Game review: Steam World Heist for Steam

I realized moments after starting Steam World Heist that I’d played the games out of order, or sort of out of order. Hand of Gilgamech is an odd entry in the series, as it could be a prequel that comes before the first Steam World Dig, or it could be a sequel taking place long after Heist. In any case, Heist is meant to follow the two Dig games, being a sequel that takes place a hundred or so years after the previous entry.

Before I get into the plot or mechanics, I will drop the early verdict and say that this was the least enjoyable of the games thus far. Like, it’s okay, but not really great or bad. The shift to turn-based strategy combined with the idea of pillaging ships for resources could have been the best pivot away from the resource management of the first two games.

Instead, this entry in the Steamverse also got shackled with resource management for the dumbest of reasons, and with a burden of a required grind with every new character introduced. But if it were just these two factors, I might still be forgiving and regard it as a good game. Instead, Steam World Heist continually makes choices to bury any hope of fun under a pile of terrible ideas.

Let start with the plot, which as mentioned follows the ending of Steam World Dig 2. The Earth blew up, or rather, the surface of the planet blew up, leaving the core and a bunch of shards still floating in a near-core orbit. The moon is still orbiting the core, and the robots all inhabit ships and stations scattering among the shards of terra firma left in orbit. Some of them are moisture farmers, harvesting water from space somehow. The story picks up following a crew of space pirates who are suddenly finding competition from a growing group called the Scrappers. The Scrappers aren’t just content to take water. They are also taking robots and, as their name implies, scrapping them in service to their queen.

The game starts with two Cowbots to use in raids against Scrapper ships. The captain, Piper, and her former whaling steam-bot Seabrass, use different classes of weapons, making each of them better suited to different tasks, in theory. Each new crew member is also supposed to serve a different role, but mostly they can all be used in the same ways. It’s only their handicaps that change how easy or hard it is to use them.

Take the first new recruit, Sally. Sally can use a regular handgun or an SMG. Unlike Piper, who has the benefit of a laser sight to indicate where her shots will go, with Sally, players have to guess where her gun is aiming, and then pray the weapon sway won’t change the angle too much. Then, unlike Seabrass and Piper, Sally’s preferred SMG rounds don’t ricochet. So if she misses all her shots, there’s not even hope for something to come back as a stray bit of damage.

Then comes Ivanski, a strong man who has to remind players of his former profession by always shoulder pressing a dumbbell. It’s absolutely stupid, but not nearly as bad as arming him with a grenade launcher and discovering all the ways that he can fuck over himself or other members of the crew thanks to badly aimed grenades. Later on, another heavy hitter can take over for him, Beatrix. While she doesn’t do any stupid animations like Ivanski, she picks up a skill while leveling up that can launch a second grenade. In the entire time I played the game, that worked in my crew’s favor ONCE. Every other time, that second round either struck Beatrix in the face, or one of the other crewmates.

You get a sniper named Valentine, whose preferred weapon can only shoot if they haven’t moved in that turn. It doesn’t seem so bad at first, but later ship designs ensure that for almost every mission, he can’t shoot anything and just becomes a liability to the rest of his crew. Thankfully, he can be given scoped pistols from Piper’s class, so he can still be useful, even if his damage is frequently nerfed unless you can find a way to park him in a prime sniping location. (He does more damage on turns where he doesn’t move, and as he levels up, that damage gets bonuses.)

Then with the DLC, you get Fen, who is making a comeback from Steam World Dig 2 as a cobbled-together steamboat with some pretty decent enhancements. Fen charges their systems with every successful enemy elimination, and those charges can power a bolt that shoots through any obstacles between them and the enemies. As an added bonus, it also pierces enemies to shoot multiple bad guys. When that isn’t needed, Fen can also effect self-repair without carrying a kit. What this means is, Fen quickly becomes the MVP of any raid.

There are more characters to unlock, but they’re all duplicates in the way that Beatrix and Ivanski are. Yes, they develop different skills, but the weapons they use are all the same. What makes all this bad is that each new crew member has to be taken back to the starting area to level up until they catch up to the rest of the crew.

In early raids, only two robots can be taken along, and the ships are all pretty easy to navigate. It’s okay to just have the two remain together, so if Seabrass misses his shot, Piper can cover for him. But very quickly, the game introduces a countdown timer, and each time it reaches zero, the “threat level” rises. I call this adding another layer of bullshit. I mean, it’s fine if a ship has turrets that activate after a hostile force is detected. But these ships with supposed skeleton crews are hiding clown car-like numbers of bots that can infinitely spawn in larger and larger numbers.

Which, again, would be fine if the ships stuck to those logical designs. But they soon start involving platforms that require constant backtracking to reach a ladder and jump to a disconnected platform. Each bot has a limited number of spaces they can walk per turn, so every backtrack can take as many as three turns, and again, there’s that timer just waiting to drop another load of bullshit into the mix.

Eventually, the game recognizes that every player is going to end up with crewmates who are too far under-leveled to be any good, so every region has a ship for a single bot to do solo runs on. Sounds good, right? It’s not, and that’s because to make this work for under-leveled crew, those single-bot runs are dull as dirt. So, what could be more fun than taking multiple characters through the same agonizing grind, just to make them useful on missions? Literally anything else.

Eventually, I gave up on hiring new crew members and just powered through with Piper, Fen, Sally, and Seabrass, occasionally swapping someone for Valentine when I needed an extra sharpshooter. I pushed through the three regions run by the Scrappers, the Royalists, and a Surprise Special Guest who won’t be a surprise if you played the first two games. While there were a few times that I was having actual fun, usually when I was allowed to run a four-bot crew, the vast majority of the time I was just muddling through for the sake of getting a review out. Most everything else became a blur of missed shots, dull battles, and unwanted grinds.

There’s two standout failures I should also mention, the humor and the music played in bars. First I’ll cover the music and clarify that the tunes playing during fights is decent stuff that gets the job done well. But even though all the robots talk in the standard video game “Hur-dur-dur-DUR-hur “ style that so many indies use to avoid paying for full voice acting, for some unfathomable reasons, the game makers decided that every bar in every region should have a band singing exactly one song with actual lyrics. Aside from one bar where I admitted, “All right, this isn’t too terrible” (damning with faint praise, indeed), in every other bar, I just wanted to run in to fulfill whatever goal I’d been given, and then run back out before the actual singing stated.

Keep in mind, I’m about as open-minded as anyone you’ll meet when it comes to music. I’ll listen to country, pop, rock, hip-hop, R & B, rap, folk, techno, emo, classical, whatever. So when I say these steam-punk attempts at cramming a theme into various styles of music and they almost all fail, that’s not a music snob being snobby. It’s a music lover crying, “DEAR GOD, WHO THOUGHT THIS WAS A GOOD IDEA?!”

Then there’s the jokes. Whether it’s in dialogue or in item descriptions, every single joke lands with all the impact of a broken whoopee cushion. Again, I should point out that I love puns and dad jokes. So when I say this stuff is bad, I mean it digs down past the most rotten of dad jokes and mines the bad humor coal and oil seventy-five miles below the barrel of dad jokes.

I want to find something positive to end with, but all I have is that there were a few times where I was having a little fun, but I already mentioned when those few moments were granted to me. I guess the boss fights were mostly okay. But even there, the two big boss fights from the second and third region were filled with padding that didn’t add much to the difficulty and only increased the length of the fights.

So in the end, I find myself unable to give Steam World Heist anything higher than 3 stars. I’d like to give it 2, but it just barely cleared that bar. If you’ve played the two Dig games and want to know where the story goes after that, maybe get this on sale with the DLC to take advantage of Fen’s capabilities. But if you just want a strategy game to have fun with, look elsewhere. There are lots of better options to fill your time with.