Image & Form Games has done very well to branch out from its charming subterranean platforming series SteamWorld Dig into other genres. 2015’s SteamWorld Heist took the aesthetic and amusing writing of that steampunk fantasy universe (which started out, lest we forget, with SteamWorld Tower Defence on DSiWare) and transposed it into a strategic turn-based shooter. The studio’s latest entry in the series is a roleplaying card battler where you build a deck of powerful moves for a party of three heroes and engage in turn-based battle.
SteamWorld Quest: Hand of Gilgamech follows enthusiastic young knight Armilly on her quest to become a member of the Hero Guild. From humble origins, she aspires to be as courageous as ancient hero, Gilgamech. Full of beans, she’s prone to narrating the party’s adventure in third-person as they come across minions of the Void army, much to the chagrin of the rest of the group. You’ll meet new members along the way, but your initial party comprises the afore-mentioned Armilly, alchemist Copernica and brutish healer Galleo. They’re a likeable, irreverent bunch very much in the vein of the casts of previous games.
When you’re not in battle you’ll run around the compartmentalised world, presented side-on, taking direct control of a character (‘L’ and ‘R’ cycle between them). A simple map in the bottom right of the screen shows how these ‘rooms’ connect, and you’ll come across treasure chests and destructible objects containing coins and other goodies. Pressing ‘A’ swings your weapon and this can also be used to get the jump on marauding enemies with a well-timed ‘first strike’, not unlike similar pre-emptive moves in the Paper Mario series, meaning enemy Coglins will start the battle with diminished health.
The meat of the game is in the combat, and it’s chunky, satisfying fare. With every encounter up to six ‘punch cards’ are drawn from your deck to the bottom of the screen. Each character can only use their own cards and you select just three of them for your party to play (these are then replaced the following turn). Cards are split into three types: Strike, Upgrade or Skill. Strike does what it says on the tin and Upgrade cards give you a temporary buff. Each time you use one of these regular cards a cog is added to a shared Steam Pressure meter (SP) which you need in order to play the third type, Skill cards. Skills are powerful but striking the balance between building SP, timing critical blows and managing defence is the name of the game.
Attacks feel pleasingly solid when they land. You get your SP the moment you select a card to play, so if a Skill requires 2 SP and your pool is entirely depleted, playing any two ‘normal’ cards will unlock the Skill to play as your third. Playing three from the same character creates a Heroic Chain which doles out an additional card depending on that character’s equipped weapon. It might, say, provide a protective Mana barrier for the whole party, or simply add an extra strike.
If you’re unhappy with what you’ve been dealt, two redraws of individual cards are available every turn by holding ‘X’ on your desired (or, more accurately, undesired) card. As you find, craft or buy more punch cards, you can incorporate them into your deck with each party member having space for exactly eight cards. Tag team combos come into effect when a certain card displays an icon of another party member; playing any of theirs prior to this card unleashes a powerful combo. Holding ‘ZR’ speeds up the entire gameplay – both run speed and the battles themselves – and this can be permanently toggled on in the menu. We did so and never looked back.
It’s all reassuringly solid, although there’s very little you haven’t seen before. Damage comes in five elemental flavours: Physical, Fire, Frost, Storm and Arcane – no prizes for guessing that enemies have resistance and weakness according to type. As tried-and-true and predictable as its systems are, the game is shot through polish and wit. In fact, its Steam Pressure battle meter, hand-drawn art and amusing writing brought to mind the colourful turn-based battling of Battle Chasers: Nightwar – no bad thing to our mind.
Hero Statues are scattered around the world which replenish your health and provide save points, although enemies in the surrounding area will respawn when used. You choose from three difficulties – Squire, Knight and Legend. Turn-based junkies will likely want to jump to the highest difficulty from the off, especially if you enjoy the grind, but despite a slight spike in Chapter 4, we found the default setting satisfying as long as you fight every enemy you came across.
The foes you’ll encounter run the gamut from mechanical medusas to bratty, over-privileged college kids. The ebb and flow of battle that evolves as you build your deck is addictive and you’re able to upgrade cards and buy and sell weapons at the caravan of a travelling merchant. Winning battles grants the party XP which improves your stats and is shared equally between the three fighters (you’ll have to choose your three from the selection once new recruits join your crew).
The story is divided into four acts with twenty chapters, including a specific ‘challenge’ area that pits you against powerful enemies for rewards. The ol’ SteamWorld charm carries you along on a pleasant ride through the cute-if-predictable narrative and newcomers to the series need no special knowledge before starting out, although series veterans will get a kick out of references to the wider universe and other intertextual nods.
SteamWorld Quest looks lovely, as all the previous games have, with pristine presentation and excellent audio. We were a little surprised to find the touchscreen unsupported – it seems like an obvious feature given the tactility of the cards – although the developer's attention to detail is present and correct elsewhere. You’re able to remap every single button on the controller, including direction inputs to any alternative of your choosing, for example.
While the nuts and bolts are satisfying, the art is beautiful, and the whole package oozes the same quality we’ve come to expect from Image & Form, we did get a nagging feeling that there’s something missing; some extra mechanic to set it apart from the crowd. It’s hard to put your finger on – especially when everything present is so robust and meaty – but it simply feels like there’s space for a flourish, a little je ne sais quoi to take the game into the realm of ‘essential’. Don’t get us wrong, we racked up over 16 hours on the game’s clock and we enjoyed every one. It’s a tasty burger of a turn-based battler; we just wanted a little more special sauce or some spectacular side dish to turn it into a truly memorable meal. As it is, it’s simply ‘very good’.
Remarkably solid and satisfying, SteamWorld Quest: Hand of Gilgamech is a card battler with an abundance of charm in its art, mechanics and writing. The presentation is slick, the dialogue’s witty and the gameplay’s addictive, although nothing about it feels particularly special – not in the way SteamWorld Dig 2 felt special. It does what it does well, though, and it’s still a thoroughly enjoyable time in that universe. As long as you’re not expecting anything revolutionary, we recommend anybody who likes turn-based battling or who enjoyed any previous games in the series check it out.