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VideAU Games Review: Code Name S.T.E.A.M. (3DS, 2015)

When I heard I was to review the latest game from Intelligent Systems, I got pretty excited. I’m a fan of Intelligent’s previous work, the excellent Advance Wars and Fire Emblem games in particular, and I imagined that Code Name: S.T.E.A.M. would continue the developer’s history of smart design. Sadly, Code Name: S.T.E.A.M. has some serious problems that keep it from being truly memorable.

To be clear, Intelligent Systems have put an awful lot of work into Code Name: S.T.E.A.M.. The production values are high and the game’s comic book aesthetic is reminiscent of games like Elite Beat Agents and XIII - indeed the story plays out as if you were reading a comic, complete with pages turning. The story is bizarre but incredibly fun, assembling a motley crew of heroes plucked from American folklore. You play as Henry Fleming, a member of Abraham Lincoln’s elite strike team, S.T.E.A.M. Honest Abe’s finest must tackle an alien menace threatening to bring Great Britain (???) to it’s knees and on Her Majesty’s orders, these all-American heroes must strap on their steam-powered guns and armour and save the day. Sounds fun, right?

Code Name: S.T.E.A.M., like the vast majority of games in Intelligent Systems’ back catalogue, is a turn-based strategy game with a heavy dose of RPG mechanics. Intelligent have proven time and again that this genre arrangement is what they do best but, from the moment you load it up, Code Name: S.T.E.A.M. feels off. For a start, the overall pace of the game could only be described as glacial.

Each map is viewed through the game's third-person perspective, giving it the look of a family-friendly Gears of War, and is divided into segments by a series of grid lines. You’ll spend one unit of your Steam meter for every square on the grid you traverse. If you choose to make an Action, like shooting an enemy or dropping from a ledge, you sack an even more substantial chunk of your Steam meter to get it done.

If you decide you’d rather play defensively, you need to keep a decent amount of Steam left over at the end of your turn. This means limiting your movement and actions in order to counter enemy attacks as they move into range. Put all of that together on a single map and you’ll quickly realise that the only thing slower than a round of Code Name: S.T.E.A.M. is continental drift.

This plodding pace makes the early game really difficult to push through but when you finally start to approach the late game, it becomes intolerable. There’s a few save points dotted throughout each map but they’re not free to use. This means that if your troops are battered, strapped for cash and stuck in unfavourable positions then there’s a map restart in your future whether you like it or not. The scenario I’m describing happens a lot because of Code Name: S.T.E.A.M.’s DS-snappingly brutal difficulty.

Enemies seem to pour in from every corner of the map, buffing the number that was already on there when you started and always at a rate that is slightly beyond what you’re able to deal with. Thus, you’ll rarely find a moment in which you aren’t under threat. To make matters worse, you have to wait for the enemy turn to complete which itself can take up to a minute depending on how many enemies there are. The only thing you’re able to do during this period of deep introspection for the computer is twiddle the camera using the stylus. All of this only serves to make the game’s paint-drying pace even more torturous, especially when the computer takes forever to make up its mind and then dismantles your entire team in a single turn.

In fairness, the game’s savage difficulty curve flattens out slightly by the time you reach a full four-person squad and you finally, mercifully, begin to unlock some healing weapons. The lustre of the healing moves wears off quickly though - healing also takes a bite out of your Steam allowance, slowing your roll even further.

The fact that Code Name: S.T.E.A.M. isn’t much fun to play is especially disappointing because you can plainly see how much work and creativity had been poured into the game’s weapons and characters. As I mentioned earlier, the production values are through the roof on this one - Wil Goddamned Wheaton voices Lincoln! - and the gameworld itself bursts with creative, steampunk imagery. Beyond that, it feels a bit cold and hollow beneath the surface.

Sprightly visuals can only take you so far, unfortunately. If you’re a fan of a good tactical RPG, for now you’re just going to have to keep waiting. Code Name: S.T.E.A.M. has an extremely interesting premise but in execution sadly feels rather undercooked. I really do hope Intelligent Systems gets to take another run at this setting in the future because, if they could find a way to balance it out, I think they’d have another winner on their hands.

Review Score: 5.0 out of 10
Highlights: Fantastic setting; great visuals; Abraham Wheaton!
Lowlights: Punishingly difficult; agonisingly slow pace
Developer: Intelligent Systems
Publisher: Nintendo
Released: 16 May 2015
Platform: Nintendo 3DS

Reviewed on Nintendo 3DS