Entertainment should always give you something of value in return when you put your time towards it. People can be educated by it, look forward to be laughing by it, feel competitive by it, and so on. Video games generally aim to be fun and talented studios all over the world are finding and creating ways to further give us, the players, enjoyment by interacting with their piece of work and with any success, a body of work. The SteamWorld franchise has consistently evolved and offered gameplay that never feels like wear & tear in the different genres Image & Form chooses to tackle. Their games have found on a home on Nintendo Switch having SteamWorld Dig 2 be their last new creation released in 2017 with their back catalog to follow soon thereafter. After revealing poll results revealing that “RPG” is the genre fans would like to see them tackle next, Image & Form eventually stopped the teasing and revealed that SteamWorld Quest: Hand of Gilgamech, a card battle turn-based RPG, would be on its way. Of course mileage will vary, but once again it’s okay to repeat a certain phrase when it comes to Image & Form as it might be true for some folks: this might be their best work to date.
There’s not much to nitpick when it comes to SteamWorld Quest. In fact, the only issue I can see it having is its entire marketing. Card battle RPG’s aren’t as commonly played and popularized as what we consider a traditional RPG. In this day & age, you toss the world a peek at your game and if it has cards suddenly many people’s minds run wild. How long this game? Are there microtransactions? Is there a lot of depth? Are you taking my SteamWorld in the right direction? After playing through SteamWorld Quest I was getting to understand why this was. How do you sell this game without revealing too much? Within my first day I was saying to myself “of course”. This just works. This is what I expected a SteamWorld RPG to be. It ticks pretty much all of the known boxes as to what makes RPG’s great. Weapons, accessories, a fun battle system, memorable characters, earning gold, crafting, secret chests, beautiful music and more. It trims the fat and offers a robust playthrough with the charming Image & Form dialogue and humor we’ve come to know and love. Actually, they remind me of 90’s Rareware in lots of ways. Having great visuals, creating non-humanoid characters who are lovable and fill your game with lots of humor takes a certain kind of spirit to accomplish more than just once or twice. (Nintendo, if you ever want to think about one of your dormant franchises…).
SteamWorld Quest, much to its design, plays like a JRPG only the developer hails from Sweden. I would call it an SRPG, but then that would be confused with a strategy game which this is not (although lots of strategy is to be found). I want to coin the genre SJRPG for this game if I’m allowed to as just the battle system alone is fun to play, but then you have the combination of all the other elements and it’s like a perfect peanut butter and lingonberry jelly sandwich made with love from Sweden. Although it’s a vastly different game, SteamWorld Quest does share something with a game released several years prior and that is SteamWorld Heist for its turn-based mechanics. SteamWorld Heist has been known to get new players into the turn-based genre due to its pickup & play controls and yet the game still offers a lot of depth. I envision SteamWorld Quest to follow suit as Image & Form have probably thought of elsewhere they could go with the turn-based mechanic. Although cards are a major presence here, I found myself having a lot of fun and engaging in a traditional RPG experience without thinking that I was playing cards. One franchise I think worth comparing to is the Baten Kaitos games, although fundamentally it’s very much its own thing. Instead of a menu bar with text for my actions, I now having fancy artwork and more choice.
These aren’t any cards, however. These are punch cards with the many abilities each hero has. Each and every one beautifully drawn, having their own action, containing their own stats, and with rows of binary code at the bottom with 1’s and 0’s have all been punched out differently detailing that each card read confirms our heroes’ next move. It’s a neat cosmetic, yet fun for the lore. Only a party up to 3 can be in a battle at any given time. The player must equip each hero with 8 cards of their choosing and when it’s time to battle the dealt hand for the turn draws from an overall pool of every hero’s equipped cards. It’s not so random as to only choose what is laid out before you. There’s a lot of advantage in knowing which cards to play for 1 turn and even when to play them. 6 cards are drawn during that turn and up to 3 can be chosen. Players have the choice to discard up to any 2 cards for that turn as well, albeit not always necessary. Discarding will place those cards back into the deck to be reshuffled again, but you’ll always know you’ll see it come up again soon. There’s open opportunity to be efficient here as every card dealt will always be in your sight. Any cards not used for that turn will remain there for every consecutive turn until used or discarded. Meaning, if there’s a health recovery card you think you might need soon or a specific magic attack with an elemental damage that an enemy is weak against and you wish to use it then it’s ready for you.
While abilities will be different, each one falls under any 3 types of cards to play: Strike Cards are your standard, no fuss attacks. Upgrade Cards temporarily add buffs to your heroes. And Skill Cards are powerful, special moves. Skill Cards require SP (Steam Pressure!) in order to be used. The best way to accumulate SP is by performing Strike and Upgrade cards as each action generates 1 SP (gears shown at top screen). This creates fun management ahead of time as the most powerful skills require more SP. All 3 heroes can play on the same turn, but SteamWorld Quest gives you the freedom to make that call and with good reason.
Various cards can be effective on their own, but increase in potency if used in-junction with a fellow hero also in the party to perform a Tag Team Combo. Indicated on cards, an icon of a hero’s head will be shown as to who that card will work on to pull it off. For example, Galleo’s Gigaton Punch skill that requires 4 SP can deal 515% of his strength as physical damage to one foe. However, if an Armilly card was played right before, an additional 100% would be added to that figure. Different cards provide different bonuses based on which hero’s ability will correspond to another’s.
The other highly effective strategy is to make the choice to use only one hero play three of their cards (regardless of type) for that same turn. The result is performing a Heroic Chain which adds a unique followup effect at the end of the chain. Basically a 4th free card for that turn. As each hero has a specific archetype they favor more, these Heroic Chain effects can be in your favor for certain matters. The effect that takes place is dependent on which weapon you currently have equipped. Copernica can have a Heroic Chain effect that is a static discharge and deals lightning damage to all foes. However, seen below is Copernica playing 3 cards and following up with a Heroic Chain that creates a Mana Barrier for the entire party that behaves as a damage shield just in time before a barrage of bee stings.
Getting into combat makes up only part of the fun. SteamWorld Quest opens up with 2 of our main heroes, Armilly and Copernica, on the hunt for a mushroom type known as a Peppermint Puffer. After a few witty remarks and snatching the mushroom a quick battle tutorial takes place. Eventually we find our third (but not the last) main hero Galleo to join the fray. Some bad things happen, a village burns and a Dark Army shows up with ill intent and soon the trio set out on a journey to figure out what’s all for and plan to stop it. The SteamWorld games continue to give personalities to robots that make them feel like real beings. If you had asked me days ago I would’ve said SteamWorld Heist had the best characters. It was such a tight group on missions and receiving tidbits of their backstory and type of character they are felt genuine to that world. I now feel like SteamWorld Quest gives Heist a run for its money; and Heist was about that.
Present are the robotic jibber-jabber that works well for each character. Certain words, mix of grunts and how they’re delivered adds to each character’s charm. I sometimes wonder if I’m hearing things. And yes. I am. I’m hearing the right things. I’m a sucker for well-utilized sound clips. Each hero’s personality shines through that and especially their animation. Galleo’s hefty, elaborate stomps as he runs and Copernica’s soft steps holding her book in one hand and the other hand placing a thoughtful finger on her lower mouth giving her the look of curiosity go a long way. One thing that deserves paid attention to during dialogue sequences are the character portraits. They all have different poses and facial expressions that can be easily overlooked when reading the next pun on display. I’m sure the developers had fun knowing when to use silence and certain facial expressions to emphasize certain lines of dialogue. What happens on the results screen after a battle when a character gains a level is also charming. Their head icon faces upwards and their facial expression becomes joyous one. It’s a cute touch.
The art style is quite beautiful and has a different approach than previous games in the SteamWorld universe. We’re used to seeing the prominently edged and cel-shading 2D artwork which still looks fantastic. SteamWorld Quest goes in a different direction. It looks more painterly and like work on a canvas, but does so with making it look like it’s a digital canvas instead. The art style gives off hints of strokes, sprays and sketches from a digital pen. It also makes good use depth and expression at times. It makes good use for focusing more on the traversable path the player navigates while the background can use subtle effects for depth. Whether it’s the contrast in shading of a cold, distant mountain or it’s the moon’s glimmer that peeks through the trees in a dark forest, it makes a point to not be the central focus. Foreground and background elements help sell the world, but it’s used for more than just eye candy.
Often you might need to right angle to catch something you might miss or there’s something nearby you can’t see which might help you reach a secret area. Each area is comprised of chapters within different acts which can be replayed at any time. There’s little exploration in terms of one big world to navigate, but SteamWorld Quest knows what it’s meant to be and it has fun doing so. Traversing in SteamWorld Quest functions a lot like Paper Mario or classic beat-’em-ups where zones are constructed with a fixed camera angle allowing players to move freely in any direction while entering a new screen is a new ‘room’ to go through. Players can find switches to activate or rooms with secret treasure chests. Sometimes players will need 1 or more keys. All chests can be found again if missed the first time. Standard chests offer useful items while chests with gold plating offer a new card added to your deck. You need not worry about missing any cards in the long run. And speaking of run, holding ZR will allow the player to do so. Players can also get a preemptive strike on enemies when the context action appears. This will knock down the health of all the enemies who participate in that battle. Of course, pressing A at any time will strike empty space as well. Good for knocking down obstructions and nabbing some gold, too.
The game’s balance makes sure you’ll always have enough gold or materials for at least some of the things you want. It never feels like a grind unless you want it to. You may have enough gold to purchase a Repair Kit (Revive) and a weapon for 1 character, but it always feels like it’s just enough. Any foes defeated anywhere in that chapter will not show up again until that chapter is over and/or your replay it. However, Hero Statues are found throughout zones and save your progress acting as a checkpoint while completely healing your party and once activated the enemies will respawn again. This allows you to grind as much as you wish to by going into battle and making your way back to the Hero Statue to heal up and go battle some more.
The drops you receive from fallen enemies are adequate in amount. Aside from gold and experience earned, materials are dropped from particular enemies. Materials are used for upgrading cards and crafting new ones. Throughout chapters a mysterious traveling merchant will be around to sell you the necessary goods. It’s exciting seeing an exclamation mark highlight new cards to see for the first time. It’s also useful that each hero uses certain materials for upgrading and crafting cards. For instance, you’ll always know that Scroll Fragments will only be used by Copernica to enhance her mage abilities.
There’s just an overall easy flow that doesn’t slog down gameplay in any way. Players can press Minus on any card to bring up a detail description whether in the inventory menu or in battle. And in battle, players can press Plus to bring up a Battle Menu. Here, players can use Recovery Items, Retreat (if available), and use the Inspect feature. Inspecting allows you to see any ally or foe’s weakness and active effects in real-time all without compromising a turn. Using recovery items, however, behaves as using 1 of your cards.
Cards are also earned through just experiencing the story. Although often filled with humor, SteamWorld Quest does have it’s lighthearted and touching moments. After some scenes, a character might receive a new card based on that event just happened. The card could be created out of rage or sadness. Story beats are not only provided to players, but occasionally a reward comes with it as well.
The animation of all characters/enemies are smooth and the impacts of each action just feel great. The enemy variety always keeps things fresh and the boss fights are great, too. No matter where you are and who you’re facing, one thing that stands out tremendously is the game’s music. Erik Gudmundson has played a little in a the sound role for past Image & Form games, but here he’s composed the entirety of SteamWorld Quest and it’s simply magical and the best music in a SteamWorld game to date. Just listening to the title theme and it’s violin is a wonderful indication for the rest of the game. Boss theme’s and battle themes have different renditions and they’re all equally memorable. Riffing guitar harmonies during a dragon fight or dramatic piano melodies ring throughout is good fuel for the fight. Every location also has fitting music to match the environment. There’s no better way to put it than “it’s RPG music” and it’s incredible.
There’s incentive to keep playing when you’re done as well. No any major post game stuff, but some things do beg for completion. Whether you’re playing in handheld at 720p or docked at 1080p, it’s always a smooth 60 fps experience. Completion time on our side has hit the 30 hour mark with potentially a few more hours for 100%. Unfortunately, no HD rumble implementation, which would’ve been amazing. Not too many random NPC’s found in each zone, but the characters and writing are complimentary to the gameplay it offers.