Codename STEAM Review (Nintendo 3DS)
The team behind Fire Emblem has gone to some odd places in devising their brand new game, but they've also added some cool mechanics and a story straight out of Saturday morning cartoons to make the oddities fit right in. The game doesn't always flow perfectly, but Codename S.T.E.A.M is certainly a fun little strategy title.
First I want to address the cast of characters, as never before have I been so impressed with the number of influences included in just one game. The first character we see is Henry Fleming from the classic American novel The Red Badge of Courage, who quickly meets up with John Henry from the folk tale of the same name. The two are quickly recruited by Abraham Lincoln himself into a elite group of alien fighters before teaming up with the likes of The Wizard of Oz's Cowardly Lion (who isn't so cowardly anymore), Tom Sawyer from Mark Twain's story, and Peter Pan's young native friend Tiger Lily. The case gets even weirder with the amiibo support, adding Marth, Ike and eventually Robin and Lucina from Fire Emblem to the mix. When I say it's a strange cast of characters, that doesn't really do it much justice.
It's a shame then that these varied and interesting characters end up being so boring. The voice acting in mid-battle sounds like someone took a record and intentionally made it skip over and over again, as characters say lines ad nauseum throughout the entire game. Yes Henry, we get it, you spotted one. Really John? You never were any good at hiding? I hadn't gathered that from the fifteen other times you mentioned it in this battle alone. With such an eclectic cast, I had hoped for a little more depth in my playable characters, but alas, all I got was disappointing repetition.
While the cast of characters ended up letting me down, the Intelligent Systems' trademark strategy gameplay is still as crisp as ever. This is no Fire Emblem game, event though a lot of things are similar. I'm still moving on a grid, I can still only move a limited number of spaces, and I can still only attack enemies within my current weapon's area of effect. The first major change is a shift in perspective from atop the battlefield to right behind one of my combatants. While this makes for a more personal feel to each battle, I almost prefer the top down setting so I can see what my enemy is doing and plan accordingly.
The second and most interesting change is the use of Steam as a resource, and that's where Codename S.T.E.A.M's strategy element enters a league of its own. Each character on the field has a Steam meter that dictates how often he or she can move or act, with one grid move costing one Steam unit, and attacking costing different amounts depending on the weapon. This is an ingenious way of implementing even more strategy to the format. When the meter is out, that character's turn is over, and while that seems like it should be the plan every turn there's more to it.
Some weapons have an ability called "Overwatch" where, if there are enough Steam units, the character can attack an enemy who gets too close. This removes the helplessness of moving a unit too close to an enemy like in Fire Emblem, and it really makes me think I have full control over the battle even when it's not my turn. However, in thinking ahead to the opponent's turn, I may limit how often I move forward and eventually get surrounded by enemies from behind. This Steam resource forces me to think constantly about every aspect of battle and every single movement I make, and I love how it enhanced the strategy elements for the better.
The problem with the enhanced strategy offerings is that the game knows I have these options too, so it ramps up the difficulty at an early stage and quickly closes the window of accessibility. Codename S.T.E.A.M is difficult, sometimes unbelievably so, and it doesn't waste time getting to that point either. One of the early missions has the team escorting a non-player character to a safe point on a stage, and the NPC is programmed to follow whoever is closest to her. I wouldn't have a problem with this type of mission if every enemy didn't immediately focus on the NPC and kill her in a matter of seconds. No matter how well I hid her, no matter how I surrounded her with my party, she was dead within minutes--except for the one time I tried an out of the way path and succeeded.
One of the worst parts about the difficulty is knowing that I'm up against the wall but being forced to wait for my enemies to take their turn. It's uncanny how slow these aliens are to figure what they want to do and start moving. If my turn is a 100-meter dash in the Olympics, the enemy's turn is a leisurely walk in the park with a loved one. Some might not see this as a big deal, but it throws off all of the tension and suspense of a battle. If I feel cornered and I'm hesitant to press the End Turn button, I want that tension to continue until it's my turn again. I don't want to press End Turn then be able to go make a sandwich for myself while I wait for the alien menace to stop picking posies and get to their spots.
There's a solid foundation of ideas here with Codename S.T.E.A.M, both in its outlandish character selection and its unique take on the strategy genre. The problem is both of these elements trip at the finish line, the cast with their boring and repetitious script and the strategy gameplay with its inconsistent pace. The Steam resource mechanic is a beautiful thing and I hope to see it again in a different element, but it's lost in a sea of monotony and idle hands. Intelligent Systems tried something out of its fiery emblematic comfort zone and it should be applauded for it, but I hope the developer's next out-of-the-box venture is a bit more polished.
This review was completed with a digital download of Codename S.T.E.A.M. provided by the publisher for the Nintendo 3DS.