead to improved sales; Nintendo's chosen games carefully. Recent examples include the Super Smash Bros. for Nintendo 3DS download, released through Club Nintendo to generate hype, while a 'Special Version' of the Pokémon Omega Ruby & Alpha Sapphire demo had similar goals, while also offering an extra treat for those that got hold of a code. The method of distribution - through limited codes before finally arriving on the 3DS eShop - was to drive anticipation; a similar idea has been followed with Monster Hunter 4 Ultimate, with codes issued to Club Nintendo members but a general eShop version promised soon. The difference with that demo is that it undoubtedly has the secondary goal of introducing Capcom's series to more players and showing them the ropes, as that's a franchise yet to truly take off in the West.
Code Name S.T.E.A.M. arrived directly on the eShop, however, and with little fanfare - this perhaps reflects the fact that it's struggled to truly capture the imagination of Nintendo's public. Certainly within the Nintendo Life demographic we've noticed that, once its E3 reveal was done-and-dusted, reaction has been rather muted. It's not a case of disliking the game, we don't feel, but that as a new IP it hasn't grabbed attention; it's also telling that when it was announced, the web was flooded with complaints of "where's Golden Sun".
Intelligent Systems has certainly earned the right to expand its horizons, especially as it has largely mastered its conventional approach - let's not forget it's faithfully turning around a new Fire Emblem, too. Yet the challenge with any new franchise is winning over those on the fence and helping it to stand out against its competition on the market; on both scores Code Name S.T.E.A.M. is up against it.
By releasing the demo this early Nintendo can capitalise on the renewed chatter around 3DS with the upcoming triple release on 13th February in the West - New Nintendo 3DS, Monster Hunter 4 Ultimate and The Legend of Zelda: Majora's Mask 3D. Though the full release is still some time away, too, it's a meaty demo for players to enjoy, while like some predecessors it allows you to carry across items and progress into the final game. There's incentive, then, to replay stages to collect all medals and master the mechanics - in doing so we can also adjust to its approach and gameplay, too.
We have no doubt that Nintendo closely follows chatter around its various upcoming games, and perhaps its data suggested a similar trend to what we've seen within the Nintendo Life community - Code Name S.T.E.A.M is yet to win the majority over. The demo helps bring some attention to the stylish attempt to shake up the strategy formula.
Have you tried the Code Name: S.T.E.A.M demo yet? Let us know what you think of it in the comments below.