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Image: Thunderful

Is there any genre SteamWorld is afraid to tackle? Starting life as an RTS in SteamWorld Tower Defense, Image & Form’s long-running anthology series has been to space, the Wild West and it’s even taken on the form of a fairy tale. And while Dig, the Metroidvania-style series, is arguably the most popular, many have a soft spot for the 2015 3DS hit SteamWorld Heist.

Returning to the strategy-esque roots of the franchise, SteamWorld Heist is a side-on turn-based strategy game that takes the unique aesthetic and humour of the SteamWorld series and combines it with gunslinging, bullet-ricocheting action. We loved it, and Ultimate Edition on Switch is a no-brainer. Even so, we weren’t expecting to see Heist return, but nine years later, SteamWorld Heist II is almost here. We got a chance to go hands-on with the PC version of the game at Summer Game Fest, and we can already tell this is a well-oiled machine that fans will love, and newcomers can jump straight into, too.

SteamWorld Heist II is all about steampunk sailors this time around, and the new setting is also where the biggest gameplay change is. Your base of operations is your submarine, and this is where all of your crew (read: playable characters) gather. You can talk to them, find out what to do next, and then embark on your next adventure from here – similar to the first game.

Taking to the ship's wheel — a fancy computer terminal — you have a chance to explore a huge open world on the high seas. Most of this just involves directing your boat around the water, following the map to find your next heist, or simply exploring. The section of the game we played through was just before the midpoint of the game, so we were given some guidance by producer Petter Magnusson, who told us to go north for our first mission, and then head west for some more exploration along with a second mission.

The thing is, we got so distracted because the map was a lot bigger than we expected. The game does guide you towards your next objective, but sailing the big blue seas is really fun, and we spotted lots of little details on the islands. A little umbrella and a towel on a beach; metal scraps by some rocks; and lots of crates with items and currency within.

Our dilly-dallying, however, led us to some trouble – an enemy ship, and it was firing on us. Ship combat simply involves you retaliating by using your cannons, charging into the enemy ship, or running away. It’s basic, but it adds flavour to the overworld and really hammers home that sea-faring theme. We were surprised every time we were spotted by the enemy.

Eventually, we did make our way to our first mission, where we were reintroduced to SteamWorld Heist’s combat. We selected two different characters – Daisy, a sniper, and Crowbar, a flanker. Daisy specialises in taking foes out from afar, while Crowbar is fast and can get close to the enemy. Each mission will let you choose who to take with you, but after succeeding, your combatants will need to rest, so you’ll have to drop them off at a nearby tavern to regain their strength.

Once we jumped in, we had to make our way to the back of the facility and take out the leader. The gameplay is essentially the same as in the original SteamWorld Heist, but this level had plenty of extra challenges to throw at us. There was a timer that, if it ran out, would signal waves of enemies coming out to cause us problems. Another issue was the automated guns at the top of some rooms – we could take them out, but they were also pretty dangerous.

One thing that stuck out was the layout of the stage we played. The level quickly branched off into two paths that, while both leading to the same end, allowed us to split our team up to focus on either keeping enemies busy or speeding to the goal. There are also items and loot to pick up along the way, and depending on how much you collect, you can improve your rating and get better rewards. The layout of every stage is vital to pulling off those excellent ricochet shots, and we felt really good every time we managed to bounce bullets off the wall.

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Image: Thunderful

Once we made it to the stage's end, however, that wasn’t the end of things. We had to make our way back out; to our surprise, we actually failed and both our units were destroyed. Fortunately, SteamWorld Heist II gives you one free retry per level, and it loads from an autosave during the mission. That gave us a chance to change our focus from shooting everything in sight to getting the hell out of there.

Of course, you can’t just move as you wish, as movement also takes up action points, which you need to attack or defend. Picking the right spot to hide your characters, or deciding whether to take out an enemy first, is a risk that you have to weigh up. But utilising Crowe’s special skill – which allows them to teleport further distances – meant we could sneak up on enemies and take them out.

Every single character has their own unique special skill. Daisy’s increases her shot accuracy dramatically, providing a very clear shot line so we could almost guarantee a hit. Combining these character skills with the robust and improved class system broadens the amount of customisation available, and it’s something we can see ourselves tinkering with for hours.

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Image: Thunderful

We’ve already mentioned the sniper and flanker, but we also got to play around with the boomer, an explosive class which deals damage in areas, and engineer, a healing and debuffing class that can also get two shots in during a turn. These classes are tied to your character’s weapon – changing from a rifle to a shotgun would change that character’s class from a sniper to a flanker, for example. And it also gives that character access to more skills.

Completing missions earns you cogs which you can spend to unlock new skills. And those default class abilities are always accessible if you unlock them, even if you change weapons. We didn’t get much of a chance to play around with this, but we did spend time looking over the skill grid and each class for each character. Giving frail characters healing abilities, or fast characters close-combat attacks seem like easy wins early on, but the further into the game you get, things might get too dangerous. Luckily, you can respec your characters whenever you want.

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Image: Thunderful

There are a few lingering questions we have for SteamWorld Heist II ahead of its launch in just over a month, however. The game looks absolutely gorgeous on PC, with beautiful visuals and fantastically smooth performance – we’d like to think the Switch won’t struggle too much. The last game in the series, SteamWorld Build, certainly took a hit on the Switch, but that was a fully 3D city builder-hybrid. So that sliver of doubt is always with us, but we're hopeful for Heist II.

Secondly, is Heist what SteamWorld fans want right now? It’s been a tough year for Image & Form and Thunderful, with the latter reporting that SteamWorld Build’s sales fell “slightly short of expectations” and development on a new SteamWorld game, Headhunter, has been halted. SteamWorld Dig 2 came out seven years ago, and fans are desperate for a third dive into the depths. Given the promise, the charm, and the fun of SteamWorld Heist II's early hours, we hope the franchise can get back on its feet and that fans will show up and be ready to celebrate.

SteamWorld Heist II launches on 8th August on Switch and all other platforms. Pre-orders are now open. Are you setting sail for the scrapheap in a few weeks' time? Let us know in the comments.