Game Pile: Steamworld Heist

I talk about games a lot. Sometimes, I use games to talk about books. Sometimes, I use books to talk about games. Sometimes I use games to talk about culture and about art and about poetry and about history. Games, in essence, get to be a lens through which I can talk about all sorts of other things, even as I talk about the games.

Make no mistake, though. Just because I find games interesting as lenses for other ideas doesn’t mean I don’t sometimes play games because they rock socks. And you know what rocks socks? Steamworld Heist rocks socks.

Steamworld Heist is a squad-based turn-based tactical shooter game. You know your high-profile X-Com style games? Well, take that basic idea, and make it in a 2d platformer game. You’re commanding a rag-tag group of thieves – though ‘thieves’ is kind of the wrong term. You’re more like bandits and rebels, opposing an oppressive state but also your heists are less about stealth and avoidance and much more about boarding an enemy vessel and shooting them in the hat.

I think Steamworld Heist is a really good game, and it’s definitely a videogame videogame – this isn’t something that could be implemented better in some other way. It’s available on Steam (haha), the Switch, iOS, and PS4, and it’s priced very reasonably for the amount of game you get for it.

Steamworld Heist is the follow-up game after Steamworld Dig, a game that I talked about back in 2014 as an example of having one really good, solid, fundamental idea to it. The idea in Steamworld Dig was to create your entire setting as a single, large funnel and then give players the freedom to go down that funnel however they like – a fun little puzzle that means players become more interested in how they’re going to shepherd themselves towards the next important plot point and stop noticing that they’re being shepherded. It was a masterful indie game of conveyance, with a gameplay cycle so obvious that it practically came with handlebars and a basket.

Yet there’s something to be said for being really obvious, and I think that obvious is one of the charms that the Steamworld franchise has going for it, showing through in this game in the way it handles its firing solutions. In most tactical games, you pick your target, press the button and the game does math for you. In Steamworld Heist, you have to target the gun yourself – sliding the aim up and down with your physical controller or your mouse, with a really distinct, clear aiming line shown by your character’s gun. You get a little wavering, by the natural animation of your character, and when you want to fire, you just press the fire button. The shot goes, and all the math that happens is when the shot hits as to whether or not the shot does a large or small amount of damage.

As far as specific actions go this is really great because it means the actual act of shooting is your action, and when your character scores a good shot that’s your shot. It’s very rewarding to be put in the action like that, and it does this almost exclusively with the action of shooting at targets.

Still, you might have spotted, back up there, when I mentiond shooting things in the hat. That’s a mechanic in this game. Every character you get, and many you meet, are wearing hats. When you shoot someone, you want to shoot them in the head (the best damage); if you do it well, you do a lot of damage, but even if you don’t you still knock their hat off their head, and that hat becomes a collectible.

You can then put those hats on the heads of your crew, as you go into missions, which serve literally no purpose but to show your character wearing a different hat. This is the kind of mechanic I love, where there’s a sense of individual expresison, but not an actual weight to it. It’s like the blind conversation choices in City of Heroes – you were always going to make your way to the same point in a narrative, but the fact you could choose it, without any loss or gain, was a sign that what you were expressing was absolutely for your own benefit.

There’s a story, and that story is mostly about being rag-tag pirates that fight their way through an evil empire and oppose other bandits, which is you know, fine, and I can’t say I actually spent that much time caring about the story as much as I spent time caring about the play. It isn’t a weak story, but it is a story that failed to grab me, personally, as I split this game up in play on a very scattered schedule.

That’s part of what makes this game really good on the portable platforms, mind you; on a PC, I rarely feel the need to play this game for long stretches, but I imagine it’d work great as a travel game – if you have to stop paying attention at any point to change trains or the like, it won’t matter to the game too much, because in this game, you commit to actions and then see how they play out, but never in a way that demands immediate, panicked reaction.

I almost wish it’d come out on the 3DS like Steamworld Dig and Steamworld Dig 2 had – but we don’t always get everything we want.

Anyway, Steamworld Heist is a really great little game! It has hats and guns and steam powered robots and lots of replayability! Go check it out on your platform of choice.