Set in a steampunk version of the late 19th Century, Code Name: S.T.E.A.M. tells the story of how Abraham Lincoln set up a Strike Team to Eliminate the Alien Menace, comprised of American Folklore and Literature characters.

Editor’s Note: This review has been bumped up for the Update Ver. 1.1.0 released on April 08, 2015.

The following content has been edited:

  • Moved “Pace of the Enemy Movement” from Terrible to the Not Bad section.
  • Added information regarding the new Fast-Forward feature.
  • Added information regarding the Online Tournaments hosted by Nintendo.
  • Added an example to “Not Being Able to Preview the Map”.
  • Edited the conclusion.
  • Changed the YouTube videos for new ones with better quality rips.

The latest creation by the masterminds at Intelligent Systems is not your typical strategy game. The game shares some some similarities to previous titles developed by the studio, but at the same time, Code Name: S.T.E.A.M. is in a whole different league, feeling more at home with games like Valkyria Chronicles and the XCOM games.

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But does Code Name S.T.E.A.M. have enough pressure in it’s engine to make it a must own title for the 3DS? Or does it burst into a measly mist? The answer might vary between players, but the best way to know if you might like the end product is to give the free demo a try.

Full S.T.E.A.M. Ahead!

In the Fire Emblem and the Advance Wars series, once a unit makes a move, there’s no way to undo it. S.T.E.A.M. doesn’t follow the same rules. You still have a grid and your characters can still move a fixed number of steps within this grid. You see, at the bottom of the screen there’s a steam gauge that translates in the amount of action points your character has available.

One step takes one unit of steam away, while firing a weapon may take from one to seven units of steam. In this “temporary” stage you can scout, pick up collectibles, and decide your plan of attack, and backtrack your steps as long as you don’t execute an action that affects directly your character.

Which are these actions that can lock in your character?

  • Using a weapon.
  • Collecting a health or steam pick-up.
  • Dropping or climbing to a different height.
  • Support actions from your other agents.
  • Getting caught in the enemy’s Overwatch.

All of these sound pretty familiar and straightforward, except for the Overwatch. If you’re new to the genre, Overwatch is the ability to attack an enemy during its turn. How does it work? At the end of your turn, you have to set aside a fixed amount of steam (varies per weapon) to be able to use it. This attack is automatically triggered once an enemy steps into your line of sight. But there’s a catch, as I stated above, enemies also can ruin your turn by using an Overwatch too.

No Overhead View? No Problem!

Code Name: S.T.E.A.M. ditches the overhead view for an over-the-shoulder camera that follows closely your character. Not being able to view the layout of the map, or the enemy placement may feel like a step backwards from games like Fire Emblem. Not so much in S.T.E.A.M. The thrill of not knowing where the enemy might come from, is a blessing in disguise. It’s true that as the game shows you the rope during the early stages, you might get ambushed more than you’d like to. Heck there’s even a tutorial screen that reads “Watch out for enemy ambushes”, when there is literally an enemy waiting for you around the corner.

This change of perspective adds tension to the battle, but most important, it forces you to become aware of your surroundings, and the menace you’re facing.

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Every now and then the game will throw you a bone in the form of a way to get on a higher platform, giving you a better view of the battlefield. Collectibles, enemies, and alternate routes to the objective will light up right in front of your eyes. The fog-of-war effect created by the over-the-shoulder perspective dissipates as you gain tactical advantage over the alien menace.

The point is, Code Name S.T.E.A.M. is no stroll in the park. The game will punish every time you make a mistake. And believe me, you will commit a lot of mistakes. The learning curve is steep. The game spends the better part of the first three chapters introducing and helping the player adapt to all these new elements.

Once the honeymoon phase is over, it’s up to the player to put everything he learned to the test. Not only you’ll have to apply your knowledge, but also come up with new ways to deal with the problem at hand. Code Name: S.T.E.A.M. expects you to get creative and come up with new ways to adapt to the new challenges.

A Comic Book Through The Eyes of a Kid

The intro of the game starts with a kid holding a comic book titled Code Name: S.T.E.A.M., Spread through 16 issues, the story starts in Victorian-era London during the age of steam. Set in an universe where steam powered machines and automatons are the latest technological advances. Inspired by the silver age era of comic books, S.T.E.A.M. boasts a peculiar visual style, with heavy contour lines around the characters, exaggerated features and a unique shading filter.

The enemies on the other hand are inspired by the works of H. P. Lovecraft mixed in with different animals and insects. Nightmare fuel some may claim. if only the palette wasn’t limited to shades of cyan and magenta.

A Soundtrack Unlike Any Other

Yoshito Sekigawa, better know for his work in the Advance Wars series returns to score Code Name: S.T.E.A.M.’s soundtrack. A blissful mix of heavy metal and orchestrated pieces alternate with uncanny renditions of... dubstep and industrial music. You might think, what does a game set in 1865 have in common with these modern music genres? Usually movies are reproached when the soundtrack strays away from the theme set by the visuals. And if games like Fallout 3 successfully implemented music from 1950s into their games, then all games should follow this initiative...

The thing about the soundtrack of Code Name: S.T.E.A.M. is that on paper, it is a terrible idea. In execution, it’s a whole different story. The work put behind each song and how they accomplish to squeeze into this alternate universe is remarkable.

Each level has up to six different tracks assigned, three for each faction:

For the Heroes: Pianos and quiet orchestral pieces are used when there are no enemies in sight. When one of the heroes catches a glimpse of an alien it switches to a progressive track that alternates between orchestral pieces and heavy metal. And lastly, when you’re in the line of sight of the enemy, the track escalates into a heavier track consisting mostly of metal and small hints of an orchestra playing in the background.

For the Aliens: The musical experience can be quite different. I’d like to think that Yoshito Sekigawa was given the direction of making the player feel uneasy with the presence of these creatures. The songs range from quiet tracks with slight audio cues and electronic noise, increasing in volume and pace as the threat rises until it switches into full dubstep/industrial.

It’s truly a weird combination of genres and styles, that somehow fits the game.

A Bizarre Journey

May The Title Screen Theme serves as an appetizer of things to come. Code Name: S.T.E.A.M. never takes itself or its premise too seriously. From an alien invasion, to the excessive use of puns and of course the cast of weird and colorful characters. This game is a ride into the uncanny and ridiculous, in a good sense.

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An adventure that starts in London soon takes a turn for the occult, to the point I was wondering if they were going to go the undead way. Spoiler Alert: There are no undead enemies in S.T.E.A.M., but there is a cemetery stage, and it’s pretty awesome! Zombies or not, the game does offer some funny plot twist and surprises.

That Intelligent Systems Charm

Comedy’s is not S.T.E.A.M.’s strongest point, but every now and then you’ll find these billboards spread all over the maps. You’ll get to read tidbits about life during the age of steam.

Not all of them are funny, but they add to the atmosphere of the game in a cheesy, yet noninvasive way.

Amiibo Support

Not happy with the crossover of Literature and Folklore characters? How about having a crossover with another video game? Like the celebrated Fire Emblem series. If you have a N3DS and one of those fancy FE Amiibos then don’t hesitate to tap them on your N3DS.

Each character comes equipped with their melee weapon of choice, and even the specials are inspired on the special moves found in their games. Bashing a bunch of aliens with a Great Aether never felt so good! Or so they say, I couldn’t try it, since I don’t have a N3DS nor the FE figures!

The Pacing of the Enemy Movement

In my honest opinion, waiting for the enemy to make their movements never bothered me. The process can be frustrating and feel like a waste of time, Code Name: S.T.E.A.M. is a game in which you may spend as much time moving your units as watching the enemy do the same. It’s a slow paced game, but it’s a game that rewards your patience.

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A recent patch (Update Ver. 1.1.0), added the fast-forward functionality, halving the wait time for the enemy’s turn for Nintendo 3DS users and even more for New Nintendo 3DS users. In my personal experience it feels much better. Long turns now take around 15 seconds or less and they even added a fast-forward filter reminiscent of an old VHS tape.

Unfortunately my biggest gripe was not revised in the current patch. Waiting for enemies who are inactive (not aware of your presence), is still present. The maps in S.T.E.A.M. can be quite large, and enemies are spread all over the it. Most of them concentrated around the end objective, which means that these enemies will never make a move until you enter the final area of the map.

Literary Rich... Yet Shallow in Execution

Code Name: S.T.E.A.M. may have the most diverse cast of cooky and fun characters. Sadly, diverse does not mean deep. While in the battlefield these characters are super deep and fun to use, outside of it their back stories will go to waste. In many cases it feels like their past is inconsequential to the actions in the present.

On the positive side, there’s a handful of characters who do make full use of their past and are often stealing the spotlight. The best example being Randolph Carter from the H.P. Lovecraft novels, a scholar who has amassed a series of disturbing, yet detailed, dossiers on the various alien species in his investigation at the Miskatonic University. Rather than solely fulfilling the role of an strategist, he uses his intellect to gain an advantage over the enemies in the battlefield.

Inter-Dimensional Competition

Online Multiplayer comes in the form of 1 on 1 matches. There’s the classic Deathmatch, where you take 60 seconds turns to eliminate the squad of your rival. Medal Battle works just as Deathmatch, but the objective here is to collect as many medals as you can before the game is over. Finally there’s the A.B.E. Battle mode, which tries to capture the epic nature of the Mech battles from the campaign mode. Emphasis on “try” as the mode feels anything but epic.

There’s a caveat though, the matchmaking is only with random players. If you want to join a friend’s game (or vice versa), there’s simply no option to do that. A workaround to this issue exists in the form of the Tournament Mode, which works pretty similar to the one in Mario Kart 7. Tournament Mode allows you to set up a room, for your friends to join in at any given time in the future.

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One thing to note: Nintendo is hosting Weekly Online Tournaments with unique themes and rules, in which the player can participate for prizes, unique titles and bragging rights. It is a nice way to switch the formula and have fun while battling strangers.

Not Being Able to Preview the Map

But even worse than having to wait for the enemy to make its move is the oversight of not being able to preview the map prior to launching your units into the battlefield.

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In Fire Emblem before starting a chapter you’re given the opportunity to pick your units and even switch their placement in the map.This preview of the map gives you a chance to prepare for the trials and challenges you may face in said map. Well in S.T.E.A.M. you make all these decisions prior to entering the map. If you picked the wrong load-outs and/or characters, you’ll have to hit the restart button and readjust your squad, over and over again...

Honestly the reason I felt the preview map was important is for the unit placement. For example Chapter 5: Liberating Boston - First Mission. One of your units starts atop a huge pillar, It would essential to have an scout agent like The Fox in that position, but since the game doesn’t let you do a preparations phase, the only way to place her in that pillar is to restart the mission and move her to the 4th slot of the selected agents.

Code Name: S.T.E.A.M.’s is an extremely niche title. It’s has such a limited appeal, that having the wrong mindset can make or break the view of the game, which is the case of most negative reviews out there. In my honest opinion I think the game has a great concept, with unique ideas and a lovable cast of characters, but maybe we were expecting much more after Intelligent Systems has delivered excellent game after excellent game.

Nevertheless I feel you should give Code Name: S.T.E.A.M. a try. If you’re not feeling adventurous enough to pay the price for an experimental game, then go give the demo a try. It doesn’t show the full scope of the final game, but it’ll give you some idea of what to expect from the finished product, specially now that it has been patched.

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Follow J. Acosta on Twitter @Nach212 He may not tweet much, but when he breaks away from the Dreamlands, he might talk about food.