Scroll down to see a video review of SteamWorld Quest: Hand of Gilgamech.
Over the last decade, developer Image & Form has been turning out innovative and fun spins on familiar genres through their SteamWorld series. Taking place in a world entirely populated by steam-powered robots, SteamWorld Dig and SteamWorld Heist took the templates of a Metroidvania and a turn-based strategy game respectively and put them through a steampunk-y filter. The resulting games were not just fun but also offered something entirely new to fans of those genres. On top of that, Image & Form’s art design in every SteamWorld game has been simply delightful, with brilliant sprite work full of personality and imagination.
In their latest game, SteamWorld Quest: Hand of Gilgamech, the stunning sprites and beautiful world are still there, but innovation with the genre was, unfortunately, lacking.
Tell me if you’ve heard this one before: After a mysterious army attacks their village, a plucky band of young heroes must leave their home on a quest, uncovering secrets of a dark conspiracy, meeting quirky new allies, and learning about themselves along the way. That’s about as generic a plot as you can find in a fantasy RPG, and it’s the plot of SteamWorld Quest. There are no twists or turns that subvert expectations of this well-trodden tale. It’s fantasy paint-by-numbers, right down to the search for the mysterious artifact that could destroy the world.
Even ignoring the generic fantasy plot, the dialogue is often groan-worthy, and not in a fun way. When one of the characters responded to a question with “And don’t call me Shirley,” I wanted to bury my face in my controller. Stealing a 40-year-old Leslie Nielsen joke from Airplane! is bad enough, but stripping it of its deadpan delivery and original context kills the laugh.
The linear nature of the game is also disappointing. The story is divided into self-contained chapters, with no real character choice or roleplaying involved. You do have the option to go back and replay chapters to find treasure that you missed or grind for money and experience. Yet there is no real incentive to do so, as you will have to play through all of the same events again (thankfully, there is a skip scene button available right from the start).
The battles in SteamWorld Quest are a fun and effective mix of turn-based and card-based systems. You equip your heroes with cards (cleverly, they are punch cards), much like you do with weapons and accessories. At the beginning of each battle, you draw six at random. By playing lower-powered cards, you can build up “gears” that act similarly to MP, allowing you to use more powerful attacks and abilities. By selecting the right cards in the right order, you can chain together your actions, giving you additional and enhanced effects. It’s a very effective battle system that builds on other card-based systems that have come out over the last few years. Aside from an unbalanced endgame with a very sharp difficulty spike, battles are always enjoyable. Experimenting with different card loads to find one that will cover all of your bases so you can swiftly crush your enemies (who also use a card deck mechanic) is super fun. Plus, there is an option to speed up the battles, which is a welcome quality-of-life addition.
One area where SteamWorld Quest definitely lives up to its predecessors is the graphics department. The unique aesthetic of the SteamWorld games is in full effect, with beautifully drawn robotic characters shining with polish and personality. The team at Image & Form have wonderfully adapted traditional fantasy class tropes, giving them a robotic twist. The classes of alchemist Copernica or wannabe knight Armilly are instantly identifiable with just one look, and every other character design, including the NPCs, are just brimming with personality and charm. I was a bit disappointed that many of the bosses and minibosses were palette swaps of each other, but on the whole, the graphics are flat-out gorgeous.
Another great aspect of SteamWorld Quest is its sound design. The soundtrack is lovely, evoking the memory of other classic fantasy tales while giving everything a robotic twist. Each character “speaks” in robotic gibberish, nicely contributing to the juxtaposition of the fantasy elements with the steampunk level of technology.
In the end, SteamWorld Quest feels much more like a polished mobile game than a console RPG. This game is not too long, pleasant, and fun to play in short bursts. But those looking for deep character growth, an explorable world, and a compelling story should look elsewhere (possibly at the other SteamWorld games). Despite the eye-catching graphics and character design, there just isn’t enough here to keep me coming back. It’s a rare misstep from Image & Form, but given their past output, I suspect it is one that they will learn from. SteamWorld Dig 2 took everything great about the original and improved upon it. Let’s hope the same happens with SteamWorld Quest, should it get a sequel.