Code Name: S.T.E.A.M., in which a cadre of 12 literary heroes, led by former president Abraham Lincoln, engages in tactical warfare against aliens out of a Lovecraft tale, is one of the freshest and most inventive games developed in the last decade. Sadly, its novel—and novelistic—features apply only to the gameplay, which is often better on paper than in design. The game’s decision to utilize a steampunk aesthetic is no excuse for the lack of electric thrills in the by-the-book narrative, and players are likely to find themselves struggling to find the energy to plod through some of the more frustrating maps.
For the most part, S.T.E.A.M. is a positively charming title, mixing the third-person strategic maneuvers of Valkyria Chronicles with the comic weaponry of, say, Mario Kart 8. Moby-Dick’s Queequeg attacks with penguins that waddle over to foes before exploding with the comic grace of a Monty Mario Kart 8Python sketch, while Tom Sawyer uses an extending punching glove to keep foes at bay; other joke weapons include the movement-stifling Bananapult and the distraction-creating Rattling Gun. The problem is that the maps require a deadly serious strategy that’s at odds with the game’s comic-book presentation and lighthearted tone. S.T.E.A.M. is simultaneously too smart and silly for its own good.
A lot of thought clearly went into each level, especially some of the more vertical environments, like a scalable series of bookshelves in the Miskatonic University and a desert, though not deserted, canyon in Monument Valley. But because players are limited to seeing the map from each character’s perspective and can only swap out party members between missions, the game abuses the strategic art of trial and error. Many areas are all but impossible without the right team composition, and this is compounded by the unfair usage of enemy re-enforcements, who have a tendency to appear in the middle of a player’s four-person squad. (To be fair, this is a problem present in most tactical games, especially Intelligent Systems’ Advance Wars and Fire Emblem.)
It feels great when a team has been properly assembled, such that The Wizard of Oz’s Scarecrow can use a mischievously planted pumpkin to stun enemies who’ve been drawn to Randolph Carter’s “unspeakable lure,” while Queen Calafia uses a series of long-ranged missile strikes to wipe them all out, making the most of extra actions granted to her by the Tin Man’s support ability. Getting to step into the giant ABE (Anthropomorphized Battle Engine) to participate in battles against kaiju Devastators is a blast, even if these bonus battles rarely last more than a minute. Far more common, sadly, is that players will miss out on an ambush because they can’t jump over a gap or will open themselves up to counterattack after inexplicably missing a clearly targeted weak point. Even mid-mission save points create problems. Each can only be used once, but because they can also recharge the team’s health and steam (action points) for a fee, players will constantly be gambling with regard to the right time to activate each station. Considering that there’s only one save slot, a poor decision on one of the larger maps can easily wipe out an hour of hard work.
S.T.E.A.M. presents itself with sheer exuberance and, in the spirit of the classic patriotic comic books it models itself after (just ask heroes John Henry and Henry Fleming), a sense of infinite possibility. But time and again, brutal counterattacks are the only reward for those who heroically leap into the fray, which forces players to slowly scout out the map. Worse, by tying equipment upgrades to the number of coins and hidden cogs collected, the game penalizes savvy players who find safe, but loot-free, shortcuts. The majority of discoveries, such as the way in which an overhead zeppelin can inexplicably be used to shelter troops from mortar fire, are likelier to be accidental than strategic. The game forces you to play on its terms, without ever really explaining what those are, and while there’s something to be said for patience and precision, unless a player’s favorite part of chess is waiting for their opponent to take their turn, S.T.E.A.M. might just end up wrinkling their brain.