Review: Steam Tactics29 Nov 2017 0
Review: Steam Tactics
Released 12 Sep 2017
Anthropomorphic animals seem to have been quite well represented in the strategy genre in the past few months. First the revolutionaries of Tooth and Tail, we now have the more whimsical steampunk of Steam Tactics. Being a fan of this particular aesthetic, I’m not complaining one bit.
Steam Tactics is a turn-based airship combat game. Essentially linear, the player follows the game’s story line from one mission to another, engaging with pirates, law enforcement and the goons of dastardly ecclesiastical authorities. Without wanting to put in too many spoilers, the setup reminds me somewhat of The Three Musketeers.
The overriding theme I find in reviewing Steam Tactics is that it gets the big essentials of what makes the game enjoyable right, whilst potentially leaving out details that might have added a great deal to the experience in numerous small ways. Combat is readily accessible and has a good amount of depth, yet its AI suffers and it often undermines the story in setting the scene. Likewise, the narrative is good overall, but certain details hurt the immersion one wants (and needs) in the experience
The story itself is somewhat predictable. With certain characters you just know they’ll survive. Yet it is serviceable and whilst not the greatest work of literature to come from the human mind, it’s fun, and with a game like Steam Tactics that’s what matters. Whereas most games pursue B movie style action and adventure, this is the equivalent of the better kind of kids movie. This may sound like I’m knocking it. That couldn’t be further from the truth. There’s a place for “easy” stories to relax to and Steam Tactics fills that hole nicely. The writing itself can be described as good enough. Some phrasing seems to have had a bit of a bad day in translation. Furthermore, the writing’s tendency to become didactic can grate when it is at its most obvious.
None the less, the campaign for Steam Tactics tells a good, straight-forward story and as the action builds you really begin to care about beating the living daylights out of a particularly arrogant enemy. The heroes, each in their own way, are likeable and it’s gratifying to see enemies become friends (and favourites) as the game progresses.
Combat in Steam Tactics mirrors the attributes of the story in many ways. It gets the essentials right. Its turn-based combat takes place over squares, with ships moving horizontally or vertically and weapons able to fire diagonally as well. Movement speeds are defined by the number of weapons a player has equipped upon each ship. A ship with lots of weapons will move at a snail’s pace, but will hit extremely hard. A ship with only one weapon can zip across the battlefield getting to where it needs to be fast.
There is an impressive array of weapons, from the classic machine gun and cannon to thoroughly steampunk devices like Tesla cannons and acid guns. Thematically all well and good, but it is in the way weapons perform that the “tactics” in Steam Tactics really comes to the fore. Each gun type can only shoot in a particular set of directions (horizontally or diagonally) and only may hit a particular square – ranging from one to four hexes away – in that direction. In many ways it is reminiscent of chess.
Taken together, with the way ships are kitted out and the way weapons perform, the player has some difficult questions in front of them. Do you load your ship up with a variety of weapons to allow them flexibility in any situation? Or do you keep your ships light and trust in your speed enabling you to control the engagement and make sure you are always able to line up for a shot? With multiple choices for each ship to be made, thinking about how your fleet works together as well as allowing for when things go wrong (they will) become a tricky proposition.
The AI is under the same constraints, and half the game is identifying the weaknesses of the way their units are kitted up and matching those. Cracking a particularly difficult mission is a very satisfying experience. The AI is on the whole good. It focuses fire upon priority targets and its willingness to get stuck in makes for an enjoyable experience. However, as the game progresses some of its limitations become clear. For example, it is easy for the AI to suffer in tight situations from a kind of command paralysis where ships unable to engage the nearest enemy due to short range or other limitations simply stay put, absorbing fire and doing nothing to try to avoid it or set up for a comeback.
Perhaps the most critical AI weakness is its apparent inability to think beyond the next turn. This is particularly apparent when special power ups that provide one time repairs to a ship appear. A power up that is within a single turn’s movement will be eagerly snapped up. A power up two turns away, even one far away from the player’s own units - making the run to it risk free - will be ignored. Despite these flaws, the challenge is there and the strength of AI ships adds to the need of players to plan carefully.
The most significant problem with Steam Tactics, for this reviewer at least, is the lack of integration between narrative and gameplay. Whilst occasionally “hero” units that are obviously the villains you’ve been facing appear to give your ships a real bad day; the engagements, although by themselves providing interesting tactical problems, don’t really seem to have been designed with the overarching narrative in mind. Scenery, terrain and conditions lack any relation to the events you’ve been shown between games. This becomes most glaring – and disappointing – in the game’s finale, where the characters are, according to the narrative, fighting before the entire assembled kingdom. Yet the scenery shows no sign of this, instead generic floating islands and a seemingly out of place rain storm mark your final battle. Surely the climax of the story would warrant special attention?
These flaws do damage immersion, but they are ultimately minor. Steam Tactics is a game that works. It is simple with a reasonable amount of understandable depth. Its story is engaging and fun. The only thing preventing me from wholeheartedly recommending it to those with children is the small amount of course language (“bastard” and “prick” are the worst I can remember) – your mileage may vary, of course. Otherwise, for those wanting a game simply to relax (and let off steam!), Steam Tactics offers a good five hours or so of casual fun, just as long as you don’t try to think about it too much.