Nintendo is known for its extensive library of beloved characters, most of which appear in multiple titles on a regular basis; so when an internally developed new intellectual property comes along, there's reason to be excited. Code Name: S.T.E.A.M., a third-person shooter/turn-based strategy title by Intelligent Systems - best known for the Fire Emblem and Advance Wars series - has the potential to be a successful and important franchise for Nintendo. The story is incredibly charming, the visuals are striking and colourful, and the music and voice acting are exemplary; yet some significant gameplay issues keep S.T.E.A.M. from reaching true greatness.
Code Name: S.T.E.A.M. envisions an alternate history in which steam-powered technology has become the primary source of energy and resources. Taking place in the late 1800s, the game stars Henry Fleming - the character from The Red Badge of Courage - as the newest agent of S.T.E.A.M., a special force led by Abraham Lincoln to take on otherworldly, larger-than-life threats. In this case, aliens have invaded London, destroying much of the city. Fleming - along with John Henry, Tom Sawyer, and a host of other characters from classic literary works like Peter Pan, Moby Dick and others - must defeat the alien menace and discover the mysterious reasons behind the invasion.
The nonsensical story is captivating in its ability to consistently surprise and delight. Very clearly inspired by comic books - many of the cut-scenes even take place within comic book panels - the action never slows down, and the game revels in its constant twists and turns. While the agents are plucked from iconic books and stories, each are written with interesting and funny personalities and quirks. Fleming is constantly spouting earnest, motivational speeches, while Tiger Lily from Peter Pan and Tom Sawyer are two kids from impossibly different worlds, and it shows. By the time later references start popping up, it's clear that the writers are having a ball mixing and matching literary worlds and familiar tropes.
An intriguing mix of turn-based strategy and third-person shooting, this is divided into multiple chapters, each with one or more maps to clear. In each turn you guide a squad of four characters through each level, taking out aliens and collecting items as they reach the goal. Characters are limited in the number of actions they can perform based on the amount of steam they have - moving takes up steam, as does attacking or healing, so planning ahead is important. Some characters have weapons that require a lot of steam, while others are able to perform several actions in a row. Preserving steam will allow characters to perform pre-emptive 'overwatch' attacks on enemies during the enemy turns, adding another layer of complexity to the proceedings. Overwatch is extremely useful when there are lots of enemies, so picking and choosing when to move and attack is pivotal.
Each character has a main weapon/attack that can't be altered; the main weapons are all very clever and tie into the character and story they come from. Fleming, for example, has a gun shaped like a bald eagle that has a nice range and reasonably good power, while Tom Sawyer has a "punch gun" that knocks back enemies and can possibly stun them. Each character can also equip a sub-weapon, which is how the player can fine-tune and customize their squad. Sub-weapons are automatically unlocked as you collect coins throughout each map. They range from being somewhat weak, like a crossbow, to highly useful, like the Gatling gun. Any character can equip any sub-weapon, but each sub-weapon can only be equipped by one character at a time. In addition to coins, collecting gears throughout each stage will unlock different steam boilers that carry more steam and have other passive effects. Finally, each character has a powerful special attack that can be used once per stage.
Unlike traditional turn-based strategy games, the player controls each character from an over-the-shoulder perspective; as a result fans of modern action games should feel right at home playing Code Name: S.T.E.A.M. Controls are buttery smooth and feel natural on both the 3DS and New 3DS - characters move using the Circle Pad, while camera movement and aim can be done via touch screen, ABXY or the C-Stick. We mainly used the C-Stick on a New 3DS, but occasionally went back to the touch screen to get our aim just right. As the focus is on shooting the camera is very sensitive, and can be adjusted down to the smallest movement.
Completing each turn is certainly fun and interesting, so it's unfortunate that what follows the player's turn is the game's major flaw. The enemy's turn plays out much like the player's, with each enemy moving and completing actions, yet since this isn't played from a traditional, top-down view, the player doesn't see what the enemy is doing. This wouldn't be a problem normally; it's part of the thrill of playing a squad-based shooter. But during the enemy turn, all the player can do is sit and wait as a progress bar slowly fills up indicating the enemy moving and making decisions. The perspective will automatically switch to different characters if enemies are in view, but the player only has limited control of the camera during this time. Strangely, when the perspective moves to each character, the camera will often be stuck on a wall or some random tile, making it impossible to see anything. Enemy turns feel like they take too long, and it's only when they launch an attack that things get remotely interesting again.
This strange design decision doesn't break the game, by any means, but it certainly makes getting through each map feel longer than necessary. The campaign takes upwards of 20 hours to complete, and we can't help but wonder how much of that time could have been shaved off without the slowness of enemy turns. It's certainly not as though the game needed to be padded for a lack of content - in addition to the lengthy single-player campaign, each map can be replayed to collect more coins and any missed gears, along with challenges to complete, such as playing without seeing the steam gauge or with extremely strong enemies.
There is also a robust multiplayer mode, with local and online play available. There are random and tournament matches available, and several different mode types to choose from. Death Match is the most traditional, with players trying to eliminate the other team; Medal Battle tasks players with collecting the most medals in a set amount of time. There's also Streetpass functionality, with leaderboards and score bonuses, as well as public and private tournaments. Local play requires each player to have the software, so there's no single-card multiplayer.
The key point in multiplayer is that players have a limited time to complete each turn, which certainly ramps up the pressure and keeps the match moving. One wonders why this rule wasn't placed in the single-player campaign, as well. It should be noted that there is one more match style available in multiplayer, but it spoils a fairly large reveal from the campaign. Nevertheless, it runs smoothly and is quite fun.
The presentation in Code Name: S.T.E.A.M. is fantastic; screenshots don't do this title justice. The comic book-inspired visuals pop from the 3DS screen, with the steampunk-style colours giving everything a gilded age feel. With the 3D turned on - especially when using the New 3DS - the game becomes immersive and even richer in its unique personality. The voice acting is uniformly excellent, with popular actor and personality Wil Wheaton doing hilariously earnest work as Abe Lincoln. The music is suitably memorable, with a catchy opening theme song that sounds like it belongs on a classic Saturday morning cartoon. The one missed opportunity is in the alien design; most of the enemies share the same blue/green colour scheme and lack personality. There's a narrative reason for the lack of variety in the aliens, but it would have been nice for them to at least somewhat match the dynamic character of the heroes.
Interestingly, Code Name: S.T.E.A.M. has amiibo functionality, but as we were unable to get our hands on the supported figurines we couldn't test out the feature. Players with any of the Fire Emblem amiibo - Marth, Ike, Robin and Lucina - can tap those figurines to use them in battle. Unlike other characters in the game, though, they can't be revived mid-battle. Hopefully the notoriously rare amiibo will become easier to find in the coming months so eager players (like us!) can take advantage of this nifty extra feature.
Code Name: S.T.E.A.M. is a fun, quirky new release from Nintendo. While there are a few flaws in the game design, we think that there's enough good here to justify a purchase from any Nintendo fan looking for something different. We'd love to see more of this compelling and riotous new world from Intelligent Systems; it's a great way to learn about classic literature...sort of.