Last year, I was asked to participate in voting for some dedicated handheld Game of the Year awards. When it came time to submit my votes for the Nintendo 3DS, my list had many of the expected choices on it. There was Capcom’s Monster Hunter 4 Ultimate, Nintendo’s The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask, and Atlus’s Devil Survivor 2: Record Breaker. But among these franchise games from some of the industry’s biggest names, I had also included a download-only title from a relatively small developer. Moreover, I had put it at the top of my list. With exclamation points. And maybe some hearts. That game was SteamWorld Heist ($2.99), an outstanding strategy game from Swedish game studio Image & Form. The game has since released on a number of platforms, and its latest stop is on iOS.
It’s been a while since Image & Form released anything on iOS, with their last game on the platform being 2011’s Anthill ($0.99). Since then, they’ve gone on to huge success in various digital stores, first on Nintendo’s platforms and later just about everywhere else. Their break-out hit was 2013’s SteamWorld Dig, a wonderful game that fused elements of crafting games and side-scrolling action-adventure games with excellent results. It would have been simple to do a safe follow-up to that game, but for the next title in the SteamWorld series, they decided to go with something quite different. SteamWorld Heist is a turn-based strategy game with a few points that help it stand out in an increasingly-crowded genre. It’s also the game that Image & Form chose for their return to mobile platforms, and after spending the last week with it, I can’t imagine a better homecoming.
SteamWorld Heist follows the exploits of Captain Piper Faraday, the leader of a ragtag band of space pirates. When a new threat called the Scrappers threatens to bring the heavy hand of the law down on her part of space, she decides to do what she can to keep business running smoothly for everyone. That translates to zooming from mission to mission, blasting robotic space pirates using an arsenal of weapons, and absconding with their loot because, well, you are a pirate after all. In between missions, you can swing by the local Space Bar to pick up new gear and maybe recruit a helping hand or two, provided your reputation is strong enough or your pockets are deep enough. There are three areas each filled with a number of procedurally-generated stages, capped off with a battle against a tricky boss.
The big gameplay twist is that unlike many turn-based strategy games, you’re playing SteamWorld Heist from a side-view. Each of your characters can move a certain distance and perform an action on their turn, but without any depth to work with, you have to think very carefully about positioning. It’s easier to surround an enemy, but that works both ways. You can take cover behind a variety of objects, but only one bot will fit behind any given chunk of debris. If you’re used to playing strategy games from an overhead point of view, you’re going to need to think differently in this game. Another interesting aspect is in aiming your shots. Most of your weapons will fire bullets that ricochet off walls and objects, something you can and should use to your advantage. Again, enemies can do the same to you, giving you one more thing to keep in mind as you play.
As you clear stages and pick up loot, you’ll be able to upgrade your crew in a variety of ways. Finishing levels with a bot intact earns them some experience points, helping them reach new levels that unlock skills and abilities. The loot you pick up might include new weapons or items that you can equip for various effects, or water you can use to buy said items from the Space Bars. Each stage ranks you from one to three stars based on how well you performed, and those stars translate into reputation points you’ll need to open up new stages, buy special items, and recruit new crew members. You don’t have to earn every star to move forward, generally speaking, but there are definitely tangible benefits to mastering each stage. That job is easier said than done as you progress past the first main area, particularly if you’re playing on a higher difficulty setting.
Each stage is a relatively short affair once you know what you’re doing, but the opportunities for strategically-satisfying encounters are many. In a genre where even a single stage tends to require a relatively long time commitment, having this kind of bite-sized level structure stands out. The game is surprisingly long, as well, offering up around 12-15 hours of gameplay even if you’re not the sort to try to get everything. There’s plenty to do, and it fits just as well if you like to play in bursts as it does if you’d rather play in longer sessions. It even offers a New Game+ mode so that you can take your powered-up characters through for another run. Those looking for more to do can always try to collect the multitude of hats found in the game. They don’t really do anything aside from giving some new headwear to customize your characters with, but given that you get most of them by literally shooting them off the heads of the enemies, it’s pretty fun to collect them anyway.
Given the genre and the game’s roots on the Nintendo 3DS, it’s probably not surprising that SteamWorld Heist takes very well to mobile. Everything is easily accomplished by tapping where you want to move or shoot, with skills, abilities, and items activated by tapping on-screen icons. Aiming your shots is as easy as tapping where you want to fire at, and swapping between characters is a breeze. Everything is so intuitive, you would never know this game didn’t originate on mobile. The visuals look great on the high resolution screens of iOS devices, and nothing has been lost in the audio department, either. The only thing that keeps me from calling this the definitive port of SteamWorld Heist is that the DLC available in other versions of the game isn’t in here yet. According to the developer, it proved to be a bit of a challenge to get it implemented in time for the launch, but they hope to bring it out later. Otherwise, this is clearly the version to get.
SteamWorld Heist is an excellent version of a superb, extremely creative strategy game. It’s approachable enough that I would even recommend it to those who aren’t necessarily followers of the strategy genre, but deep enough that it’s a no-brainer for veteran fans. Its finely-crafted gameplay is combined with a charming presentation to create a potent combination. Even on iOS, a platform with no shortage of high-quality turn-based strategy games, SteamWorld Heist stands out effortlessly, making it a genuine must-have. Don’t miss it.