Code Name: S.T.E.A.M.
"It's not every day Tom Sawyer gets to hang out with the Cowardly Lion from The Wizard of Oz, after all."
Abraham Lincoln. John Henry. Tom Sawyer. Aliens. Part of me wanted to leave the rest of this preview blank, a virtual mike-drop moment of the absurdity that is Code Name: S.T.E.A.M. It's a rare thing to see a video game incorporate the style of silver age comic books and famous historical figures, and it's even rarer to see Nintendo actively supporting a brand new IP to stand next to Mario, Zelda and all the rest. I've been intrigued and excited to get my hands on S.T.E.A.M for some time, but the public demo now available on Nintendo's eShop left me a bit disappointed.
The world of S.T.E.A.M. is based around... well, steam! Victorian era London seems to have crossed over into some parallel dimension where steampunk clothing is all the rage and airships cut a fine swath through the sky. It's certainly a very striking world, and everything is presented in a wonderfully old-school comic book style that seems refreshingly out of character for Nintendo. Sure, we've seen some medieval settings with the Fire Emblem series, but S.T.E.A.M. seems like the best parts of Irrational's Freedom Force series brought into the modern gaming era. It's certainly a strange sight to behold, and it gets even weirder when The Great Emancipator orders you to kick some alien ass.
S.T.E.A.M. ditches the overhead maps, swords and sorcery of Intelligent Systems' Fire Emblem system for 3D battlefields, powerful rifle blasts and Cthulhu-inspired monstrosities. Players control individual party members during their turn, with movement and offensive skills tied into the amount of steam available during the round. A character can move forward to scout ahead, quickly using precious steam to get into position. Or maybe you'll choose to attack twice and remain stationary on the fields of combat. Better yet, why not move to the high ground and rain death from above on the unsuspecting freaks lying below? Fans of Valkyria Chronicles will feel right at home with Code Name: S.T.E.A.M., as it plays very similar to Sega's cult classic.
Even in the limited demo, S.T.E.A.M. forces you to think about your surroundings and plan ahead in a way that, in Fire Emblem: Awakening, never clicked quite right with me. My starting party consisted of Henry Fleming (the main character from The Red Badge of Courage, for those who fell asleep in ninth grade English) and John Henry, who seems to have traded in his powerful hammer for a grenade launcher capable of devastating the alien hordes. I especially like how each character has a specific moveset and place on the battlefield. Fleming can use overwatch to protect party members during the aliens' turn, while Henry's grenades can remove obstacles on the battlefield. It appears that players will control up to four characters at a time, so I hope each one comes with specific advantages and disadvantages that will add to the level of strategic depth of the game.
Unfortunately, several aspects of the demo left me a bit cold on the entire experience. The lack of an overhead map forces players to spend precious time scouting and trying to make sense of the cramped 3D environments. I was constantly inching the camera awkwardly to try to see what dangers lie ahead without triggering an enemy in an overwatch state, and the whole thing felt a bit too clunky to feel like a natural part of the experience. Worse still, players can recover spent steam during movement if they run back to their original position. It feels incredibly weird to scout around during a turn looking for the best course of action (especially with health pickups and additional steam lying in seemingly random spots in the world), but maybe that's in response to how rigid Valkyria Chronicles felt at times if you made a mistake during movement. I also wasn't able to see any of the potential upgrades for my units, and there wasn't much variety in the alien antagonists.
I'm not completely turned off to Code Name: S.T.E.A.M. at this point, but it didn't feel quite as polished or fresh as I was expecting. It doesn't help matters that the turn phase for the aliens is entirely too long and takes away almost all of the positive flow I built up blasting those terrifying creatures from the abyss. Hopefully this is an earlier build of the game, but I have a feeling S.T.E.A.M. is going to feel a little stilted for gamers expecting a tight strategic experience on the go. I still have high hopes, however, and I'm happy to see Nintendo trying something new. The story alone is enough to rope me into the full game. It's not every day Tom Sawyer gets to hang out with the Cowardly Lion from The Wizard of Oz, after all. And, yes, that's a thing. I told you it was strange!