A big part of the excitement of diving into any new SteamWorld title is discovering just how Image & Form have decided to interpret the genre of that game and in which ways they’ll refresh and hopefully reinvent its already established mechanics. Sure, you look forward to some whimsical character interactions and continued iteration and improvement upon the universe’s art style, but a big part of what makes SteamWorld games special is how consistently they are able to take something familiar and tweak it just enough to make you feel like you’re playing a new kind of experience, while simultaneously wondering why every other game before it didn’t do things this way. That’s the magic of Image & Form’s work; it’s a special alchemy that takes the best parts of many games, improves upon those elements where necessary, and brings them together to create a fun, well-polished experience.
SteamWorld Quest: Hand of Gilgamech is the latest demonstration of this highly effective formula, taking the classic turn-based RPG and infusing it with the dynamics of a card battler. It’s a seemingly small change; menus of set actions and spells are swapped out for decks of eight cards per character, with new cards randomly drawn each turn, so that the pool you have to work with is always familiar but never the same each turn. This encourages you to vary up your tactics and to get comfortable with switching between offensive and defensive play styles from turn to turn, and it gets you thinking about how you compose your decks so that you’re never (or rarely) in a situation where you can’t play something useful.
Each character has basic action cards (typically physical attacks) which help build up a unit of steam pressure (represented by a gear icon on a bar). You can expend this steam pressure to play more powerful cards that are essentially your power attacks or spells. You play three cards per turn, from whichever characters you choose; playing three cards from the same character results in a Chain Attack and gives you an automatic bonus card that plays at the end of your turn; those cards are defined by the weapon your character has equipped. This can be useful for unleashing a lot of damage in one go, or doing a lot of focused healing or protection, but depending on how you craft your character decks, it usually means you’re favoring one type of action for that turn over others.
When it comes to building your decks is honestly where SteamWorld Quest really gets it right. Personally I’ve never much enjoyed the act of deck building in card games; having to think about resource management and even distribution of action types across thirty or more cards quickly becomes challenging for me to keep track of and I don’t typically have the attention span for really maximizing the efficiency of a large deck. SteamWorld Quest keeps its decks simple; you build a deck of eight cards per character, often doubling or tripling up on certain card types.
The deck-building interface is dead simple to work with, and it does a great job of visualizing the essential information so that you can tell immediately if you have too many cards that require steam pressure and not enough to build to them with. I don’t think I ever spent more than ninety seconds customizing any specific deck; mostly it was a matter of checking out a new card I’d acquired, deciding whether I wanted to swap it in for anything else, and then making sure I didn’t need to make any small adjustments. Rather than wasting twenty minutes making sure I had cards I liked and could actually use, it was always a simple matter of getting in, re-configuring for a moment, and getting back to the action, more or less on par with managing equipment or spells.
What’s truly clever about this is that while you’re only building decks of eight cards per character, you are still building a “full” deck of 24 cards in total, but the work is spread across three separate pools, which you can make as individual or synergistic as you care to. If you really want to go deeper with it, you could for example have one character whose cards are focused on building steam pressure and another whose cards solely expend it, although you would be taking some balancing risks going this route. Some character cards specifically gain more power when played directly after a card from another particular character, so there are good and opportunities for maximizing your effectiveness across characters.
As a result of the way the card system is built, the battles end up being more interesting and dynamic from turn to turn than your average RPG, requiring you to consider your actions and look for combinations or chains at each turn, weighing those decisions against how to best cope with whatever the enemies are throwing at you. The enemies in the game become more challenging as well over time, stepping beyond mere fodder for your abilities and requiring well-considered tactics to counter their behavior. There were even a handful of instances where a new enemy type required me to reconfigure one or more of my character decks to be better able to deal with their offensive abilities or defensive weaknesses, but luckily those changes served me well across the board rather than being throwaway tweaks for a specific battle.
Visually, SteamWorld Quest may well be the most beautiful entry in the series yet, which is impressive considering the SteamWorld games are known for their lovely hand-drawn art. The quality of that art really ramps up a few notches in Hand of GilgaMech, with larger character sprites featuring more detail,great color work and wonderful shading. The result are vibrant characters that animate fluidly and appear drawn to life in a way that surpasses the previous releases. The backgrounds also feature great attention to detail, with excellent use of lighting effects in indoor and outdoor environments alike, and some nice animation happening to make the world feel active as you run from screen to screen. The UI is also extremely well designed, somehow achieving a very detailed appearance but remaining clean and easy to navigate. It is extremely evident how much time and care was given to making sure this game looks as gorgeous as possible.
The characters and dialog are generally well-written, and while the story isn’t necessarily anything groundbreaking, it is worth following to get to know the characters and their motivations better, and it is good enough that it provides a sense of purpose for the characters and your role as the player, which is far more than can be said for many games out there. There are some good quips and charming exchanges between Armilly and her friends, and none of the writing feels like throwaway. I think the gameplay is really where this game struts its best stuff, but it’s helpful that the story adds to the world building and atmosphere rather than being extra trappings that are inconsequential to the experience.
The other standards of RPGs are all present; character equipment, accessories, healing items, the ability to acquire and trade out different party members, though most of these elements are kept as light and simple as possible so they don’t get in the way of the action. It can come off as shallow at first, but really who wants to be spending time wading through menus when you could be getting into fights and making actual progress?
The game has an interesting take on world traversal, with each chapter broken up into several interconnected screens, all of which are essentially rectangular “rooms” with entry and exit points. At some point the way these screens interconnect (and get represented on your map) are highly reminiscent of the dungeon designs from the two-dimensional Legend of Zelda games, which is probably not an accident; it’s a system that works, even in a drastically simplified state. Save points are scattered around the map at useful locations, and using one heals your party while also respawning all of the enemies.
You’d be forgiven for assuming that these choices require a fair bit of backtracking as you work through the game, but luckily this is generally not an issue, and certainly not a requirement. In the few occasions where backtracking was required of me for getting past specific obstacles, it was a matter of quickly running back through a few empty rooms, if not using a conveniently opened shortcut. You could of course choose to respawn enemies and run around to do some grinding on purpose if that’s your style, but the game does an excellent job of balancing enemies around your progress as you go, which means it’s either designed around a zero-grind experience, or it cleverly dynamically scales the challenge to meet your current level.
If there is one primary take-away you should have, it’s that Image & Form’s attention to detail in their game design is exquisite, as it is hugely evident that they set out to create an RPG that focuses on the fun aspects of the genre and thoroughly eliminates the tedium which can so easily bog it down. Your time spent with SteamWorld Quest is time actually playing the game; doing battles, collecting loot, and advancing the story. The fun is all there, easy to access and unhindered in its execution. You have only to pick up your Switch and press start to experience it.
A Nintendo Switch eShop code was provided by the publisher for review purposes