When SteamWorld Dig was released in 2013 on the Nintendo 3DS eShop, it quickly became an indie darling for critics and fans alike. Drawing comparisons to games like Spelunky, Dig Dug, and Miner Dig Deep, SteamWorld Dig was well received for its addicting gameplay loop of cave diving, loot collecting, and tool upgrading. In 2017, developer and publisher Image & Form Games finally released the long-awaited sequel to the eShop classic in the form of SteamWorld Dig 2.
However, 2017 also saw the Switch re-release of a game that had, upon its initial launch in 2016, been a surprising if not unorthodox entry in the SteamWorld universe: SteamWorld Heist. Scrapping the rugged protagonist and spelunking gameplay of SteamWorld Dig, SteamWorld Heist introduced a new heroine and crew of robots in a space-traveling, turn-based-strategy epic.
With strong tactical gameplay, a satisfying progression system, and plenty of room for experimentation, SteamWorld Heist makes for an addictive and accessible side-entry in the SteamWorld franchise. While its forgettable writing and story are nothing to write home about, the game is an excellent entry point for those new to the series and an essential digital download for Switch owners with a taste for strategy RPGs.
SteamWorld Heist is set in a futuristic universe where Earth has been destroyed. The planet's inhabitants—a population of steam and diesel-powered robots—have been forced to pioneer space and harvest its resources in order to survive. As can be expected, space isn't exactly welcoming, and these robots have been left to scavenge what they can from various asteroids. The fight for these scarce resources has divided Earth's population into three main factions: the Cowbots, who live by mining asteroids and cultivating moisture from the land; the Scrappers, who prey on the Cowbots and pillage their communities for supplies; and the Royalists, who live unaffected by steam shortages and impose their superiority over the Cowbots.
When space smuggler and pirate Piper Faraday finds her turf being encroached on by local Scrappers, she fights back to protect her business. However, as Piper soon finds, much more is at stake than money; her enemies' actions could put all of robot-kind in danger. From here, players are tasked with assembling a crew of teammates and staving off the Scrappers and Royalists in order to maintain peace in the galaxy.
While SteamWorld Heist's story may seem complicated, it really isn't. As interesting as its warring-faction premise seems, the game's narrative is ultimately just an excuse for players to go around fighting groups of different enemies. There is little in the way of added exposition aside from a couple of short cinematics and the occasional banter between Piper's crew-mates. The former of these are intriguing, albeit infrequent and underdeveloped; the latter fares worse, with humorless writing that feels more "filler" than "thriller." As the game rolled on, I struggled to feel invested in Piper and her crew's plight. This is a shame, especially given the emphasis other turn-based strategy RPGs like Fire Emblem and Final Fantasy Tactics often give to their characters and narratives.
Thankfully, SteamWorld Heist nails practically every other aspect of the SRPG experience. Traversal takes place on a world map, with players hopping to and from various space stations and cargo freighters in search of loot to find, enemies to defeat, and allies to recruit. Each node on the map depicts a different location, including bars filled with robot NPCs, Scrapper ships carrying precious items and treasure, and shops selling various weaponry and armor. By moving across the map, Piper and her crew get closer and closer to pushing their enemies out of the current system, whether it be the Scrapper-dominated "Outskirts," the Royalist-controlled "Core," or the mysterious and dangerous depths of "Deep Space." While simple in its execution (most nodes boil down to being either a combat encounter, NPC hub, or shop), the world map provides a sense of scale to SteamWorld Heist and brings a degree of urgency to the action.
When Piper isn't exploring the galaxy, she is in combat, which serves as the meat of SteamWorld Heist. Before selecting an encounter from the world map, players can review mission objectives, change party members and loadouts, and adjust the difficulty (the easier the setting, the fewer the experience points allotted upon completing the level). Once the mission in confirmed, Piper and her squad board the enemy ship and engage several roomfuls of armed robots.
Combat takes place through a turn-based strategy system. Each party member has a set number of spaces he or she can move in a given turn, represented by an orange outline. By moving within the orange spaces, players can then follow up with a second action, whether that be shooting a gun, throwing a grenade, using a repair pack, or throwing a punch. Squad members can also move outside of the orange spaces, represented by blue spaces, but doing so prevents players from taking a second action that turn.
This system provides a welcome emphasis on positioning, finding cover, and managing actions that calls to mind similarly strategic games like XCOM: Enemy Unknown and Mario + Rabbids Kingdom Battle. However, SteamWorld Heist adds another interesting wrinkle to the experience with its real-time aiming. While movement is automated, shooting is done completely manually; there are no "accuracy" numbers or "evade" actions to be found here. As such, much of the skill of combat derives from the ability to read level layouts carefully and find open vantage points to make clear shots.
While these mechanics would be interesting on their own, they are enhanced by a strong progression system. Upon successfully completing a mission, each party member that survived is awarded a set amount of experience points. Like in many RPGs, when the robotic members of Piper's crew level up, they develop new and unique skills to use in future encounters. Piper, for instance, can use her Inspire ability to increase the damage dealt by adjacent units. The salty whaler-bot Seabrass, meanwhile, can gradually recover health each turn with his Mend ability. Characters also each belong to various classes, which enables the use of different weapons, ranging from handguns and machine guns to snipers and rocket launchers.
The result is a combat system that rewards both skill and experimentation. It's a thrill to find a lonely junkbot in the game world, recruit him for your cause, train him in battle, and make him into one of the cornerstones of your squad. Add to this a scoring system that awards stars for completing certain objectives, such as disabling an alarm or finding an epic piece of loot, and SteamWorld Heist provides plenty of incentive to go back and replay levels for maximum reward. And if you're worried about tedium setting in, don't be: level layouts are randomized, ensuring that no two playthroughs of the game will feel exactly alike.
SteamWorld Heist is a phenomenal addition to the Switch library. Its story might not be the most gripping of tales, but its deep and varied combat ensures that players will come back to it time and time again to test their wits and take on more challenging difficulties. Clocking in at around 15 hours, there's also quite a lot of "bang for your buck" to go around. It might be a spinoff and a port, but for those interested in a deep yet accessible SRPG that you can take on the go, SteamWorld Heist deserves to be on your radar.