Good lord, I love SteamWorld Heist.
I should have really seen this coming; the same was true of its predecessor, SteamWorld Dig. A bite-sized cult hit on 3DS that then rocketed to success on every other platform imaginable; a simple but charmingly brilliant assemblage of Minecraft and Metroidvania design, a crockpot of pure 2D fun that left me feeling like a giddy child. Developer Image & Form even put a SteamWorld spin on the tower defence genre back in 2010, with great aplomb. With Heist, a lot of the same philosophy seems to have carried over; “What do people like? What’s cool? How do we hone this gameplay mechanic down to its most joyous essentials?” What we’re left with is a 2D procedurally generated tactics game, with real-time gunplay that allows you to pull off epic trick shots.
You lead a rattling party of space-robot-cowboy-pirates on a mission to plunder the galaxy for righteous causes, one ship at a time. Having ‘heist’ in the title may conjure images of derring-do burglary and convoluted pre-planning, but Captain Piper and her crew seem a-okay with the much simpler “shoot anything that moves” approach. Once you’ve achieved your goal—it could be killing everyone, looting everything, destroying generators, taking out a boss—you have to beat it to the exit too. Movement ranges are conveyed very clearly with different-coloured highlights, and, as with XCOM, cover is crucial if you want to win the day. Heist trades a muddle of action points for the simple idea that each unit can do two things in a turn—move and move, move and use an ability, or move and throw a grenade.
" Having ‘heist’ in the title may conjure images of derring-do burglary, but Captain Piper and her crew seem a-okay with the much simpler “shoot anything that moves” approach."
It similarly dispenses with RNG shenanigans, preferring instead some good ol’ fashioned common sense. You can tell, for example, how reliable your cover it going to be by how much your robot is physically popping out from behind it. Most notable of all, whilst critical hits still require a headshot and some luck, your shot accuracy isn’t based on arbitrary numbers. In a game like XCOM (comparisons to which Image & Form openly embrace), the shooting was its least satisfying aspect. All your plans and strategizing was compromised as soon as you pulled the trigger/rolled the dice. Heist, on the other hand, is a game where tactics absolutely do matter, but crucially when you miss a shot, it’s your fault.
You have to manually aim the barrel of your gun at what you want to shoot, compensating for your character’s breathing rhythm and the slight sway of their aiming stance. Sometimes you have a laser sight, most times you don’t and have to judge it by eye. Sometimes you can achieve a straightforward direct shot, other times you have to rely on a bullet’s ricochet. Bouncing a laser-sighted sniper round off of four walls and into the back of an enemy is one kind of awesome, but it’s quite another to move the camera around, imagine the trajectory of a revolver’s bullet, weigh up your options, fire, and be rewarded with the coolest trick shot ever. You’ll often miss of course, but when you don’t, it’s a couch jumping delight.
"Bouncing a laser-sighted sniper round off of four walls and into the back of an enemy is a special kind of awesome."
What really impresses, however, is that Heist takes a tense, complex and detail heavy system and makes it clear, chunky and fun. There’s none of the heavy tutorializing that is so commonplace in the tactics genre—right from its opening moments, you can quickly gauge all the systems and mechanics and just get on with it. New wrinkles and ideas are gradually drip-fed, further fleshing out the game’s simplistic, but devilishly satisfying core design—be it special loot or abilities—but by the time they’re granted, you’re in a better place to appreciate their value.There’s a similar efficiency with class upgrades. Other games might have been content to include a half-baked skill tree system—unfortunately a dime a dozen these days—but Image & Form resist the temptation. Yes, you get XP and yes, there are skill points—but these are automatically spent on predetermined character attributes, meaning there’s precious little time spent meticulously tinkering with stats and equipment, leaving you to just simply dive into another heist.
By the end of the game, there’s a robust set of tactical options at your disposal, but the journey to get there was never once daunting or confusing. Image & Form give you the time and the space to achieve a sense of mastery, before then changing the rules in such a specific way that the tactics you once found comfort in simply no longer work. This could be a new enemy type, an inventive boss encounter, or one of the several micro-surprises I wouldn’t dare spoil here. Elsewhere, missions often use timers in a similar manner to the security meter in Invisible, Inc (another game you should play now right now)—as a way of calling in reinforcements without seeming unfair—and at the end of each heist, you’re left with truly agonising decisions to make as you ponder over which loot to keep and which to get rid of, given your limited inventory space.
"Image & Form give you the time and the space to achieve a sense of mastery, before then changing the rules so that the tactics you once found comfort in simply no longer work."
When the inevitable occurs and one of your pals bite the dust, hey it’s okay—they’re robots! They can just be reassembled, good as new for the next mission. The whole game is still built around an XCOM style Iron Man mode—your progress is saved at every turn, and dying or restarting will mean a loss of resources—but here it doesn’t matter, thanks to the game’s forgiving nature. Nothing you lose can’t then be earned back. There’s even the most ingenious consolation prize for failure—hats! My god, the hats. Failed to shoot that man in the head? It’s okay, he just dropped a rather lovely hat as a result. What should be a frivolous addition to the game is instead an engrossing collect-a-thon. I’d even sacrifice the strategic upper hand and intentionally miss if I saw an enemy wearing an armored top hat or a particularly fetching trilby. Just trust me on this, the hats are flippin’ brilliant.
Image & Form have also taken all the best cues from iOS game design; the addictive hooks are rewarding and skill-driven, not manipulative and derivative of the experience. Bite-sized missions and the performance ratings for each one give Heist an absurdly compelling feedback loop. When you’re not fervently having ‘just one more go’, you’ll be replaying earlier missions to bag that elusive three-star rating. Sure, it could be frustrating to redo a mission for the sake of a single star; but because missions are partially randomised every time you play, it’s frankly a joy to keep trying. Even if one of your buddies die on route (thus failing to meet the maximum three-star criteria), you’ll still have snatched up a rare piece of loot in the attempt.
"Bite-sized missions and the performance ratings for each one give Heist an absurdly compelling feedback loop."
This kind of cosy reinforcement make every inch of the experience pop, keeping you engaged instead of putting the controller down in defeat. Even the end of each mission is a sensory treat. There’ll be a pile of loot that you’ve just robbed from whichever procedurally-generated space hulk you’ve been infiltrating, and you get to open up the goody bags and treasure chests to see what’s inside. Sounds simple, right? But it could just as easily been a rote list of rewards that are handed to you—the fact that you have to manually unwrap each package, one at a time, means that each and every one feel like a present, a pat on the back, an endless Christmas. There’s a shudder as each package reveals its contents, a flash of sparkling light. What is it going to be this time? More money? A new weapon? A sweet new hat? This attention to aesthetics and player satisfaction is rarely done with some an effortless grace. It’s like playing a Blizzard game, but one that genuinely loves you and doesn’t want to slurp up all your time.
Because while Heist is physically addictive, it’s also a game that tangibly ends. There’s no ecosystem to lock you in, no encouragement to hang around and grind, no bitter aftertaste. There’s just a lavish, wonderful, and clearly finite experience to be savoured and enjoyed. The only real shortcomings are the story and the dialogue (I assume the latter is because of a fumbling with the Swedish to English translation). The cast of robotic rogues is memorable because of their instantly iconic designs, not their somewhat hackneyed banter. The story moves at a decent clip but remains oddly forgettable. But when the tone is this breezy, and when the SteamWorld universe is rendered with such a wonderful eye for comic detail, these slight deficiencies don’t bog down the proceedings. This is steampunk Firefly; down on their luck space pirates bouncing from one hot mess to another, shooting, looting, with tongue firmly in cheek.
I just can’t recommend SteamWorld Heist enough; filled with wit and invention, a kickass soundtrack by the wonderfully named Steam Powered Giraffe, HATS and a superb mix of action and strategy. It’s the sort of experience that will hopefully open up more people to styles of games they’d never normally play, while delighting those that are already fans. For me, SteamWorld Heist is one of the best games of this year.
In fact, let’s end this review already. You know, so I can go play some more.