The first time I saw Codename STEAM, I was really excited. History has taught me to never underestimate Nintendo when it comes to weird ideas and this was one of their strangest yet. Abraham Lincoln fakes his death to lead a group of steam-powered soldiers in battle against an invading army of aliens. Seriously, even I couldn’t make that up.
Regardless of the premise (which I like), the actual gameplay is what motivated my wallet. Nintendo isn’t particularly known for strategy beyond Pikmin and Fire Emblem (which I desperately need to play) so I was curious to see what kind of innovations Nintendo could bring to the clearly X-Com design. Sadly, I was disappointed with their offering.
I picked up the game despite the moderately lackluster reviews. The game reminded me of X-Com which had made a fan of me with the last X360 iteration. For the most part, STEAM follows X-Com’s base formula closely. Where X-Com gave you the fog-of-war, five soldiers and at times a brutal difficulty, STEAM gives you a large map to explore, with multiple tiers, collectibles, four soldiers and a difficulty that wishes it was X-Com.
The base gameplay that powers the underbelly of STEAM is pretty great. You control your soldiers from a third-person perspective and have to actually aim at a mostly conveniently placed weak spot on enemies (it’s glowing bright purple too just in case you’ve never played a video game before). In addition, you have to plan out your moves in advance as players use up steam to move and attack so charging ahead might end up getting your tough guy killed. Should this happen, STEAM also has multiple, single-use healing stations scattered among the map for use to heal and/or revive your teammates a lot of which I had to use strategically to get out of tight spots.
All of this sounds great and truth be told, I was thoroughly enjoying myself for the first three chapters. It’s after this point however that STEAMs big problems begin to emerge. One of the core mechanics in STEAM is constantly respawning enemies. In some maps, this isn’t too big of a deal as most enemies spawned in so far behind that they felt more like set decorations rather than threats.
In other maps however, it’s a complete nuisance and tremendously annoying. Now the enemies themselves aren’t that challenging; most of them die within a few hits. The challenge that keeps you from powering through each map is that as quick as enemies can die, you yourself can’t take too many hits either. It’s a careful balance that while not as demanding as X-Com still presents enough difficulty to be fun as you carefully position your troops and relish in killing aliens with efficient, coordinated strikes.
But it was at a point during a boss fight when I found myself being forced to spawn camp the enemies that I realized I was playing this game for the wrong reasons.
I wanted to like STEAM so much that I forced myself to play through two entire chapters, cursing the entire time. Cursing at the enemies that spawned in at the exact area that would unnecessarily impede my progress. Cursing at the unforgiveable elements of exploration; forcing you to explore every nook and cranny when walking is governed by a depleting energy gauge consistently emptied by respawning enemies and only one character (at that point in the game) could jump.
As another example of irritating design, there’s a single enemy that drove me insane. It’s a tiny, flying insect called “The Nettler.” It flies out of reach, it deals nearly no damage, it can shoot from long range and it’s almost impossible to hit; oh, and each hit stuns you which lasts the entire turn. That’s right, you get hit once and that character is effectively frozen while the stupid thing flies further away. Walking towards it gets you stunned before you’re even within range. I once had my entire team shoot every single bullet possible before one guy hit it. We then all sat around in a circle-jerk while the enemies volleyed us with grenades. Fun stuff.
Some of you might be thinking that perhaps the game was too hard for me. Bullshit. I beat X-Com, Super Meatboy (and I got the “That Guy” achievement), I beat the Airplane level on COD4 and I’m currently playing Bloodborne and loving it. I’m not one to shy away from twitch difficulty, tough games; most of the time I love them and absolutely relish that sense of accomplishment that comes from a hard-earned victory.
But what I can’t stand is when a game tries to be challenging by simply throwing more of the enemies the designers know are the most annoying (the grenade guy, the stun guy, the long range, etc.). I can’t stand when a game tells me to choose my team but certain characters have necessary exploration skills; this means that electing to leave behind the jumping guy means that I can longer collect certain upgrades or reach well-designed vantage points. I can’t stand a game like STEAM that tries to create an artificial sense of challenge by simply handicapping me and then bombarding me with waves of enemies which at the end don’t even matter as the goal is never to kill all aliens, it’s to reach a goal line. I once missed out on an upgrade because the enemy kicked me past the goal and ended the match. It’s not fun and it’s bad design. I wish they had simply stuck with the base game which has so much promise; even after all of this I still think about this game and wish I could like it more than it annoyed me.
I played five minutes of the STEAM demo before I knew I wanted it. I played five chapters before I knew I had to sell it, less I never give another Nintendo strategy game a chance.