PAX EAST 2015: Code Name: S.T.E.A.M. Preview – Star Spangled Planner

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“Normal” isn’t a word I’d use to describe Intelligent Systems (they did develop WarioWare, after all), but that hardly means anyone was prepared for Code Name: S.T.E.A.M.. The veteran studio’s third-person shooter turned grid and turn-based strategy game pretty much blindsided everyone at E3, and from there it’s been nothing but quirk after heroically overbearing quirk. If you haven’t heard, the main protagonist’s name is Henry Fleming. Yes, that Henry Fleming. Clearly there are no boundaries here, and I’m just now beginning to understand how that’s exactly the appeal Code Name: S.T.E.A.M. has been trying to sell all along. 

S.T.E.A.M. stands for Strike Team Eliminating the Alien Menace, and though my show floor demo with the game was fun, it hardly qualified as menacing. That said, it did showcase an extended sample of what very closely represents final-build gameplay, and gave me a sense of precisely how Intelligent Systems plans to make this crazy idea of theirs actually work. If anyone is to be trusted with an off-the-wall concept such as this, it’s the developer of Fire Emblem, Advance Wars, and Super Metroid

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In S.T.E.A.M.’s alternate imagining of London, everything is powered by the vaporous gas of its namesake, including the members of the Strike Team themselves. What this boils down to is that steam is your most crucial resource; every turn revolves around its management, and failing to properly allocate your steam will result in undesired results and untimely defeat.  

To be honest, the game’s systems had me entirely baffled at first. Despite my status as a turn-based strategy veteran, it’s no simple task to think in those terms when viewing the action from a camera angle reminiscent of a cel-shaded Gears of War. I’d jog a few paces only to promptly run out of steam, tighten my grip on the 3DS, and anxiously wonder how to generate more — or just end my turn in frustration and be blasted by spider-like extraterrestrials shortly thereafter. Once your brain breaks the mold, though, everything clicks. It’s almost like fumbling for a lightswitch in the dark; when you find it, suddenly the intricacies of gameplay (or at least the very basic ones) are illuminated. 

Confusion cleared, I quickly learned the ropes. Despite the camera angle, the surface of a stage is covered in grid squares. Moving one square’s length uses steam, but so does attacking a foe (which can be done with traditional shooter controls). Better yet, some characters like Henry Fleming have a counter ability, which means they’ll retaliate during the enemy phase if you leave them enough steam to do so at the end of the previous turn. There may even be times where retaliation deals out more damage than a standard attack, which means knowing when to move, how far to move, and whether or not to strike are all key components in S.T.E.A.M.’s strategic play. It’s hardly the next Advance Wars, nor should it be — only time and extended play will reveal its deepest layers of strategy and sub-systemic demands. 

Visually the game looks solid but not breathtaking, and in my opinion falls a bit short of the most stunning games on the platform. Pokemon looks better, any EAD or Mario universe title looks better, as does Intelligent Systems’ own Fire Emblem Awakening. That said, S.T.E.A.M. is not ugly, and its blocky cel shading functionally pairs with comic book presentation and sensibility to deliver plot in a way that is concise and effective. S.T.E.A.M. may not intend to deep-dive with riveting character personas or jerky heartstring tugs, but again, that’s in no way a knock. Some gamers are going to prefer its to-the-point presentational style, and who knows? There may be something in store that will surprise us. 

Fleming isn’t the only blocky Rescue Hero joining the fray, and I was also able to play as John Henry (yes, that John Henry) for the latter portion of my demo. Though unable to retaliate during the enemy phase, John possesses what is essentially a steam-powered grenade launcher, granting him the ability to explode roadblocks, health crates, and enemy cover when it’s strategically advantageous to do so.

CodenameSteam3Alternating between Henry and Fleming each turn instantly added a second layer of thought to the proceedings; do I explode my ally’s cover and allow him to sneak-retaliate? Or should I simply grenade the hell out of the nearby aliens but risk exposure to damage the next turn? Those and many more questions raced through my head, and though I can’t honestly say that S.T.E.A.M.’s premise has seized my undivided attention just yet, it’s promise of a unique gameplay experience absolutely has. 

The sad reality is that Code Name: S.T.E.A.M. is unlikely to shift big western numbers, and frankly, what Nintendo strategy game without the aid of Super Smash Bros. ever has? Still, Nintendo isn’t expecting a runaway hit here. The title is clearly a secondary (though no less important) effort for Intelligent Systems while Fire Emblem If steadily progresses, and an original, somewhat absurd passion project is absolutely something the studio has worked hard for and earned. If you’re really not sold, remember that Abe Lincoln is in charge of this whole thing, and is the one dispatching your forces to take down alien threats in the first place. I don’t know about you, but that’s something I’ll happily pay to see.