Despite not being a huge fan of steampunk, I fell hard for Image & Form's SteamWorld games the minute I started playing the first SteamWorld Dig game on the Nintendo 3DS. The stewards of SteamWorld have a knack for making shiny, brassy characters who fit in perfectly with the troubled worlds they inhabit.
Thus, when Image & Form announced SteamWorld Quest: Hand of Gilgamech, a card-based role-playing game, I posted happy gifs all over Twitter. SteamWorld Dig, SteamWorld Dig 2, and SteamWorld Heist all deliver great narrative through their action and strategy gameplay; I was hyped to see what kind of story Image & Form could give us through an RPG.
The answer is "A story that's very cute and pleasant, but surprisingly light on character development and world building." In fact, "light" describes SteamWorld Quest to a tee. There's quite a bit of depth to its card-based battle system, but the experience overall is on the more streamlined side. If you're expecting something along the lines of "Final Fantasy, but with Steambots," you're going to be disappointed. If, however, you want a fun, airy RPG with compelling characters and a quest that will take you around 15 hours to tuck away (and is therefore perfectly suited for the Nintendo Switch's handheld mode), SteamWorld Quest is a good travelling buddy.
Unlike other games in the SteamWorld universe, SteamWorld Quest's story isn't linked to SteamWorld Dig or SteamWorld Heist. The "game" is actually a fairy tale relayed by SteamWorld Heist's grizzled whale-hunter, Gabriel Stubb, to his son Toby. Indeed, the story is prime fantasy material that's full of brass heroes, iron-plated mages, and stoic samurai. Armilly, a wannabe warrior with stars in her eyes, begins the game performing light tasks alongside her magic-slinging friend, Copernica. Unsurprisingly, a dark foe soon rears its head and threatens the world by stealing the Necronomicog(!). Armilly and Copernica pull other heroes (and knaves) into their orbit as they set out to save the day.
Image & Form has performed some wonderful world building through SteamWorld Dig and Heist; I still love Heist's "Steambots vs. Dieselbots" war that climaxes with a fight against a super-advanced (and super-malicious) robot race. I was hoping to see more of that intrigue in SteamWorld Quest's story, but I can't say I'm unhappy with the tonal shift: Image & Form clearly has a "mood" in mind, and they deliver on it.
SteamWorld Quest is certainly more fantasy than sci-fi, and the genre mix is apparent in the party's animalistic character designs. The grumpy homebody Galleo is based on a frog (plus he slings water-based attacks!), the fox-faced Orik exudes the serenity and mystery of a kitsune, and the nimble cut-purses Tarah and Thayne are fittingly engineered with lapine qualities. Each character also has personality quirks that come through in their animations. I particularly like how the scarred, sneering Tarah puts herself up front in the face of danger while her shy little brother, Thayne, cringes in her shadow.
If you pick up SteamWorld Quest, you should expect a good game of cards above all else. I'm very so-so on card-based battle systems, but I enjoy fiddling with Image & Form's decks. When you're pulled into a fight, you're dealt a random hand that mixes cards from your characters' stacks (which you can customize any time outside of battle). When each turn passes, you're awarded one cog. The more powerful cards in your decks require anywhere from one to four cogs to use, so you have to decide if you're going to blow your cogs or bank them by playing less powerful cards that don't utilize any cogs.
Of course, there are support cards that grant you an instant cog or three. If you play those in conjunction with powerful cards that eat up cogs, you can whup weak foes in a mere turn or two (especially after you gain the ability to upgrade your cards).
But it's a better idea to play SteamWorld Quest with a good head on your shoulders. Sure, you can throw cards onto the fray willy-nilly, but in a long boss battle it's smarter to take advantage of the game's Combo system. If you play three cards belonging to the same character, you get a free attack via a fourth card, no cogs required. The effects of these Combo cards vary depending on the character. For example, Galleo has a Combo that heals the party and boosts their defense, Copernica has a lightning Combo that can paralyze enemies, and Orik can rain down blades or cast Haste on himself. If you like customizing battle systems (Hey, Kat!), you'll have a good time fiddling around with SteamWorld Quest's decks.
Count on SteamWorld Quest to give you a challenge worthy of your best cards, too. The game's not a pushover, even on normal mode. Enemies aren't afraid to use buffs, debuffs, and status-sapping attacks like Poison and Burn. There's a hard mode if you're up for it (you can change the game's difficulty at any time), and there's a Coliseum where you can test your endurance against a veritable parade of baddies.
That said, the myriad battles you fight soon make it clear SteamWorld Quest relies a lot on palette-swapped enemies with varying elemental weaknesses and strengths. The enemy designs are all wonderful and subscribe to the main characters' mix of robotic and animalistic elements, but when you wind up fighting the same robot-dragon boss four times ("and this time he's electric!"), you quickly start to wish for a bit more variety.
Like most SteamWorld games, SteamWorld Quest is over quickly. The chapter-by-chapter progression is linear, and every area you explore is divided into rooms (the format reminds me of Odin Sphere). There are hidden treasures and hidden rooms to find in each chapter, but don't expect to do a lot of exploration. You make all your purchases from one travelling merchant (who's admittedly a hoot) and are expected to follow a straight path.
Yet, I never found SteamWorld Quest tedious, even when I wished to slip my bonds and explore more of the world contained outside its invisible walls. The lack of random encounters helps. All enemies appear directly in-level, and you can initiate a first strike if you whack them with Armilly's sword. Dead enemies stay dead on the level maps, though they can resurrect if you approach a Gilgamech hero statue and ask to be healed. Dark Souls Bonfires: Not even the SteamWorld universe can escape them.
SteamWorld Quest is a light, but tasty snack for RPG fans. The adventure is carried by the strength of its battle system, though the heroes and the world they populate still contain plenty of Image & Form charm. I enjoyed my time on the road with Armilly, Copernica, and Galleo, and I'd shove my entire head in a steam-dragon's mouth if Image & Form gave us another SteamWorld Quest game with more emphasis on story and exploration.
SteamWorld Quest is a diet RPG, but it still contains plentiful portions of Image & Form's unique charm and humor. Its card-based battle system is engaging, and you might find yourself enjoying it a lot even if you're not a big fan of digital card games. Expect a straightforward journey that ends much sooner than most RPGs, but maybe a 15-hour quest isn't such a bad thing in a genre that keeps piling on 100-hour epics.