The SteamWorld series has been going strong for nearly 10 years now, and one of the incredible things about it is how versatile it's been. The series has gone through several genres, from the tower defense of SteamWorld Tower Defense, to the 2D tactical strategy of SteamWorld Heist, to the spelunking Metroidvania action platforming of SteamWorld Dig 1 & 2. Despite the drastic shifts in game styles, each of these games turned out to be excellent and unique. SteamWorld Quest: Hand Of Gilgamech is yet another departure for the series, and it may be one of Image & Form's most ambitious games yet.
SteamWorld Quest takes place in a fantasy world filled with magic and dragons. The only key difference from other similar fantasy worlds is that, much like the other SteamWorld games, all the people involved are steam powered robots. You start with Armilly, a wannabe knight looking to enter the local guild of heroes, and Copernica, a college dropout who studies magic and alchemy. After venturing into the woods to find some magic mushrooms (but not that kind of magic mushroom), they realize that all the heroes in town have been kidnapped and need rescuing. From there the plot becomes your standard kind of JRPG story, complete with party members with dark pasts, conspiracies, and a great evil that must be vanquished. The game definitely wears its inspirations on its sleeve, and there are a lot of moments that seem like they came straight out of classic JRPGs like the Final Fantasy or Dragon Quest series.
That being said, even if the story definitely lifts some elements from the JRPGs of old, it's told very well. The writing in SteamWorld Quest is pretty excellent. The characters all come across as endearing and likable, and they even grow and develop as the game goes on. There's also some surprisingly good dialogue, which is great considering that this is the most dialogue that a SteamWorld game has ever had. Let's hope that Image & Form continues to put more story in their games so we can get more of their fantastic writing.
While SteamWorld Quest is an RPG, it doesn't have the standard turn-based RPG mechanics. Instead, you have a hand of cards that you use to fight off your enemies. If you're familiar with games like Hearthstone or Slay The Spire then you'll be right at home with SteamWorld Quest.
You have a party of three characters, and each character has their own set of cards. You then create 3 separate decks of 8 cards for each characters, meaning that during battle you'll have 24 different cards to use. As time goes on, this system will get more complex, including cards that combo with other characters' cards, and depending on what weapon you have equipped, playing three of a character's cards in a row will allow a fourth special bonus card to be played as well.
There are three types of cards: Strike, Upgrade and Skill. Strike cards are just like the fight command in most RPGs, while Upgrade cards are there to give you a useful buff like a magic shield or regeneration. Strike and Upgrade cards also build up your Steam Power meter, which functions as your magic points or MP, and that allows you to use Skill cards which are essentially your magic spells. And of course, like in most RPGs, you also equip weapons and accessories for various stat boosts, and you'll have consumable items to help get you out of a jam.
Replacing the typical JRPG battle system with a deck building card game is a risky move, but it works tremendously well. Deciding which cards to take with you into battle can be both stressful and rewarding, as you need to really think about what strategy to use and which cards will be useful in that area. For example, some areas will have a lot of enemies who will be immune to magic, so it might make more sense to use cards that deal physical damage. Or if you encounter enemies who inflict poison constantly, using cards that remove status effects is probably the way to go. You only get 24 cards to take into each battle, so you need to choose your hand carefully, because if you're fighting a dragon that's resistant to fire and all you got is fire spells, well then you done messed up son.
The music in the game is probably the biggest example of its reverence for the Final Fantasy series. Several songs in the game are reminiscent of famous Final Fantasy music, including rock guitar and some pretty killer organ solos. It's actually pretty good, and some battle themes did get me pumped up, so mission accomplished on that front.
If you've played any of the other SteamWorld games, then the game's graphics should be pretty familiar. It's a brightly colored fantasy world where everyone just happens to be robots. While the graphics are pretty standard for this type of indie game, the character designs and attention to detail are where the game's visuals truly shine. From Galleo, the frog-headed tank/healer, to Captain Canary, the strange, one wheeled villain whose head is an actual birdcage with a canary. The animations in the game are sort of limited, but everything else is so charming to look at that it doesn't really matter all that much.
As good and as fun as the card battling system feels, there are some drawbacks. You only get to choose which cards will be in your hand before you get into a battle. What this means is that if you progress to the next part of the map, and encounter a boss who's resistant or immune to most of your attack cards, or if you realize that having a certain Upgrade or Skill card would make the fight so much easier, you're pretty much of luck. You can't swap in new cards once you're in the battle, so if your deck sucks in that particular fight, you just have to roll with it. This led to me either having to die, or even just quitting out of the game and reloading my save so I could change my cards for that fight. It's a minor inconvenience, but it was still annoying.
Also, some fights can be drawn out for longer than they should be. You get 6 cards to choose from that are randomly selected from your deck, and you can only redraw 2 cards if you don't like your hand. Sometimes this means that you may get a bunch of cards that are kind of useless, especially if you get a hand full of Skill cards and have no Steam Power to use them. As a result, you may have some turns where you can't really do anything. Combined with some enemies who are able to heal themselves, this can lead to some battles feeling a little long winded.
The developers over at Image & Form don't seem like the type to rest on their laurels. The SteamWorld games have now branched out to four different genres, with only SteamWorld 1 & 2 being the same type of game. And even then, SteamWorld Dig 2 improved on its predecessor in almost every way. SteamWorld Quest: Hand Of Gilgamech is a unique RPG experience, and continues the series' history of success and quality. It also makes for a phenomenal Nintendo Switch game, and after 20 hours, I found myself tempted to go back in and play it on a harder difficulty.
If beating up dragons, evil trees, and slime monsters with a robot wearing a fox mask and a deck of cards sounds like fun to you, then this is a quest you should definitely embark upon.
4 out of 5 stars.
A copy of SteamWorld Quest: Hand Of Gilgamech was purchased by TheGamer for review purposes. It is available now for Nintendo Switch.