SteamWorld Quest: Hand Of Gilgamech – The Switch Island Review
Image & Form are really taking the piss now. SteamWorld Dig 2 was an absolute masterpiece and most other developers would have, quite understandably, followed it up with more of the same. However, having perfected metroidvania-lite and turn-based strategy within the space of two Dig releases and SteamWorld Heist respectively, those genre-jumping geniuses have decided to turn their hand to a roleplaying card game. The big question is; have Image & Form overplayed their hand or found another ace up their sleeve?
The other question is: will this review feature any more terrible card-based puns? To which my answer is: Patience, shithead. [I’m sorry, I’ll talk to him – Ed.]
The titular quest takes place in a medieval setting and begins with two party members – idealistic wannabe hero, Armilly and her know-it-all alchemist friend, Copernica – and introduces more allies as the story progresses. The narrative itself is interesting enough, but the main attraction here is undoubtedly the turn-based combat. The tutorial section leads you through the basics so that newcomers to the genre (like myself) won’t feel daunted or overwhelmed with information. Upon engaging an enemy in combat, each turn involves selecting up to three cards with the the purpose of either damaging them or healing your own team. That formula is gradually augmented by the introduction of new cards, items and status effects but they’re only ever introduced once you’ve had time to get to grips with the previous concepts. It’s a testament to the developers that by the end of the game it had trained me, without me necessarily realising, to react to enemy encounters with a wide range of skills, characters and card combinations. With the exception of one or two grindy boss battles which caught me off-guard (I eventually dropped the difficulty setting to protect my sanity) the battles were hugely entertaining and rewarding and I would certainly consider revisiting levels to try out other card/character combinations.
The sections between those battles, involving some light exploration and puzzle solving, were far less successful in my opinion. I’d liken this to my experience with Mario + Rabbids; where the perfunctory wandering around, looking for the next battle felt like unwanted padding between the good bits. That being said, these sections are at least put to good use in terms of pacing and narrative development in Quest, it’s just that they’re not massively fun to play through. Imagine a side-scrolling brawler with all the fighting taken out and you’ll get the idea. I’m also not a massive fan of ghost house/lost woods style “choose the right door or be sent back to the start” puzzles, and there are a couple of examples in Quest that left me begging to stumble into an enemy to take me out of my misery. The occasional treasure chest also provides some distraction and a chance to add to your array of punch cards. The same can be said of the frequent encounters with a travelling merchant, where you can buy/sell items and craft or upgrade cards, all whilst chuckling at the recurring “how did she get her cart here?” joke.
While I’m in awe of the bravery of fleshing-out the SteamWorld universe by shifting from the wild west to a medieval setting, I did find that the change left Quest feeling a little disconnected from the other games in the franchise. It’s entirely possible that I missed a few subtle nods and winks, but a few obvious references to other SteamWorld titles set in the “future” would’ve been a welcome touch for the less perceptive amongst us. As it stands, the shared DNA is most evident in the writing, which is fantastically silly and littered with dad jokes that my own father would be ashamed of. The dialogue is arguably more charming and gleefully tongue-in-cheek than in Quest’s predecessors and even throws in a few well-timed emotional moments, allowing the player to become more invested in the story and its characters. If the ending of SteamWorld Dig 2 gave you the feels, then this one is likely to have even more of a profound effect.
The graphics have also taken another step forward and while it’s by no means a stunner, Quest is clean, functional and without any noticeable flaws. If it were your new lover, you wouldn’t necessarily send pictures of it to all your mates, but you’d have no hesitation taking it home to meet your parents. The characters take up much more screen real estate than in previous SteamWorld games, making them all the more expressive, but again I found a few elements to be slightly jarring – Armilly, for example, looks very human-like; clad in armour as she is, while Orik’s default fox mask looks a tad too organic for a world inhabited by metal characters. I suppose Quest feels less committed to the steambot theme than other SteamWorld offerings, which is by no means a deal-breaker, but again it was something that made it harder to trace the lineage between the games and took me out of the experience somewhat. On the plus side, it has made me more interested to learn more about SteamWorld lore, so maybe that was Image & Form’s intention all along…
All in all, aside from a few frustrations largely born from my own lack of patience, on its own merits Quest is a wonderful game. As an introduction to card-based RPGs it does an admirable job, while a greater challenge is there should you wish to crank up the difficulty. Image & Form’s impressive streak continues and whether their next game is SteamWorld Soccer, SteamWorld Royale or SteamWorld City Builder, my experience with Quest leaves me in no doubt that it will be yet another must-buy.