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Code Name: S.T.E.A.M. review

Four score and seven years...of waiting for the enemy

Is it that hard to create an unquestionably awesome game based around characters from legend armed with future tech assaulting an otherworldly menace in the late 19th century?

Apparently so.

Thankfully, Code Name: S.T.E.A.M. doesn’t fall nearly as flat as a certain other recent game with a similar premise, but this third-person, turn-based strategy shooter from the developer of Fire Emblem and Advance Wars simply doesn’t match the design, interface, and tactics seen in those two venerable franchises.

However, I absolutely applaud Intelligent Systems for stepping outside their comfort zone and trying something new—for them, at least. This surreal tale of Honest Abe Lincoln leading a ragtag group of fighters from literature and folklore against a hostile force of grotesque extraterrestrial invaders kept my interest throughout—frankly, with that premise, how could it not?—but a couple of major design snafus really sap the enjoyment at times.

The first is the lack of an option to freely explore the areas to get a sense of your surroundings and help track the movement of the enemy. It’s here where I must bring up other games in the genre, if only to show that there’s no good reason Code Name: S.T.E.A.M. couldn’t have been a far less frustrating endeavor. Valkyria Chronicles, for example, unfolds from a third-person perspective as well, but it also provides a map to follow the action. That, in turn, allows you to formulate a strategy even if it’s your first time playing a given mission. I often found that when I began a stage for the first time in Code Name: S.T.E.A.M., it was a matter of possibly sending my crew forward to get slaughtered in order to learn the ins and outs of an area.

Now, my problem isn’t with being left in the dark in a strategy game—Intelligent Systems’ other titles have used a fog-of-war mechanic to great effect. The difference here is that since you can only follow the action from your four party members’ points of view, you have no sense of how large the level is, where the enemies are spawning from, and, in rare cases, even knowing precisely where all of your characters are in relation to each other. The clunky camera controls and cramped quarters of many stages only compounds these issues. In one level filled with an endless array of steel girders that blocked my lines of sight, I could not, for the life of me, locate a crewmate cowering in the corner in desperate need of healing.

Since the game lacks a free-camera option, I could only switch between my party members to get a sense of where everyone was, but the giant girders blocked any chance of that happening. Eventually, I gave up and just pressed the rest of my crew forward and left my wounded warrior behind to perish. I can’t recall another strategy game where I actually lost track of my own characters on the map. Can you imagine not being able to locate one of your units in Fire Emblem? Of course not—and it’s unacceptable that the potential even exists for it to happen here. This was also far from the only issue like this I experienced, though it was admittedly the most egregious.

The other major problem revolves around what happens after your turn ends. And when it does, grab a lunch—literally. You’re going to be waiting a while. You need to endure every single movement of every enemy unit, and these otherworldly bugs sure do like to take their sweet time. Waits of a minute or more aren’t uncommon, and while allegedly pressing the Select button helps speed up the process, that seems to be the newest gaming urban legend—I didn’t notice any difference myself.

In theory, I can see the importance of watching the enemy’s every move. But the stages are so spread out that tracking the enemy is utterly useless unless they’re within striking distance. The whole thing often feels like watching a party going on across the street with binoculars. Sure, something’s going on, but all that milling around isn’t affecting you one whit.

All that said, when the game does work, it shows the vast potential in this particular brand of strategy for Intelligent Systems. The array of different mission types is a huge boon; since I was rarely doing the same thing twice, I never found myself growing fatigued by repetition. I might need to reach a particular part of the map before the alien menace, defend a base against on onrushing monstrosity, or scout out a map to rescue survivors. These were all refreshing changes of pace from the typical “kill all enemies” conceit seen in most strategy titles—and, since leveling up is nonexistent here, there wouldn’t really be any point to those types of missions, either.

The game’s overwatch mechanic is also a nice touch that keeps you from feeling helpless after your turn is over, and this does mitigate the lack of a free camera or overhead map somewhat (but still not quite enough). Instead of wasting all your movement points (represented as steam puffs in-game) pressing forward, you can save a few and have enough to unleash an array of bullets on any enemy that might cross your path. For all the frustration the game dishes out, this is one element that feels truly empowering and strategic—and the fact that it isn’t automatic like in Valkyria Chronicles makes you ponder your movements all the more carefully.

The characters all feel different, too, and this actively encourages experimentation. Instead of being forced to use a set group of party members, you can use all manner of combinations if one set of four seems ill suited for a particular mission. The array of characters, drawn from various works of literature, legends, and tall tales, is also intriguing, especially when the game takes advantage of all the personality types at its disposal. H.P. Lovecraft’s Randolph Carter has some particularly amusing observations on the alien menace, and the interplay between some of the party members—including allusions to events from history and literature—are a clever touch. And actor Wil Wheaton, surprisingly enough, puts on just the right amount of “folksy” to make Lincoln one of the more engaging characters in the game.

Some in your crew, however, are ridiculously one-note and don’t offer much at all when it comes to the narrative—and some questionable voice acting doesn’t help. (A Pacific Islander’s lilting, almost-Jamaican-sounding patois comes off more Marley than Maori, for example.) I like the concept, and some of the more obscure characters could serve an educational purpose in shining a light on some overlooked protagonists from the pages of the classics.

For the first time I can recall in a story-heavy Nintendo game in the past decade or so, however, the writing feels a bit uneven—a baffling development, particularly when the talented folks at the Treehouse did such a great job infusing all those Advance Wars games with some much-needed life compared to the original Japanese dialogue. Here, there’s so much more potential to work with, and while the text does have its moments, it just doesn’t feel up to Nintendo of America’s high standards in several spots. I don’t know if their “A” writing team was busy elsewhere, but after a particularly well-crafted tale in Fire Emblem: Awakening, this one comes off as a disappointment at times with all the untapped potential.

Don’t take my criticisms as saying that Code Name: S.T.E.A.M. isn’t worthwhile for strategy devotees, however. It’s precisely because I know full well the talents of the developers involved that I want this to succeed as a franchise going forward, and the game offers enough that it’s definitely worth suffering through the missteps if you’re a hardcore fan of games like these. If Intelligent Systems truly wants this to join a holy tactical triumvirate alongside their two major franchises, though, they’ll need to seriously streamline the experience in future entries.

★★★☆☆

Like all Intelligent Systems games, Code Name: S.T.E.A.M. is absolutely worth it for strategy fans—but this one’s got a few more warts than usual.

Developer
Intelligent Systems, Nintendo SPD
Publisher
Nintendo
ESRB
T – Teen
Release Date
03.13.2015
Code Name: S.T.E.A.M. is available on 3DS. Primary version played was for 3DS. Code/hardware was provided by Nintendo for the benefit of this coverage. EGM reviews on a scale of one to five stars.

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