[Switch] Steamworld Quest

After a fairly stressful week I needed a bit of escapism, so went hunting through the (really rather awful) Switch eStore. One series of games that has popped up on several recommendation lists is the Steamworld series. I've seen them before, but was never really sure what they were about...and the artwork (in stills) looks a little forced. I did a bit of investigation, and it turns out that pretty much each game in the series is a different genre (hence why I'd never been able to narrow it down), however they carry over the aesthetic and design from game-to-game.

The one that grabbed my fancy was Steamworld Quest, in reviews touted as a blend of a JRPG and a deck-builder (it's often been compared to Slay the Spire, which at this point I have put entirely too many hours into), though having played it now, I'd actually say it's probably got more in common with a game like Dominion. I started it up on Saturday morning...and about 15 hours later beat the final boss in a nail-biting fight. It's really very good, and (with one or two issues) exceptionally well designed. The length of the core story is perfect, at 15-20 hours with no time-wasting filler. It's very linear, with no side-quests as such, and (very importantly for me) absolutely no grind, no back-tracking etc. You can reply levels in case you missed a room or area, but there is no requirement to do so.

The core of the game is around the combat. From a screenshot you'd assume it's a "normal" JRPG fare, with 3 characters facing off against a group of enemies, and each character takes an action in turn. What actually happens is that each of your characters (you have a pool of 5 to choose from) has a small deck of 8 cards you have assigned them from an ever-growing library. These 3 decks of 8 cards are shuffled together, and each turn you draw to a hand of 6. You can re-draw 2 cards, and play 3. The game then has some additional mechanics where if you play all 3 cards for the same character, they get a bonus card (based on the weapon they are equipped with), while some cards have a benefit if they are played after a card from another character. Some cards cost "Steam" to play...Steam is built up by playing basic attack or skill cards, and there is a shared pool for all your characters. Each character has a library of about 30 cards to select, so there are planty of options and ways to approach the game.

How this ends up in practice is that you'll build combos for each of your characters, and cycle the deck to get them in hand (for example, my Fighter had a good 3-card-combo where she'd buff her own strength, or a basic attack to build Steam, then a High-Power attack...she'd then get a bonus attack that also Healed her). As I went through the gamer and the enemy attacks evolved I'd find myself specialising each character to support the team...as with many RPG's, later on the primary enemy attack was debuff-based (poison, slow, paralyse etc), and so I had my "tank" evolve into a debuff remover, leaving my third character (a mage) free to hand out damage. What I found is that no fight was a "gimme" (often the case in RPG's and JRPG's)...even the most basic encounter required you to manage your deck, and sometimes take sub-optimal rounds to build up to a stronger one later. At the same time, the balance felt right...there was no fight where I felt I simply had no chance, or the game was cheating me.

The story is fairly simple and generic, though well told (good vs evil, young adventurers setting off to save the world, a couple of plot twists, self-discovery and the realistion that the real tresure is the friends we made along the way sort of thing), though told in a whimsical and slightly tongue-in-cheek way (the "Heroes Guild", for example, is clearly just a golf club), the game progresses in chapters (each taking just under an hour to complete...what I consider the "sweet spot" for game design for a session, and a time length that suits the Switch perfectly...giving you natural breaks), and the game world is divided into (non-procedurally generated) connected rooms. There are occasionally branches and optional fights, but you never get lost or don't know what to do next. There are a handful of puzzles (again fairly formulaic...a series of teleporter rooms that require you to follow a map, a forest with a hidden route, and a door that requires standing on buttons). None of them were over-complex, or felt like a way of dragging out the game length pointlessly. The artwork is really well done, and looks much better in motion than static screenshots give it credit for...each of the characters portrays a lot of personality, and it often captures the feel of a hand-drawn cartoon. The enemies tend to repeat a bit later on (re-palettes etc, with even some in-game jokes made with this regard), however the bosses all have a nice bit of back-story and variety.

The only real downside that I can say about it (and this holds true for JRPG's as a genre), is that there is little incentive to try different character combinations. You start with 3 characters (Armilly the Fighter, Copernica the Mage, and Gaello the Tank/Healer)...they gain experience, and you invest in their deck as you progress...so when other characters come along later (Orik the samurai and Tarah and Thayne the thieves) if you swap them into your party you effectively lose that investment in the characters. There are limited resources for upgrading the cards associated with characters, which encourages keeping a static group of characters, rather than swap them about and experiment (the exact same thing happens in JRPG's all the time, and out of cut-scenes and plot advancement you often never see half the characters). I'd love to see a game of this ilk where character advancement resources could be re-assigned to any character.

That, however, is a minor gripe to what is a really well-designed and enjoyable game. I've now got my eye on Steamworld Heist, another turn-based game, but this time a tactical side-scroller. I'm also doing a "New Game+", which should give me some opportunity to boost up some other characters card decks. There is a post-game fighting arena (again, standard fare in JRPG's) to get some over-powered builds working in as well.


A neat review, I don't have a switch (Felix does) and I'll show him this as he has some credits and rather likes JRPG style games - even if it is a deck builder at heart. For me, Heist looks more like my kind of thing. The artwork does look a little forced; but I don't hate it!

brainwipe's picture

Yeah the switch store is loaded with trash a bunch of asset flips and other dodgy crap very hard to find good games in all the piles of rubbish

I've played the steam word dig games which are pretty fun metroidvanias and the steam world heist turn based combat games I like the art style and the various different game styles in the series but have yet to try this one might be worth a go.

Evilmatt's picture

I watch a lot of dev logs and everyone and their brother are making Metroidvanias. It seems that they're the easiest games to get started with and call themselves Metroidvania for easy sale.

brainwipe's picture

Indeed...3 key words for an indie development right now are "metroidvania", "procedurally generated" and "rogue-lite"....though the last 2 are treated interchangeably and incorrectly. Quite often, the "procedural generation" is really bad, resulting in a 90% unplayable game...so call it a rogue-lite and you're supposed to die a lot to "solve" the issue.

I do like me a rogue-like/lite, but really has to be done well. Slay the Spire is an excellent example of it done well...pretty much everything is randomly generated, but the difficulty/time/probability has been really fine-tuned so that 95% of the runs through feel well crafted. Other ones are Dead Cells, Rogue:Legacy (looking forward to the sequel of that), FTL and Torchlight (though I'd argue that Torchlight is not a rogue-like, as it has a structured story and development, just quasi-randomly generated areas based on tile sets).

I totally get that building single-player/PvE story content is a huge amount of work compared to the alternatives (procedural generation, "emergent gameplay" via PvP ala pretty much every big game out at the moment), and most development studios simply don't have the time or resources to build scripted experiences, but I do really enjoy a well-presented story over a bunch of fetch-quests in a random map.

babychaos's picture

you can start fights with indie devs by referring to rogue likes as rogue lites and vice versa then just declaring "They are all the same there is no difference" :D

I'm enjoying Spiritfarer on the switch recently you are basically replacement Charon you sail a ship about picking up spirits and helping them out so they can cross over. It has management sim elements with the ship being upgradable with more rooms to craft giving you other materials and then also acomodations for your spirits. You make better stuff and grow more things you fish collect resources complete quests grow veggies harvest lightning and jelly fish cook meals mill lumber forge metals and so on. All the while trying to improve the mood of the various spirits who each like or dislike different thigns. Very ghibli esq cartoon graphics elements of spirited away elements of stardew or animal crossing.

Chill sort of game but lots to do none of the imposed time thing of AC and some little minigames and light platforming to break things up.

Evilmatt's picture

Ah yes, procedural generation rogue*. I see a lot of that in the dev community.

I do really enjoy a well-presented story

And that's the nub. I think this is a bigger barrier than the amount of work needed. Knowing how to build out a story is a completely different skill in indie dev. In the art/code/music triumvirate, you can do one and buy the other two in but the skill in crafting a story is very, very hard. You can buy in writers too but they're rarer and you usually need to come up with the story up-front.

I think indie devs avoid it because it's a "one playthrough" experience. Once you've done the story, it's done. All those assets aren't reused. I think many see that as wasteful. I have a story to put into Clomper; I need to know if multiplayer is fun first.

you can start fights with indie devs by referring to rogue likes as rogue lites and vice versa then just declaring "They are all the same there is no difference" :D

LOL, you're not wrong. I think people say their game is roguelike and yet the difficulty curve changes between runs!

I'm enjoying Spiritfarer


brainwipe's picture