Bots ‘n’ barbarians.
From humble beginnings with a £5 Nintendo DSi tower defense game, SteamWorld and its roster of charming humanoid robots have shown a knack for quality and diversity. SteamWorld Dig, the wonderful Mr. Driller metroidvania, was their breakout hit – and the one that still holds a special place in my heart. Then with a clever curveball, turn-based shooter, SteamWorld Heist followed.
Never ones to play it safe, Image & Form have changed tack once again with SteamWorld Quest: Hand of Gilgamech, a deck-based RPG. While not SteamWorld’s finest outing, the fun card battling mechanics and a characteristic level of polish make it another worthwhile entry in the series.
When the famous Guild Heroes from your village are captured, it’s up to your ragtag group of aspiring – or reluctant – adventurers to rescue them and save the day. Your initial motley crew is formed of Armilly, a hapless aspiring Guild apprentice; Copernica, an academic witch; and Galleo, a large, bumbling frog-bot, forming the classic warrior, mage and tank combo.
To be frank, the story and world-building are serviceable but fall a little flat. It’s pretty run-of-the-mill fantasy fare, with a setting of ‘oldy worldy’ towns, forests and dungeons. Likewise, many of the enemies you’ll encounter are the expected goblins, slimes, knights and dragons seen in infinity² roleplaying games to date – albeit with a little steampunk flair.
Even navigating the world is overly straightforward, with basic cells joined together that don’t offer much in the way of exploration other than butting yourself against walls in the hope of finding an occasional secret room. It feels shallow in comparison to the metroidvanian spelunking of Dig or the Firefly-esque space pirate antics of Heist.
The saving grace is that SteamWorld Quest doesn’t take itself too seriously. It’s light and breezy to play, with the odd laugh to be had at the expense of the amateurish and crotchety characters you play as and meet throughout your adventure. It also looks pretty wonderful, with lovingly hand-drawn characters and environments that are seemingly now a staple of SteamWorld.
And thankfully, this simple framework forms the skeleton for some pretty chunky meat, in the form of enjoyable card-based combat. The design here is commendable, offering perhaps the most accessible CCG I’ve played, that nonetheless manages to accommodate a depth of strategy.
Each character in your party has their own mini-deck of eight cards at a time. Yes, only eight, for a total of 24 that can be accessed from your three active characters. This causes some excruciating decisions on what to include but ultimately keeps everything slick and uncomplicated.
Your deck steadily expands and diversifies over time with cards you buy from a travelling merchant, craft with materials or loot from chests scattered across the world. There are in excess of 100 different cards overall, and this drip-feed approach is perfect for letting you get to grips with them at your own pace.
First up, there are the purely physical and elemental attack cards, plus some buffs, debuffs and heals, quite clearly defining the roles of your characters. As your deck increases, however, you’ll have more situational cards to play with, cures and double-edged sword attacks, as well as the opportunity to vary the roles of your party somewhat.
You also have to tactically balance your deck between cards that are ‘free’ to play and build up your action points, and powerful ones that require action points in order to unleash. Have too many of the former and you’ll likely have a weak offensive, whereas too many of the latter will make it difficult to carry out attacks.
I’m going to be honest: I’m not typically a fan of card games and was skeptical of SteamWorld Quest’s inclusion of it in the place of a classic RPG battle system. But I enjoy the unpredictability it adds to fights. Sometimes RNG will be in your favour; many times it will not. You have to make the most of the cards you’re dealt.
A masterstroke is that you can chain three cards from the same character together in one turn for a bonus move. This could be anything from an AoE lightning attack to a party-wide shield, powerful edges in battle that could make the difference between victory or defeat. It reminded me of exploiting enemy weaknesses in Persona for bonus moves or all-out-attacks, a favourable comparison to give for sure.
With Hand of Gilgamech, Image & Form have shown that SteamWorld is truly a genre chameleon, moulding itself nicely into a CCG RPG. What’s next, SteamWorld: The MMO? A SteamWorld RTS? SteamWorld Battle Royale? Actually, don’t do that last one, please.
[Reviewed on Switch]
James, our deputy editor, loves a deep action-adventure game, RPG or metroidvania. In addition to making sure everything on the site is as good as it can be – scouring for typos, tweaking headlines, finding the fanciest images – he’s also in charge of the reviews section.