Disclaimer: For brevity’s sake, I will simply refer to Code Name S.T.E.A.M. as Code Name Steam for the duration of this review.
Intelligent Systems, the developer behind both the Fire Emblem and Pushmo franchises, has created Code Name Steam, an all new Nintendo-exclusive IP. Although the game is a perfectly competent and satisfactory strategy title, Code Name Steam lacks what made the last Fire Emblem title so good. From a design standpoint, there is nothing blatantly wrong about Code Name Steam, but from an implementation perspective, there is not anything particularly memorable either.
Code Name Steam takes place in a steam punk, alternate reality version of the 1860’s, where Lincoln is the president, but fights aliens instead of confederates. The game is a turn-based strategy game where players take control of a 4-person squad in order to fight against these alien invaders. Unfortunately, though developers may have picked quite the unique plot line, it fails to truly come together. Although the cast of characters is famous and recognizable, with favorites from American history, fiction, and folklore, there is little to no development of these characters. Tom Sawyer, Queequeg, and Calafia may converse with each other from time to time, but there is no growth or maturing of these personalities. More importantly, players have absolutely no say as to how characters interact with one another, as opposed to games such as Fire Emblem.
Fortunately, the characters are all very well balanced. With twelve playable characters in all, and over a thousand different combinations of squads, no single character feels any more powered than another. All the weapons seem incredibly fair, and not a single aspect of the game seems to overpower another.
The game itself has a rather unique premise. Rather than compete on maps from a top-down perspective with a large number of combatants, Code Name Steam tasks players with maneuvering from a third-person perspective. This introduces several very important gameplay features. First and foremost, the 3D movement allows for much more versatility and flexibility when stationing characters. The large tiles allow for experimentation and freedom for the positioning of the troops. The third-person camera also allows for players to aim weapons at certain parts of an alien’s body. Therefore, rather than just being a strategy game, players actually take an active role in aiming and firing their weapons at the weak spot of enemies.
The other unique feature of the title is the actual steam power. Each character has a certain steam capacity. Moving a character, healing, or firing a weapon exhausts steam power. This allows for an interesting dynamic. Rather than creating a concrete way of playing the game, like with many other strategy titles, Code Name Steam allows players to strategize however they please. A character could first move, attack, then retreat again. Or, a character could just attack four times in a row. Intelligent Systems left the choice up to the players.
The final strategy mechanic that Intelligent Systems introduces is Overwatch. This mechanic allows for players to store steam for a later use. If an opponent comes into the field of view while a character has steam stored up, the character will attack the adversary through Overwatch. This mechanic is unique as it creates a risk/reward system. Players can stockpile steam to use just in case an enemy appears, or use all the steam at once to crush adversaries.
Unfortunately, through all its uniqueness, Code Name Steam still has several large issues. First and foremost, the game forces players to watch the movement of the opponent, with no functionality to skip through the turn. As a result, each round players can spend anywhere from 45-90 seconds waiting for the opponent to make their moves. In a full 1-hour map, this waiting can absorb anywhere from a third to a half of the total playtime. In fact, this waiting was so excruciating, that I simply began listening to podcasts or watching TV shows while playing Code Name Steam to help pass the time.
The other noticeable issue with Code Name Steam is its lack of a true progression system. The game lacks any sort of RPG mechanics. As a result, there is no leveling up, attaining new abilities, etc. Essentially, the beginning strength of your squad is also the ending strength of your squad. This also plays a large role on the difficulty, as it more or less stays rather constant. The game does introduce new types of enemies throughout the duration of the campaign; however, players will probably find that the beginning of the game is a bit too challenging, whereas the end of the game is rather easy to get through. There is a notable lack of difficulty options.
After a player gets through a map for the first time, there is some value in replayability. The game does introduce harder challenge modes to test the skills of the players. There are also collectibles to find, scores to reach, and goal times to beat.
After concluding the roughly 20-hour campaign, there is a multiplayer mode to experiment with as well. Players can strategically pit their best squads against each other in three different modes. Death Match, for example, simply tasks each team of four to obliterate the enemy. These multiplayer matches can be rather fun, especially thanks to the hectic time limits that the developers put in place for each turn.
Overall, Code Name Steam is an excellent attempt at a new franchise. The premise of the title itself is promising and unique, while the story and characters, no matter how ridiculous and convoluted, can easily be built upon. Code Name Steam is no Fire Emblem; it lacks the character development, RPG elements, and difficulty variation. Code Name Steam is a good game though, one which can be nurtured into a masterpiece when its sequel is inevitably released.