Review – SteamWorld Quest
Image & Form Games have become a Nindie darling for some time now. They are well known for their audacious titles that spawn multiple genres, all within the same and highly versatile universe of SteamWorld. SteamWorld is an alternate reality where humans have scattered into the underground as steam-powered robots began to evolve and eventually claim the world. In each of its completely different incarnations, SteamWorld gives the player control of some of these wacky and lovable steam-bots to fulfill their main programmed objectives. What makes these games so widely popular is the level of polish, creativity, and overall charm that SteamWorld holds. Each title gives players a new opportunity to learn about this fascinating world and gives us glimpses into its robotacular denizens. Above all, Image & Form’s brave stance on creating completely different experiences every time, gives its fans a lot to to be on the lookout for.
As you can guess, I am one of these fans. SteamWorld Heist was my first foray into Image & Forms small library of titles, and I’ve loved every one of them for all the reasons stated above…and then some. It should come to no surprise that I would have been remiss if I was unable to review their newest title: SteamWorld Quest: Hand Of Gilgamech. This newest entry puts the world of SteamWorld into a more fantastical setting. We follow the exploits of the brave heroine, Armilly, and her friends into a by the books tale of a nobody-to-savior fantasy adventure littered with dragons, warlocks, slimes, goblins, and astray heroes along the way. Everything you would expect from a traditional fantasy title.
However, you’d be surprised to learn this is not your run of the mill turn-based RPG-trope filled romp; at least not in its entirety. The game uses a turn based card drafting system, reminiscent of other titles like Slay The Spire, where different abilities come into play through a limited hand of cards. As Slay The Spire proved earlier last year, the market has space for more titles that use card battling at their core and the systems and mechanics within SteamWorld Quest take this concept to new heights: at a price.
What would a SteamWorld game be without a great world to explore, and if there’s anything that SteamWorld Quest does exceptionally well, it’s its world-building. From the moment the title screen loads you are pushed headfirst into a magical world of picturesque storybook scenery filled to the brim with bright colors, beautiful animations, and just an overall splendid atmosphere. The work put into every environment and asset is outstanding. It’s clear to see that the developers put a lot of attention into the game feeling like it was taken right out of a children’s book.
That feeling stretches far beyond the art style and is continually implemented through all of its organizational and storytelling devices. The game is broken out into chapters, with each containing small snippets of the story. Each chapter is comprised of a series of highly simplified “rooms” that give our character an opportunity to explore. Some rooms hold small secrets and surprises that incentivize players to break through every object and walk around every edge. That’s not to say that every chapter is a “literary” work of art. Some of the levels feel extensively short and uninteresting with little to discover.
The game’s story is similarly underwhelming. On the other hand, it seems to be completely intentional. Characters fall into the typical roles you’d expect and the story unfolds like you’ve seen before. But the humor and banter between each of the main protagonists and the events that surround them make for a very enjoyable ride. The game takes multiple opportunities to lightly poke at tired old tropes and brings fun and humor to what would have been a monotonous affair. It keeps things moving at a brisk pace and it does not dwell on unnecessary detail. I’m looking at you Final Fantasy. The result is an obvious, but enjoyable tale of perseverance and confidence that weaves a heartwarming tale of camaraderie and self-belief. If you enjoy the humor from previous SteamWorld games, you’ll likely be smirking and grinning through your entire playthrough.
However, this isn’t all fun and silly banter. There is a deceptively deep and highly rewarding core mechanic here that if not payed attention to will leave players frustrated. Regardless of how hilarious Galleo is. SteamWorld Quest uses a familiar card drafting mechanic that puts players in the exciting position of managing cards. No, I’m not being sarcastic. Like the classic Yu-Gi-Oh series, it’s time to DUE-DUE-DUE-DUEL. Understanding your cards and the synergies they have is quintessential for surviving every encounter, especially at higher difficulties.
Underneath the cutesy and airy graphics there is a monstrous and unforgiving system waiting for you to conquer it. We’ve seen in other titles how successful this battle mechanic can be, but new elements brought by SteamWorld make it feel totally at home. The core loop focuses around playing cards with varying effect to slowly bring your enemies down. As you play cards, you’ll generate gears that will allow you to play stronger cards later. Some of these cards can bolster each other and create even stronger effects depending on the order and types of cards that you play. The feeling of getting an incredible combo down exactly as you planned is exhilarating and one of the most satisfying experiences the game has to offer.
Variety is brought through the constant search for new cards and materials that are used to create and/or upgrade your existing decks. Each character has their own particular cards, each being totally different from their counterparts. The game incentivizes players to constantly experiment with new strategies especially in later levels where your “go to” decks may not be prepared to defeat stronger enemies. In the highest difficulty, I was challenged to edit my deck multiple times to discover the perfect combination to take my foes down. That retooling and adaptive strategizing reminded me of traditional trading card games, which is a gigantic compliment all in its own right. However, unlike fighting against a real life opponent, the game does not adapt to these new strategies. Once you figure out the particular winning combination, you are most surely guaranteed the victory.
Which brings me to one of my biggest gripes with this title. Long battles can be a grueling affair and not for any of the right reasons. Instead of being constantly challenged and on the edge of my seat, I was left feeling bored and unfulfilled. The thrill of the fight had already evaporated after my second or third try because I had seen everything the boss had to offer. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but when these larger enemies have such gigantic health bars, it devolves from a battle of wits to a battle of patience. Taking down a boss I have already figured out becomes extremely tedious. Most of these fights boil down to an inevitable stand still of the enemies recuperating large portions of health, between 500-800 every turn, while you’re dealing close to 950 with your best combo. Yes, you’ll eventually beat the boss but the decisions in between that become almost non-existent as players automatically default to cycling their decks to find that specific combo over and over.
This may not be such an issue if the game didn’t feel like it was stuck in perpetual slow motion. Sure, Boondock Saints made it work through the expert and deranged movements of William Dafoe dancing and swaying through a cacophony of bullets and smoke and ridiculous narration, but here we’re missing the bullets, the smoke, and everything in between; and that scene only lasts for three minutes. Every action in this game feels like its been sped down to a ridiculous degree. Exploring the map, issuing an attack, or even going through text bubbles feels like I’m waiting for paint to dry. Sorry, I’ll take that back. Paint dries so much faster.
I’m grateful the developers allowed for there to be a fast-forward option, but it honestly feels like this should have been the standard speed. For anyone interested in this otherwise fun title, you’ll be pleased to know there is a toggle in the menu that allows the game to run constantly in fast forward, which leads me to believe the developers knew this would be an issue for players. I can understand from an artistic and narrative perspective that the game should move and behave like a storyteller enunciating each action, but it just brings the game to a grinding halt.
With that being said, don’t be dismayed. There is a lot to love here. In typical Image & Form fashion they’ve taken a bold new step and it has paid off handsomely. The plethora of small yet meaningful decisions artistically, musically, and mechanically have coalesced into a fantastic production. True to form for the developer, they’ve added a new chapter into the SteamWorld saga seamlessly. I appreciate the cognizant evolution of the steam-bots. Going from barely escaping the limitations of their original programming to now being able to imagine on their own. It’s a strong and compelling narrative evolution.
In particular, I loved the characters and the way they played off each other. I felt like I was a witness to their journey and saw myself rooting for Armilly throughout her journey. Speaking of, I cannot commend Image & Form enough for creating strong and diverse female led games. Each of their protagonist feel strong, independent, and completely natural. It’s not about making a loud and bold statement, but more so just how normal it feels to control a female character.
All in all, Steamworld Quest: Hand of Gilgamech is another fantastic entry in the Steamworld canon. It’s not perfect though. Marred with pacing issues, unsurprising story arcs, a lack of gameplay surprises, and some characters feeling a bit more quintessential than others; SteamWorld Quest is definitely not Image & Form’s best in the series. Nevertheless, I highly recommend this title for fans of the SteamWorld series or gamers who are looking for more titles like Slay The Spire but that things a bit differently. This game will definitely not sway those that did enjoy other card management battle titles, but it is definitely a stand out in the genre. Just like the little steam train that could, Image & Form keeps proving that they are a developer to keep an eye on.
Charming and whimsical, the paint brushed aesthetic and soft palettes bring the world and characters to life. Without a doubt this is a beautiful entry in the SteamWorld series.
The card play mechanic proves to be enjoyable once more. The emphasis in adaptation and constant experimentation is welcome and gives players diversity throughout their playthrough. However, the incredibly slow animations make a lot of the game feel sluggish. Thankfully, players can opt to speed it up.
From the clashing of metal, to the airy chirping of mechanical birds, the soundscape is wonderfully composed. The soundtrack in particular is outstanding with gorgeous ensembles and enthralling scores that keep the player engaged and focused on the many battles they’ll encounter.
A serene, crunchy, and sometimes dull endeavor with plenty of challenges to face. Some battles may feel completely void of interest at certain junctures, but the core gameplay loop is exciting and well done.
Final Verdict: 7.5
SteamWorld Quest: Hand of Gilgamech is available now on Switch.
Reviewed on Switch.
A copy of SteamWorld Quest: Hand of Gilgamech was provided by the publisher.