Before I dive into this review, I have a cautionary tale that is related and ties into my overall score:
One fine day, well over a month ago, I was browsing the eShop for a new title to play on my 3DS. It was then that I stumbled upon SteamWorld Heist by Image and Form. I remembered hearing positive things about it and especially about their previous title, SteamWorld Dig. I received my copy and it was all I played for about a week to a week and a half. During that time, I put almost twelve hours into it and then one day I couldn’t save. Being a technician, I troubleshot all the ways I could think of and eventually got in contact with the game’s lead programmer (hi Olle!) but he had not heard of this issue before. That’s when I noticed none of my games could write to the SD card, which meant I could no longer save my progress. I moved all the content from the SD card to my Mac and tried to format the SD card in both macOS and Windows but was unsuccessful. In a last ditch effort, I thought I formatted my SD card in my 3DS, Turns out, I also formatted the system’s internal memory as well. No big deal, I thought, I’m all backed up. I copied all my data back to a new SD card I purchased, set up my 3DS, and signed back in with my Nintendo Network ID. Little did I know that it was all for nothing. You see, when you format your 3DS system’s internal memory it randomly generates a new encryption key when you set the system back up. This made my thirty plus gigabytes of downloaded games, their saves, and my street passes from the past five years unusable. They were there—I was staring at the data—but they were essentially gone. To make a long story short multiple Nintendo reps pretty much said I’m SOL. So don’t ever format your system’s internal memory unless you’re doing a system transfer and cross your fingers every 3DS software update installs without an issue.
Now, with that little background story, let’s talk about SteamWorld Heist. After my anger at Nintendo’s lack of cloud saves in 2016 subsided Image and Form announced SteamWorld Heist would be coming to PS4 and PS Vita and I knew this would be the platform I’d be restarting on. I played and finished the game solely on Vita, although I do wish it supported cross-save with its big brother on PS4 (it is a cross-buy title which is always awesome). Right from the opening cinematic I could tell this game was something special. I mean, come on, it’s robot pirates in space battling it out with guns while wearing some (arguably) fashionable hats. How could you not buy it with that description alone? You start out as the commander of a ragtag group of pirates totaling about three. Before I dive into the gameplay let me go over the systems.
Currency | Water
As you progress through the campaign you’ll have the option to recruit other bots of varying skills and classes. Some are free, while others require a certain amount of water or reputation. Water, as you may have guessed, is invaluable in the world of SteamWorld and serves as currency. Every time you raid a ship you’ll collect bags which may contain water, weapons, or armor. You’ll then use water to purchase better weapons or incentivize a bot to join your team.
Leveling | Reputation
Each heist also rewards you with up to three stars; two for completing objectives and one for looting the “Epic Swag” on each ship. These stars add up to give you reputation which is needed to progress to new areas, buy certain weapons, or persuade other bots to join your team. You’ll want to finish a level with all bots intact because for every downed teammate you’ll be docked a star. Having a higher reputation will also permit you entrance to challenge heists with tougher bosses and enemies but higher rewards. Just make sure you’re ready.
Leveling | XP
Upon completion of each level, your team also shares any experience points (XP) earned which will level them up. When you or a team member unlocks another level, a new perk is unlocked that can range from extra critical hit damage, to character specific abilities like fully healing yourself and allies within a close proximity to you. As you level up your characters, you’ll mix and match until you find a band of bots that works for you.
Upgrades | Weapons
In SteamWorld Heist, you can’t upgrade your current weapons. Instead, you swap them out for new ones with a higher damage output. You’ll obtain these in loot drops during missions or find them available for purchase at various weapon shops throughout space. Every weapon has its own damage rating and critical hit rating along with an occasional side effect. For example, some guns may give you a far sighted laser scope making it easier to pull off Billards Style trick shots, but it won’t let you move after shooting.
Whenever I describe SteamWorld Heist to a friend it’s often met with an intrigued, “huh”. That’s because the gameplay is unlike anything I’ve ever played, which is not to say similar games don’t exist, but if they do and if they’re made with this much polish and love I don’t know about them. The words I use to describe this game are “A turn-based, strategic, 2D shooter.” I don’t even mention the robots or space aspects. Every time I would line up a trick shot in Heist, I would immediately be transported to the NES days and my dad whipping my ass in his favorite pool game he used to have. They’re both all about geometry and figuring out where the ball, or in this case the bullet, is going to end up.
The missions start out easy enough, with you and your fellow bot raiding some low security ships and grabbing loot. Shoot and loot, then shoot and loot with bigger guns and more style. Eventually though the heists you need to pull off become more and more complicated with the addition of alarms, shielded enemies, highly explosive oil, and tougher enemies. Your biggest enemy however? Greed. Why? Because you’re going to get to the evac point to find out you only have 70% of the swag and hightail it back to the rooms you missed. All while the threat level increases and enemies continue to spawn. Or maybe you’ll travel back to collect the hat that was shot off your head but saved your skin (well, metal skin). Or maybe you’ll risk it for a new hat from a downed enemy or run to the aid of a bot that is pinned down, flipping the heist into a rescue mission.
Either way, your greed will get the best of you. And this is one of my favorite core components of SteamWorld Heist—risk vs reward. You’re battling badass bots, sure, but you’re mainly battling yourself risking it all for hats and loot in order to buy better weapons and armor. Oh, and hats. Of course you can buy hats, though they’re purely cosmetic moneybags.
The game has five difficulty settings starting with casual as the lowest setting with no monetary losses if you fail a heist. But, play on anything ranging from regular on up and it’s going to be a gamble because while the higher difficulty settings pay substantially more if you’re victorious, they can financially crush you if you lose. It’s a hell of a gamble and I found myself upping the ante only to get my ass handed to me and lose thousands. When that would happen I’d grind some easier heists and build up my sweet water reserves.
If you can’t tell the presentation is top notch. The sound effects, voiceover work, and visuals are superbly well done and the writing is witty and funny. Somehow every bot you run into feels fresh with new designs and different personalities. The game looks as good as it can on the 3DS’s low res screen and the 3D effect adds some depth but the HD version is where Image and Form’s gorgeous artwork and animation really shines. It looks beautiful in full HD on PS4 and Steam and, owning both, I prefer the larger higher res screen of the Vita between the two handhelds. But again, it’s still a damn fine game on Nintendo’s lovely little handheld and is one of my favorite games on both platforms. It’ll also be making its way to Wii U and Xbox One in the future. Overall SteamWorld Heist is a game I can, and have, played over and over. I actually had more fun the second time around and with five difficulty tiers and so many weapons, bots, and hats it’s a game that will surely keep completionists busy for many hours past the campaign’s roughly thirteen hour length.