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Code Name S.T.E.A.M. Impressions: Feeling Lukewarm

Mixing pulpy comic goodness with old-school strategy gameplay and a few new twists, Code Name S.T.E.A.M. aims to bring a unique, tactical experience to the Nintendo 3DS when it launches on March 13. After a couple of hours with the game, however, I’m not quite sold on what feels like one of the most ambitious games to hit the portable scene in quite some time.

Coming from Intelligent Systems, the folks behind the Fire Emblem series, it’s been hard to keep my excitement for Code Name S.T.E.A.M. in check ever since I saw its announcement trailer at E3 2014. Aside from having a great developer at the helm, everything about the game seemed right up my alley. The art style is of the thick and colorful cell shaded variety and the campaign is told through moving comic panels, which fit the story perfectly.

As for the details of that story, you’re in control of an elite team of soldiers sent to London to protect the Queen from an alien invasion during an alternate timeline where steam has become the driving source of technology. If that wasn’t street-rat crazy enough for you, then I should probably tell you that the S.T.E.A.M. group is headed up by Abraham Lincoln and its members are basically a rogue’s gallery of literary characters (Think League of Extraordinary Gentlemen) boasting the Lion form The Wizard of Oz, John Henry from Huck Finn and Tiger Lilly from Peter Pan, just to name a few.

A meaty demo for Code Name S.T.E.A.M. hit the eShop yesterday afternoon, so I decided to take a break from killing zombies in Dying Light in order to give it a go. You’ll learn the basic mechanics of the game through the first several missions and then get to tackle a few extra just for fun. You should expect a good two hours of content here, and that’s only if you don’t go back and play the missions again now that you’ve got a feel for the game.

Sort of a close cousin of the Valkyria Chronicles games, CNS is a strategy combat game that puts you in direct control of the characters. Everything they do is based on a steam gauge, which determines how much you can move, shoot or set up ambush attacks in the event of an encroaching enemy. It’s a slick system and, given the fact that there are multiple ways to control the camera (even more if you have a Circle Pad Pro or invest in one of those New 3DS models), you should have little trouble keeping an eye on the terrain and moving about.

Characters are basically class-based, though it appears you’ll be able to mix and match their primary weapons, secondary weapons and steam packs. In other words, you’ll have some nice fine-tuning options as you discover more gear, letting you create your perfect team.

Attacks and abilities are nice and varied, too. Rifles and grenade launchers are on hand, as well as guns that can actually restore health to teammates. Some characters can utilize an “Overwatch” move, which means you save up some steam at the end of your turn and use it to shoot any alien dumb enough to walk around the corner during the enemy’s turn. And then there are special abilities like the Lion’s jump attack, which let him move around the map while dishing out damage to boot.

The levels are nicely detailed, too, with lots of cover to hide behind, destructible obstacles, coins to grab and other special pick-ups. There are also the occasional save points you can activate to keep from starting a mission over when you die and, if you’re willing to throw in some of those coins you’ve been gathering, you can even use these points to heal and restore allies.

Sounds great so far, right? Then why am I having such a difficult time getting jazzed for S.T.E.A.M. now that I’ve played it? I think it has to do with a few creative choices that were made that sound great in theory but left me a little frustrated in practice.

For starters, there isn’t an overview mode in CNS, so your view of the battlefield is limited to what your characters can see. Intelligent Systems has said that they made this choice to encourage actual strategic gameplay. In traditional SRPG’s, you can see all of your enemies at a glance and easily determine how far a character can move or whether or not their attack will make contact with the target.

In the S.T.E.A.M. set-up, it can be tricky to see how much maneuverability you actually have and, due to the occasional wonky camera angle, aiming some weapons is more about guess work than precision. Missing a shot at the cost of a bunch of steam can be frustrating, as can moving toward an opponent and lining up your shot only to discover, nope, you still won’t be in range with that weapon. The game is still based on a grid, but the perspective can make it tough to actually plan your next move.

Finally, the enemies move in real time during their turn and, especially at the start of a mission when there are loads of baddies on the screen, that process can take quite a long time. Remember also that your view is limited to what your characters see so, much of the time, you’ll be staring at absolutely nothing, waiting for the status bar to tick down so you can play your next turn. Again, good in theory, but it comes off tedious in practice.

I’m hoping this is just the result of my needing to break decades worth of SRPG tropes embedded in my brain in order to fully get into S.T.E.A.M.. In one mission, for instance, my team was on the bottom floor of an entryway with stairs leading up and back over the top of me. Enemies kept coming down the stairs or hopping over the banister, basically bottle-necking me in the room. I held my ground and just blasted through them, eventually able to move up the stairs without feeling like I was going to be destroyed instantly by all of the unseen enemies for popping my head out. Once I got a good look at the level, I saw several routes and options that could have been interesting to try out, but I was simply unaware of their existence.

The easy answer is “Just go back in and play it again now that you know what it looks like,” but where’s the strategy in that? If my options aren’t clear in the heat of battle, I have a hard time enjoying said battle. Again, this is a limitation of the game’s perspective.

Equally frustrating are the random reinforcements that pop in from time to time. Again, I think the purpose here was to create a more dynamic battle that keeps you on your toes but, for the most part, they just seemed to pop up as an unnecessary extra obstacle after I’ve already carefully weaved my way through a level.

Despite all of that (I know, there was a lot of it), I’m still intrigued by Code Name S.T.E.A.M.. It’s like a portable version of XCOM , so I’m sure there’s a crowd it’s perfectly suited to. Here’s hoping I can finally crack that code, because it’s a game I would really like to enjoy. In my time with the demo, though, it felt like a few design choices just kept getting in the way of that enjoyment.

Staff Writer for CinemaBlend.