After releasing the sublime SteamWorld Dig, many expected Image & Form to go the safe route of producing a follow up that more or less built on that foundation. Though we would eventually receive SteamWorld Dig 2, the company chose to defy expectations and make SteamWorld Heist, a game which belongs to another genre entirely. Now, it's arriving on the Switch in the form of SteamWorld Heist: Ultimate Edition, and as expected this iteration lives up to its name.
First, let's address that "Ultimate" part of the title. This version of SteamWorld Heist contains all previously released DLC, along with some certain extra content not in the original release. In addition to this, optional touch screen controls are included, which are just as useful as traditional button controls. Of course, the real draw here is the ability to play the game in HD both on the go and at home; it plays brilliantly in either configuration, though this writer particularly enjoyed playing it in portable mode. At any rate, there's been nothing lost in the translation to a new platform, and having all the extra content included really helps to round out the package nicely.
The premise of SteamWorld Heist is quite a bit different than its Dig brethren, taking place in a separate part of the timeline. You primarily play the role of Captain Piper Faraday, a “Cowbot” captain with a team of mercs-for-hire who travel the stars in a desperate struggle for survival in the wake of the Earth’s destruction. The story can be surprisingly involved at times, and ties together with the broader SteamWorld storyline in exciting and unexpected ways.
The main gameplay of SteamWorld Heist is quite different from the Metroidvania inclinations of its Dig brethren. Though it’s still a 2D action game, SteamWorld Heist is an XCOM-like turn-based strategy game, with some elements that rely more directly on player skill. The tactical element sees you manoeuvring your team through procedural levels, figuring out how to best search the ships and dispatch enemies. The skill element comes with how you attack your enemies; manually aiming each character’s gun and ricocheting bullets off walls to get around cover.
Your team is as diverse as it is sizeable, with different characters that suit a variety of playstyles. Different classes dictate the kinds of guns that each character can use, with everything from snipers to grenade launchers to shotguns being fair game. Properly kitting out a well-balanced team is essential to success, and the different mission types do a great job of encouraging you to switch things up regularly. A mission that features tightly focused squads of enemies, for example, might be best overcome by using a demolitions-focused team. New characters are made available at a decent clip, too, and though many of them share the same classes, each one has their own quirks and personalities that make them feel unique.
Rotating team members is especially encouraged due to how experience points are only awarded to those who partake in a given mission, and most characters really start to hit their stride after you level them up a couple times. Though you’ll occasionally be given stat boosts that increase health or movement range, the real upgrades come in the unique character abilities that greatly boost their effectiveness in certain situations. Piper, for example, has an ability that buffs that damage output of characters around her, while also allowing her the option to heal them. Billy has an ability that grants him additional movement capability if he successfully kills an enemy with a melee strike. Each character becomes more unique as you develop them, and it can be genuinely exciting to see them evolve as you move them up. Suffice to say, you won’t be at much of a loss for options when it comes to team arrangement, and that’s before you factor swag into the equation.
Each mission has a series of swag bags sitting around, and once you successfully complete the mission these are then opened. Many of them contain water — the game’s currency — but a few pieces of loot are also handed out each time. These can either take the shape of new guns or “utilities”, which are equippable items that you can give two of to each character. These have a wide array of applications, be it extending health and movement, or giving your character an additional attack option. Surplus or unwanted utilities can then be sold off for water, which you can then invest in the many shops you pass through on your journey to get better stuff that fits your team. This whole loot system is brilliantly implemented and is one of the primary motivating forces of progression in SteamWorld Heist; it’s always exciting when a mission ends to see what you’ve gotten this time around.
For a download game, SteamWorld Heist boasts a surprising amount of content and replay value. The story lasts for about fifteen hours and maintains a fantastic pace; just when you’re starting to get used to a given enemy type or mission, the game throws in another curveball to ratchet things up another notch. As this is the definitive edition of the game, the Outsider DLC expansion is integrated into the main game, with all levels, characters, weapons and hats included right from the off. Couple all this with a fascinating New Game Plus mode, and you’ve got a game that will last you for quite a long time. After all, why not do another run and challenge yourself by prioritizing another team setup? It’s that constant encouragement of experimentation that keeps one engaged in the game, and the broad variety of tactical options leaves quite a hefty sum of possibilities.
From a presentation standpoint, SteamWorld Heist is an absolute delight. The charming steampunk artstyle that the SteamWorld games are known for is here in full force, and the early 1930’s-style voiceovers add a certain vintage quality to cutscenes. There's plenty of lighthearted humour present, too. Dialogue between characters plays into this, and the things your characters sometimes shout when they get pegged by a bullet will put a smile on your face. All characters can also wear a hat into battle, with plenty of ridiculous options available as you build a collection. The soundtrack does a great job of matching the industrial theme, too, providing a series of plodding tracks that evoke the sounds of a steadily running machine. It’s great music for the thoughtful pace of gameplay, while also being quite applicable to a combat setting. Overall, this is a stylish game that clearly understands its identity well and fully embraces it.
SteamWorld Heist: Ultimate Edition is a fantastic port of a fantastic game, and it fits perfectly on the Switch. Deep, engaging gameplay and stylish presentation combine to make this one of the standout indie releases of the year; this is a great example of a well put-together game. If you are at all a fan of strategy games, or are just looking for a fun diversion to occupy your time over the next couple weeks, pick up this game. It puts a neat twist on standard turn-based strategy gameplay, and stands as another fantastic entry in the SteamWorld series.