When Japanese developers strive to appeal to American tastes, it usually spells disaster. (We don't speak of Bomberman: Act Zero 'round these parts.) So when Nintendo announced Code Name: STEAM, an Intelligent Systems (Fire Emblem, Advance Wars) strategy RPG geared towards a Western audience, I worried this cynical approach would give the developer's typically great game design a funky aftertaste.
Fast-forward to a hands-on preview session months later. When Abe Lincoln revealed himself as my STEAM team's commanding officer aboard the airship Lady Liberty—post-assassination, mind you—my fears were put to rest, leaving my brain with one lingering thought: "They totally know what they're doing."
Intelligent Systems could have easily dressed up their latest game in the trappings of distinctly American, ooh-rah machismo—or something even blander—but STEAM goes for a more specific theme, focusing on the lighter side of turn-of-the-last-century Western Nationalism. For crying out loud, it casts American fictional and folkloric figures like Tom Sawyer, Tiger Lily, and John Henry as steampunk soldiers, and depicts their struggle against alien invaders in the boy-scout, patriotic splendor of Silver Age comics. It's a tongue-in-cheek take not far removed from Ken Levine's 2002 superhero strategy RPG, Freedom Force.
And it helps that the gameplay receives inspiration from similarly great sources—even if this borrowing is completely unintentional. Not to be reductive, but if you played Sega's Valkyria Chronicles—which is coming to PC next year—you should have a general sense of how STEAM's strategy action unfolds. It's a lot more streamlined, though: You can only bring four characters into battle instead of an entire squadron, and STEAM even offers a safety cushion for newcomers—characters can't die permanently, and each map features an oversized green hourglass that, when reached, allows players to save, heal, and even revive characters (for a price). That's not to say STEAM is trying to be My First Strategy RPG, though: The two levels I played at my session had me agonizing over every turn, despite my decades of experience with the genre.
Like Valkyria Chronicles before it, STEAM disguises its turn-based combat in the guise of a third-person shooter. All of your actions involve the use of steam, a resource given to each character in limited quantities per turn. STEAM breaks its movement up into the expected grid-based format, but you're given a little more leeway than usual: Instead of jumping from square-to-square, your party members only invest one of their steam units when they cross the border of an adjacent tile—there's a little wiggle room within each one. Each mission objective involves reaching a specific point on the opposite side of a map—and only one character needs to make it—but it's always important to stay conservative with your steam instead of using it to plow towards the finish line. Leaving enough steam units behind for a character to fire their primary weapon puts them on "overwatch," (which should be familiar if you played the recent XCOMs) a protective stance that allows them to fire at incoming foes during the enemy's turn.
For the most part, STEAM pares down its RPG elements for a style that's much more immediate. The only micromanagement (if you can call it that) involves equipping characters with secondary weapons and boilers—accessories that determine how fast steam regenerates and provide a mix of bonuses and penalties—and experience points/levels are completely absent. All of the upgrades you'll earn come from picking up coins sprinkled throughout the battlefield, though, thankfully, you can grab them and backtrack to your starting position without losing any steam units. Each level also features three somewhat hidden gears, which unlock new boilers once you hit prescribed milestones (the coins function the same way, but with subweapons).
Even though I expected STEAM to be a bit more of an RPG, the strategy action didn't disappoint. Since you can only see what's immediately around you, the levels offer an exploration element that's largely missing from a genre where you can typically view the full map at any given time. You're forced to split your team up to effectively take on approaching enemies, so your choices are rarely trivial: My four-person squad only had one party member capable of healing others, so I had to think about long and hard the most effective way to make her accessible to everyone at once while working my way towards the goal. And the levels themselves provide lots of opportunities for strategizing: The ones I played through offered cover, high and low roads, explosive barrels, and twisting corridors that forced me to adapt my strategies in new ways on every turn.
After playing about an hour of Code Name: STEAM, I could tell Intelligent Systems intends for this new creation to be much more accessible than their regular output—in fact, it's more of a turn-based action game than an RPG. Instead of asking players to sort through stats, skill trees, and equipment, STEAM makes most of your important choices happen in the battles themselves, an approach much closer to Advance Wars than Fire Emblem. Thankfully, it doesn't hold back in terms of challenge, and anyone playing this game like the third-person shooter it resembles is in for a rude awakening. Even though I'm personally more likely to dig into a strategy game where the planning outside of battles matters just as much as the decisions made within them, STEAM's immediacy provides a unique and entertaining spin on the developer's preferred brand of RPG. If its levels can consistently offer new surprises, this streamlined take on strategy could bring new players to the genre without disappointing fans of Intelligent Systems' legacy.