Even one of the most talented development teams in the world is going to have the occasional off game.
Nintendo is a gaming publisher made up of many development teams, and one of its best is Intelligent Systems. That studio is responsible for beloved franchises like Fire Emblem, Advance Wars, and Paper Mario. And now, Intelligent Systems is also known for Code Name: STEAM, a completely new game for the 3DS that tries to evolve the turn-based strategy combat of Advance Wars or Fire Emblem into something more intimate.
But unlike Advance Wars or Fire Emblem, Code Name: Steam is no masterpiece.
What you’ll like
Intelligent Systems has worked on the Advance Wars and Fire Emblem games since the Nintendo Entertainment System. Famicom Wars, the Japanese-only precursor to Advance Wars, debuted in 1988. That’s a long time to work in the same universe. So it is clear that the studio was happy to use this opportunity to come up with some interesting new places, characters, and more.
Code Name: STEAM has players guiding a team made up of the protagonists from famous works of literature. You start with Henry Fleming from The Red Badge of Courage, and you’ll eventually meet John Henry, the American folk hero as well as characters from The Wonderful Wizard of OZ, Peter Pan, and Tom Sawyer. Together, these heroes make up the elite force known as STEAM, which stands for Strike Team Eliminating the Alien Menace — but it is also an allusion to the steam-powered weapons and technology the group uses.
And, of course, Abraham Lincoln is the leader of this team. He faked his own death to retire from the Presidency of the United States so that he could deal with the real threat: a secret alien invasion.
All of this makes for a lighthearted atmosphere that always keeps the action feeling pleasant. Sure, you’re constantly in combat, but it doesn’t really feel like war as much as it feels like a bunch of goofballs having fun.
Some smart risk-versus-reward tradeoffs
Code Name: STEAM is a strategy game, and it does a good job of putting you in situations where you’ll need to think tactically to come out on top. An example of this is in the way coins and health regeneration works.
Code Name: STEAM sets up missions like you would expect. You’re on one side and — for most missions — you’ll have to get to the other side. Your characters can move a certain number of spaces based on how much steam they have in the pressure thanks they wear on their back. Enemies are waiting for you around the map, and you’ll need to position your team so that you can either use some of your steam to power an attack, or so that you can use a defensive overwatch attack when an opponent moves in front of you on their turn.
It’s pretty basic, but Intelligent Systems mixes things up by giving you the chance to collect coins from areas around the map.
When you move, the steam drains from your tank but you can get that steam back if you move back without engaging in an action. This means that if you have enough power to move three spaces, and you want to get positioned behind the cover three spaces to the right, but you also want the coins three spaces to the left, you can do so. But this is a risk because the computer-controlled enemies may also have an overwatch attack primed. If you get hit going to pick up those coins, then you’ll lose your steam, and you’re stranded and completely exposed for the next turn.
Intelligent Systems employs a similar risk-reward mechanic for regaining health and steam. Each mission has a couple of glowing green kiosks placed throughout that you can use to save your game, regenerate one character’s health and steam, or your entire team’s health and steam. Of course, that final option costs a lot. And the kiosks disappear after you make your decision. So you’ll need to decide when is the best time to spend a big chunk of your coins. If you do so too early, you may not have enough health to get you through the rest of the match.
What you won’t like
Enemy turns still take a while
I’m glad I held off on reviewing Code Name: STEAM for a while because it gave Nintendo the time to address what was easily my biggest complaint: the load times between turns.
Prior to the most recent update, the act of playing Code Name: Steam was actively depressing. It would go something like this:
I’d load up the level where I first meet Tom Sawyer. After a few words, I’d guide my team of four around the map trying to rescue six frozen citizens. It would usually take me around a minute or two to figure out how to position my team, but — in certain circumstances — it might only take me 15 seconds to do so.
But no matter how fast or slow I was, I almost always had to wait at least 45 seconds to a minute and a half for each and every computer-controlled opponent to go through with its actions.
It was the worst.
Thankfully, things are better. I have a New 3DS, and Nintendo patched the game so that you can now fast-forward through enemy turns. It’s now three times faster on the New 3DS, and it’s two times faster on the standard 3DS.
But that is still too slow. Loading can still take around 30 seconds, and that’s enough time to still drag down the entire experience. It’s not game breaking like it was before, but I’m not gonna give Intelligent Systems and Nintendo a pass just because they went from something unplayable to something that merely bogs down the experience.
I understand that the 3DS hardware constrains what Intelligent Systems can do. That aging hardware is certainly struggling with the math the enemy A.I. is throwing at it. So fully skipping enemy turns probably isn’t an option, but knowing that doesn’t make the way the game wastes your time any more acceptable.
You don’t have enough data to make informed decisions
Even if Code Name: STEAM had zero moments where you had to wait around, I’d still consider it very frustrating. That’s because it leaves you blind in too many situations where you really need to see.
The camera is the big thing that Intelligent Systems did differently with this compared to its previous strategy games. In Fire Emblem, you have a top-down view of the entire battlefield where you can quickly see stats about your enemy and what their attack range looks like. In Code Name: STEAM, the camera is over the shoulder of whichever character you’re controlling at any given time. And while this does make you feel like you have more of a one-to-one connection with the action, it rips you away from information that you desperately need.
Remember those overwatch attacks I was talking about? Any enemy with a ranged attack is capable of that, but you have no easy way of knowing whether any opponent has enough power to do an overwatch attack. You just have to guess.
What makes this even worse is that sometimes those enemy overwatch attacks don’t just hurt you; they also stun you. This means you lose your entire turn even if you have a ton of steam left in your tank.
Oh, and on top of all of that, a particular humming-bird-mosquito thingy can only stun you, but it’s nearly impossible to kill. It floats high above the level, and most of your weapons don’t have a range to hit it unless you are right underneath it. Even when you are underneath it, the monster will hover in and out of way you’re aiming, so you’ll need to perfectly time your weapon fire or else you’ll miss it.
That sucks, and I hate it.
Code Name: STEAM has gone from an unplayable tragedy to something that’s not quite as terrible. Nintendo, thankfully, addressed the biggest problem when it enabled fast-forwarding with that recent update, but it shouldn’t stop with that. Intelligent Systems needs to patch in a way to get a better understanding of your surroundings. The way it’s set up now, this game is like playing chess where certain pawns secretly have the powers of a queen.
Enabling a way to scan enemies and a way to lock onto certain spots on their bodies would go a long way to improving this experience.
But, as is, Code Name: STEAM is a disappointing outing from a developer that has made some of Nintendo’s most exquisite games.
Nintendo provided GamesBeat with a Code Name: STEAM download code for the purposes of this review. It is available now.