Code Name S.T.E.A.M. is a fantastic idea that is executed upon questionably. Developed by Intelligent Systems, the minds behind both the Fire Emblem and Paper Mario series, it eschews the traditional turn-based strategy gameplay that the studio is known for and in its place offers up a more action oriented take on that genre, similar in concept to SEGA’s cult classic Valkyria Chronicles series. To take things even further they wrap that up in a steampunky American literature flavoured setting which does its best to really deliver in terms of references and variety. For as great as that all sounds though, there are some deep-seated issues with the gameplay and a distinct sense of cultural disconnect and laziness to some of its story elements that serve to hold the game back. Code Name S.T.E.A.M. is by no means a terrible game, just poorly thought out, and unfortunately its lesser aspects often end up overshadowing the parts of the game that would really shine otherwise.
Let’s start off by talking about the gameplay, because it merits some degree of explanation. The way things work is that rather than simply moving your units around and ordering them to attack in traditional turn based style, you are instead manually controlling each unit during your turn, actively shooting their weapons while in an over-the-shoulder view. Governing everything is a resource known as Steam, which is spent on movement as well as attacking, every character has their own pool of the stuff and it’s replenished at the start of every turn. The most important thing Steam enables though is the ability to counter-attack, as any leftover juice will be spent automatically during the enemy’s turn to attack their units if they get too close, similar to XCOM’s Overwatch mechanic; the more Steam you have left over, the more attacks a character will be able to make defensively. The enemy plays by these same rules and on the surface it makes for a nicely balanced and smart gameplay dynamic, forcing players to keep both offense and defense in mind as they try to get all they can out of each character’s unique and well-varied abilities.
Unfortunately though this game cheats and the tight back and forth that those mechanics should allow is ruined as a result. First off, most of the mission objectives that the game puts forward are very offense based, asking you to do things such as defeat a large boss unit or make your way to the end of the map, but the gameplay is designed with defense in mind which gives the aliens a distinct advantage. While you’re wasting your Steam moving forward, because you have to, they’re sitting on vast reserves of the stuff which they can use to devastate your troops the second you stumble into range. The game is also really overzealous about what it considers an action worthy of an Overwatch attack; regularly I’d get shot by enemy fire while trying to advance forward and the simple act of turning around to look at my assailant was considered a large enough action to allow them to fire on me again, even though I hadn’t actually moved the character, just changed their viewpoint. The game also has a really nasty habit of constantly spawning in enemy reinforcements, as many as eight extra units at a time, allowing the enemy to build up quite an impressive legion to combat your meager four man squad. While the seemingly unending flow of alien monstrosity definitely creates a sense of tension, it’s also quite tiring, and it removes any sense of fair play as the goal posts are constantly moved farther and farther back every time it feels like you’ve got a handle on the situation.
Much like the gameplay, the story is also great in concept but falters somewhat in execution. The premise is that you are a secret government agency known as S.T.E.A.M. which is headed up by none other than Abraham Lincoln, tasked with defending both America and the world from an encroaching alien threat that seeks to cover the globe with its icy embrace. Your entire squad is staffed with characters from the great works of 19-20th century literature and features members such as Henry Fleming (The Red Badge of Courage), John Henry (American Folklore), Tiger Lily (Peter Pan), Queequeg (Moby Dick), and Randolph Carter (the works of H.P. Lovecraft). For those worried about the canon of those universes, the game presumably takes place after the events of each character’s respective original works, as anachronistic and chronologically confusing as that may seem. While such a wide variety of characters does run the risk of making the story feel scattered, and it most definitely does feel that way at times, the game still manages to cohesively tell its own simple invasion story and it uses all that classic fiction that it’s drawing from to flesh out its own world.
Where things start to get a little rough though is with the shallow depth of the story and with the poor characterization of many of these honored literary figures. While the game moves from setting to setting at a breakneck pace, looking to show off as many references as possible and continually bring in new characters, what is actually done at many of these locales rarely feels like it needs be shown and very little time is spent getting to know any of the squad, outside of short cut scenes that bookend every mission. Unfortunately this means that the characters have not much room to grow into these new roles and because they’re aware that not everyone has the mental fortitude to read through Moby Dick, they resort to breaking them down to basic stereotypes and personality quirks, which is insufficient at best and kind of offensive at worst. It’s not so bad when they do this for characters like John Henry and Randolph Carter, whose original stories are shorter and therefore don’t need to be fleshed out too much, but for deeply layered characters who come from larger tales such as Tom Sawyer and Queequeg, the results are somewhat depressing. This is especially the case when it comes to the game’s non-caucasian cast as Code Name S.T.E.A.M. ends up using some tired racial clichés as shorthand. Rarely are any of the stereotypical personality traits on display particularly derogatory but they’re lazy and they cheapen the image of these classic characters. To be clear I don’t think there’s anything malicious behind those portrayals, it more just feels like a case of cultural tone-deafness on Nintendo’s part. On the bright side though they at least make a strong effort to really delve into the greater fictions of the game’s cast at times, with what little flavour text the game holds bringing up lots of references to the more obscure parts of their stories. This is especially the case with Randolph Carter, who writes separate secondary bestiary entries for each monster, under the assumption that these aliens are actually related to the Old Ones as he draws parallels between the invaders and many of the monsters of Lovecraftian lore.
Moving onto the presentation, much like everything else, it’s something of a mixed bag. Visually the game sports a bombastic comic book look with onomatopoeias flying off of everything and a generally vibrant palette that allows the world to pop in a very nice way. There’s also some great art design on display with a lot of the weapons and character designs being decked out with neat little details here and there. Conversely though the level and enemy design is dull; the ice-covered alien menace comes in many forms but they don’t feel all that immediately distinct from one another and the levels are very claustrophobic with a boxy inorganic design that causes them all to blend together in my mind despite how different the actual textures in each area happened to be. As for the sound design, musically the one thing that sticks out to me is the dubstep that pervades the battles, it’s not really to my personal taste and it doesn’t feel thematically appropriate given the steampunk nature of everything else. As for the voice acting, it’s really good in spots but cringe worthy in others. Most of the cast sounds pretty alright, especially Lincoln, and they made the absolutely brilliant choice to cast James Urbaniak (Doc Rusty Venture from The Venture Bros) as the voice of Randolph Carter, which provides Lovecraft’s author surrogate character with the perfect blend of insufferable superiority and fearful cowardice. Where things falter is once again with the more stereotypical characters; Tiger Lily has a deep steady voice that brings to mind afternoons spent watching bad spaghetti westerns, Queequeg speaks pidgin English tinged with an overdone Hawaiian accent while unironically using the word “Brudda“, and Tom Sawyer sounds like the actor wandered in after getting lost on his way to a high school production of Gone with the Wind.
Honestly I feel sort of bad for complaining about Code Name S.T.E.A.M. as much as I have because as I said at the start of this review, the concepts behind it all are really solid. In theory, the gameplay has a really great balance and flow to it and the idea of all these well-known characters interacting with each other holds a lot of promise. Unfortunately though the gameplay is made unenjoyable thanks to the game having a bit of a taste for sadism and the story doesn’t ever really do much with those famous characters beyond referencing their original works while slotting them into tired archetypal roles. While I think there’s definitely something to this game, I couldn’t tell you what it is, and personally I just didn’t enjoy it and as such I can’t really recommend it. That being the case I’m giving Code Name S.T.E.A.M. a 2.5 out of 5 stars.