For many fans of strategy games Intelligent Systems is a brand that guarantees quality. Both their Fire Emblem and Advance Wars games are consistently best in class. Not everything the studio touches turns to gold, but every strategy game they touch sure seems to—which brings us to their latest. Although it is wildly unlike their past projects in scope and tone, with Codename S.T.E.A.M. they’ve done it again.
Beware, though, there’s a little bit of an adjustment period for veterans. When I play an Intelligent Systems strategy game I’m expecting a top down view of the battlefield broken down into a grid, a clean very lightly stylized anime look to the characters, and a looping soundtrack that’s better than it needed to be. Codename S.T.E.A.M. provides none of these things, and for the first few hours I absolutely did not like it. People know what they like and like what they know, and I’m no different.
What Codename S.T.E.A.M. gives you instead is a squad of four characters to control from an over the shoulder perspective, a chunky cel-shaded look that recalls cheap comic books, and context-sensitive music. It controls like a shooter (dual analog control plus a shoulder button to shoot), it pulls character and setting inspiration from the history and literature of North America, and the story is as pun filled as it is ridiculous and over the top.
So yeah, it’s pretty different. Having only four characters per map makes each mission feel less like a battlefield and more like a skirmish. The zoomed in camera makes securing high ground important like it’s never been before not just for additional range on grenade type weapons but for visibility. Characters don’t die permanently like they do in Fire Emblem, but if you lose a character it’s often best to restart from the last checkpoint anyway because good luck making progress with 25% of your fighting force out of commission.
The smaller scale also amplifies the importance of each decision. Every step matters, every sight line needs to be checked, and the possibility of explosives decimating your team if left standing too close together is very real. Codename S.T.E.A.M. keeps the player feeling like s/he is never more than one false step from defeat, and a much harder standard difficulty (you will be routinely outnumbered five or six to one) makes it that often the line between success and failure really is that narrow.
The moment when I came around on the game was in Chapter 6. Chapter 6 is brutal. There’s a boss to kill but 1. Large portions of the ground have respawning powerful tentacle monsters underneath so you can only stand on the stone 2. There are infinitely respawning grenadiers falling from the rooftops and 3. The boss emits shockwaves and spawns minions every single turn. As a result, you can’t get too close, but you can’t sit in the midrange either because that’s all unsafe ground. As usual, you have only four units to deal with what can frequently be four more enemies spawning every single turn. It’s borderline ridiculous.
That said, this adversity is what pushed me into that greater understanding of game systems that makes strategy games so fun. I learned that certain units in my squad are stun immune. I learned that Scarecrow’s pumpkin stunner can be used as a road blockade and even as cover. I learned that Overwatch attacks can stun a just spawned enemy. I tried new gear and team combinations to help keep up with the flow of minions while trying to advance. I equipped John Henry with a shotgun and figured out if you land a grenade just so it will throw an enemy right in front of him for a point blank shotgun blast. I equipped Tiger Lilly with a steam crossbow to snipe at weak points.
When I beat chapter 6 it ended up not being close. I ended the mission with the full team alive and at full health surrounding the boss with nary a minion to be seen. And I deserved it. I used every dirty trick in the book and those same tricks I learned in chapter 6 turned out not to be one level gimmicks but the foundation for strategies that would see me through much of the rest of the game. They weren’t the tricks I had learned from other strategy games and maybe I had been a little bit slow on the uptake, but once I “got it” the game became profoundly satisfying.
For all the ways that Codename S.T.E.A.M. is unlike past Intelligent Systems games, what’s most remarkable about it is that it scratches that exact same itch. Do I want to save action points (represented as steam in a steam tank) for overwatch defense should the enemy rush or press forward? Can I afford to use my healer to attack the enemy this turn and hope Henry Fleming doesn’t die? Given how many enemies are surrounding me, can I afford not to? Tom Sawyer is perfect for this map but he’s just about the most annoying character ever, is it worth it to put him in?
All these decisions; speed vs safety, offense vs healing, using characters you like vs characters who are good for the situation… these are the central questions that you struggle with in every Intelligent Systems strategy game. Codename S.T.E.A.M. takes a somewhat unorthodox path to get there, but playing this game feels so familiar it’s uncanny. It’s occupying that same space in my brain their best games do and once I’m done writing I’m going to go back and play some more.
Food for thought:
1. My final scorecard on the surface changes is that the new graphics they went with are great (and great at hiding the 3DS system limitations), I’m not a fan of the dynamic music queues or the music itself really, the new controls are good as long as you stay away from the touch controls.
2. The story is okay but it runs too long for a story that isn’t really going for a lot of player investment. Advance Wars: Dual Strike had this problem too, the campaign just kinda drags on near the end. So two positive, two negative. 50% isn’t bad for a game that’s changed everything and rebuilt from scratch. The real takeaway I had is that if Intelligent Systems can still make a quality strategy game from this then they can probably do it with anything.
3. The correct answer is always to stick with the characters you like. Sasha and Gage in Advance Wars, Ephriam and Rebecca in Fire Emblem, and Scarecrow in Codename S.T.E.A.M. Tom Sawyer sounds like Mickey Mouse anyway—he’s just the worst.
4. The enemy turns take too long. You get used to it. If there’s a sequel they’ll need to polish that up.