Developer: Intelligent Systems, Nintendo SPD
Platform: Nintendo 3DS
Release Date: March 13, 2015 (NA); May 14, 2015 (JP); May 15, 2015 (EU)
(This Code Name S.T.E.A.M. review will largely remain spoiler-free of the game’s important content, however it may contain minor character spoilers or other passing references to locations or events.)
Code Name S.T.E.A.M. is, conceptually, one of the weirdest games I’ve ever heard of. Weirder than the idea of Goat Simulator, weirder than that Teletubby Slender Man thing people were playing awhile back…okay, maybe not quite as weird as OctoDad. Still, the idea of a mismatched group of American historical and literary heroes banding together to fight off an alien invasion is, for some crazy reason, attractive, and Code Name S.T.E.A.M. has generated a lot of hype as a highly unique title from Nintendo, promising interesting gameplay and a cast that’s a far cry from the overused Mario roster.
But can the quality of the title match the excitement surrounding its release?
Full steam ahead
Code Name S.T.E.A.M. puts you in the shoes of Henry Fleming, main character in The Red Badge of Courage by Stephen Crane, if you’re lost already. Henry Fleming is just an unassuming war hero in a highly-technical steam-powered outfit with lots of weapons, hanging out in steampunk London, when an alien invasion strikes. He teams up with John Henry from American folklore to escape, and then Abraham Lincoln shows up in an airship to rescue them and recruit them as “agents of S.T.E.A.M.” STEAM stands for: Strike Team Eliminating Alien Menace.
Okay, but quite seriously, as weird as all that is, it does have a certain awesomeness to it. As you fight the alien invaders, you pick up more pals along the way, many of whom seem to be from The Wizard of Oz, but also including Tiger Lily (from Peter Pan, which is a Scottish play?), Tom Sawyer, Queequeg from Moby Dick, and more, all bringing tools from their respective genres to fight off the aliens. And everything is delivered in a comic book format from the very start, with speech bubbles, characters frozen momentarily in ridiculous poses, over-the-top dialogue, and a kind of grainy, pop-out look that’s awesome in 3D. If a bunch of super geeky college English majors wrote a comic book series, it would look a lot like this.
It’s almost an insult to comic books how cheesy the lines are…
Unfortunately, as far as plot goes…that’s about it. There are a few twists later on (I loved visiting Arkham, of Lovecraft’s universe) but really the story is just about playing a seemingly random bunch of historical and literary heroes and trying to stop an alien invasion. The steampunk England and America this is set in seem to have a really interesting universe and possible backstory, but it’s never really explored why anything is the way it is, or what “normal” for them would be considered aside from “no aliens.” I didn’t feel any connection or interest in the characters beyond which one’s abilities would be best for each missions. Maybe that was intended, but it made it hard to keep me interested as the game wore on.
Furthermore, the dialogue is the cheesiest thing ever. I understand that they were going for an over-the-top, comic book style, but it feels so painfully dramatic the entire time. It’s almost an insult to comic books how cheesy the lines are, and how many times “steam” is used in a pun. Honestly, the cutscenes in-between the missions, instead of being exciting and interesting, were frequently groan-worthy and skippable. Besides, the voice acting was equally hokey, and the accents on pretty much every character were weird, often awkwardly stereotypical, and sometimes inconsistent.
Bring on the invasion
For as horrifically corny as the cutscenes are, though, they’re beautiful. Code Name S.T.E.A.M. is very visually nice, and with the New Nintendo 3DS XL and that great face-tracking ability, I recommend playing in 3D as much as possible. You actually lose something of the comic book quality by not playing in 3D–the characters pop right off the page. On missions, too, the 3D looks great and is never distracting. The soundtrack, on the other hand, is forgettable and repetitive. I’m pretty sure it was the same music on most maps, and when it changed, I rarely noticed.
Gameplay consists of a series of missions, each containing around two or three maps. You must complete all the maps to finish a mission, but you can save and quit in between them, change your party around, and all your agents enter each new map with full health and steam, even if they died in the previous map.
Each map requires you to complete an objective in order to finish it. Most of the time, this is crossing the entire map and reaching a specific goal point. You only need to do this with one character for completion. Other times, I had to defeat a boss, rescue civilians, or escort someone to a certain point, or find and defeat a hidden enemy. Regardless of the objective, most maps played about the same: reach the other side, defeating aliens as you go, and try not to die.
The controls of Code Name S.T.E.A.M. are awkward, unfortunately.
Up to four characters can be in your party at a time, and each has a set amount of “steam” power they can use per turn. Steam is required for everything–moving, attacking, healing, breaking stuff, everything. Most of the strategy in this game comes from moving smartly and using your steam well. Run out of steam when you’re in an open area, and you’re probably toast next turn. Save up some steam, and you might be able to use an “overwatch” attack on an enemy coming at you during their turn.
The controls of Code Name S.T.E.A.M. are awkward, unfortunately. The control pad is reserved for character movement. L uses your attack, R switches the range on certain attacks, the D pad switches your weapon, and XABY…moves the camera? Since most games use L/R for camera rotation and XABY for attacking, it threw me off more than once, but once I got used to it I was usually fine. You can also use the touch screen to adjust the camera, but it was annoying having to switch between buttons and stylus constantly. Camera control is especially important, as you actually have to aim and hit enemies from wherever you are, and aiming for certain points on their body does more damage, so it’s good to be precise.
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Each character has two weapons–their main weapon, and a sub-weapon that can be switched out with other sub-weapons as you unlock them. Characters can toggle between their main and sub-weapon at any time during their turn. No two characters can use the same sub-weapon, and the sub-weapons are locked behind a railroad progression system as you collect coins in your missions. Same goes for “boilers,” the packs on your characters’ backs, which are supposed to have different effects on your steam usage, but the game was really bad at explaining boilers and how they work, and it was tough to tell the difference between the boilers with everything else going on. Aside from those two aspects, there’s little to no customization of characters, making the main weapon each character holds pretty much the deciding factor as to whether you take them on a mission or not.
Each character also has a special attack that can be used once per map, and does not require any steam. Some of those attacks do a lot of damage to an area, others to a single target, still others heal for large amounts. Rationing these special attacks was a huge part of the strategy of this game, and having them as an emergency button to press when things got bad was extremely useful.
Next: Read On For Our Final Score