There’s something that should be said when a franchise continues to broaden itself out in different genres successfully. Immediately, Mario comes to mind. Mario isn’t just known for his platforming games, he’s been in sports titles, RPGs, party games, racing games, even a dance rhythm game. It’s not that Mario is in a lot of genres, it’s that the Mario franchise expands into various genres, and the games work. The SteamWorld franchise is one of the newer franchises that has successfully expanded itself out. From the original SteamWorld Dig to the strategy-heavy SteamWorld Heist, to the Metroidvania SteamWorld Dig 2, SteamWorld is taking over other genres successfully. With SteamWorld Quest: Hand of Gilgamech, the RPG genre is next, and it comes with good to mixed results.
At first SteamWorld Quest is pretty much your average RPG, but the SteamWorld character and world design help keep it fresh. The unique character concepts (like a frog mech or college dropout robot), combined with a beautiful hand-drawn world, make SteamWorld Quest a game I want to explore. What really makes SteamWorld Quest so unique and different is its combat system. It’s a turn-based RPG where you select your actions and then watch as your opponent makes its own moves, except in SteamWorld Quest, your moves are dictated by the (literal) cards in your hands. Your attacks are dictated by punch cards with an associated gear cost. Simple moves, like sword attack, are “free”, while more advanced moves, which deal greater damage to enemies, require much higher gear costs. That means you have to spend a bit of time collecting gear points and then spend those gears to pull them off. You also only have a certain numbers of cards in any given battle, which means you really need to plan your moves in a smart manner to win.
As the game goes on, SteamWorld Quest steadily adds new mechanics to that basic setup. Cards can eventually be combined with one another for added effects. One great example I used often was water and zap combo. You might soak an enemy with water with one character and then zap them for extra damage with the next character. Even normal combat encounters can have characters team up with one another, if (and that’s a big IF) you play cards in the right order. Standard things, like XP and equipped accessories, add to the classic RPG/strategy elements. You’re always thinking of who should attack first, in what order, and with what cards. It’s what keeps each battle interesting and somewhat fresh.
Here’s the thing about SteamWorld Quest, one that could potentially put a lot of people off. The game is pretty horribly unbalanced. Each chapter of the game is broken up into small areas where you can either find small treasures to collect or groups of enemies to fight. All of this is supposed to test your deck of cards against those enemies. Most regular encounters are way too easy, which means you rarely need to consider strategic changes to your card decks or party members. Then, very randomly the game becomes nearly impossible to beat. SteamWorld Quest will suddenly introduce some ultra demanding combat scenario while giving you few ways to win that scenario. This is made almost infinitely worse by the nightmare that is any boss battle in the game.
Boss battles are far more challenging than the foes in the surrounding areas (I know, obvious statement is obvious). The problem is that these boss battles act as unfair skill checks that ask you to understand your abilities that the game never had you use or understand up to that point. It’s frustrating because most of these bosses feel like they break the rules of combat that all other enemies are bound to. They can consistently pull off very powerful moves one after the other without the same strict resource requirements you’re forced into. Bosses literally bombard you with damage you can’t handle or prepare for. Given that most of these boss battles are quite long, it’s hard to work up the motivation to try again after a loss (and trust me, you will lose a lot). The cherry on top of this is, in my opinion, the broken save system. It’s not that saves don’t work in the game, it’s that the game only has one single save slot. Since you can only store a single saved game at a time, it’s impossible to go back a number of hours and prepare your party better. This means that no matter what you do, you become locked into the decisions you’ve made, forcing you to rapidly rotate though your available options until a combination (hopefully) works. The majority of the time? Those combinations don’t work and leave you feeling like you’ve wasted your time.
It’s a shame SteamWorld Quest has this pretty major imbalance. There’s a lot to love in SteamWorld Quest, and there’s a truly unique game in here. However, because the gameplay balance is so broken, it makes the game an unbelievably frustrating experience rather than a fun, unique RPG. In fact, and I can’t believe I’m saying this because I love the SteamWorld games, I’d actually tell you to not buy this game until this issue is fixed. I feel an update could come out to fix this issue and make the game feel more balanced. Until then, I can’t tell you to spend $25 on a game that literally made me throw stuff in anger. The game badly needs a fix, so until then, save your money.
Developer: Image & Form
Platform: Nintendo Switch
Release Date: 25th April 2019