SteamWorld Quest: Hand of Gilgamech Review (Switch)
Over the past decade, Image and Form games has set an extremely high bar for themselves, with a quartet of titles boasting addictive gameplay and aesthetic charm. Although the Swedish development studio burst onto the scene proper with SteamWorld Dig in 2013, even their DSiWare title SteamWorld Tower Defense is a great example of their ability to hone positive feedback loops and apply them to any genre. While Dig and Dig 2 are action platformers at their core, Image and Form is no stranger to numbers crunching and more methodical, nuanced gameplay. SteamWorld Heist, their take on 2D Strategy, is proof that the team knows how to make unique character archetypes, all while sticking to their trademark steampunk aesthetic.
When rumors of SteamWorld Quest first began rumbling about thanks to keen eyes noticing a trademark registration, there was a great deal of speculation as to what the nature of the game could be. After all, SteamWorld Heist isn’t necessarily a title that conjures images of turn-based strategy. Ironically enough, the title, which was originally designed to be a a red herring name for SteamWorld Dig 2, went unnoticed for a while until Hand of Gilgamech was revealed in all its copper and cog-studded glory only a few months prior to this review. In typical Image and Form… form, SteamWorld Quest shows that this incredible team is more than capable of tackling an all new genre while adding their own unique flair in several places.
Hand of Gilgamech has players controlling three playable characters as they traverse a series of interlinked, diorama-like environments that act as chapter-based dungeons. Enemies will often crowd these narrow passages, and coming in contact with them will initiate turn-based, deck-building combat. It’s a formula that echoes the nature of titles like Paper Mario and Child of Light, though the hallway-like terrain of the environments seems more similar to the former. Many of these dungeons contain some classic SteamWorld looping routes, which essentially means that it isn’t difficult to backtrack through them due to convenient shortcuts or very deliberate pacing. Despite the world itself being segmented into chapters, most dungeons will begin in a condensed or roped-off room that mimics the end point of the previous chapter, which results in a nice, cohesive feel. While some of these chapters are longer than others, there’s no doubt that they’re all substantial in length, usually taking anywhere from 45-60 minutes to complete.
This length is mostly due to the non-linearity of the environments- depending on the room layout, there can be multiple exits and routes to take in order to find what you’re looking for. Even so, it’s not hard to get lost, and you’ll usually know where you’re headed and what routes are available thanks to the small, but unobtrusive minimap. What further compounds playtime are the many hidden chests scattered throughout each map. These either contain resources that are useful for crafting or upgrading new cards, or actual rare cards themselves. The game alerts you of the chapter completion rate after you’ve taken down the boss or when you’re on the chapter select screen, and although it’s a bit of a bummer to see you’ve missed a certain percentage of goods (which is how the completion rate is calculated, meaning you’ll have to keep in mind the number of chests you uncovered beforehand, as well) the levels breeze by much faster on a second run due to your familiarity with the environments. Likewise, the few puzzles that exist within these dungeons- usually symbol or switch-based, nothing too extreme- become much easier and accessible on a repeat showing.
Though you’ll spend a great deal of your time exploring these areas, combat is the primary draw of the game (no pun intended, I swear), and it is sublime. If you’re a fan of any sort of trading card game, you’ll immediately appreciate the deck-building mechanics of Hand of Gilgamech. Each of the three active party members must have exactly eight cards equipped, though any and all card types come in very limited reserve. This is largely due to balance considerations, but the specific amounts of each card often say a great deal about their nature and function. Cards are split into basic and cog-based types, with basic cards usually possessing a simplistic function in addition to adding a cog (in layman’s terms, a mana point) to a meter that appears in combat. Cog-based cards can only be played if you have the number of cogs displayed on the card itself, with multi-target or extremely powerful cards usually boasting three-to-four cogs. There are several cog-based cards that feature a zero-cog count, which usually implies a strong function that essentially sacrifices a turn for buildup. The cog meter resets with each new battle, so players have to slowly work their way up to playing certain spells and abilities- or not-so slowly, depending on their deck build.
When in combat, players select three cards from a shuffled hand every turn. These cards do not have to be from the same character, though playing three cards from the same character in a single turn will activate a special ability that is tied to their equipped weapon. These range from more or less-powerful versions of existing cards, or certain abilities that synergize extremely well with certain kinds of deck builds. While this kind of combination is always a boon, the randomized nature of deck shuffles means that, even with the ability to discard two cards and redraw each turn, you won’t always get a winning hand.
Some turns will need to be dedicated to cog-building, while others can take advantage of different forms of synergy. For example, there are certain cards that reward players for having played a card from a specific party member before utilizing them- these combo-cards can have extremely devastating effects, but require very specific circumstances in order to execute. From status inflicts to spells and everything in between, SteamWorld Quest’s collection of cards is varied and ripe for experimentation. Each playable character has certain build archetypes within their collections: Armilly, for example, is a primarily physical character with offensive abilities, though certain cards enable her to inflict damage upon herself in order to buff her attack power further, and another subset allows her to experiment with specific debuffs and the fire element.
Copernica, on the other hand, is a self-proclaimed alchemist with access to some protective magic, though she excels at cog-building and offensive magic of the fire, lightning, and ice varieties. Galleo is a tanky physical attacker, though he can also function as a potent healer or status debuffer in certain scenarios. Many cards across characters are designed specifically for combo ability execution, while others synergize more subtly, being effective cog-building combinations or defense options. Though the starting party limits some of these possibilities, the party expands as any good core RPG cast should, adding new and inventive mechanics along the way. The most impressive aspect of combat is how free deck-building truly feels, with many options stacking upon one another so convincingly that, outside of the adorable Copernica, my playable party never felt constant. I was constantly switching out cards and characters in order to tackle certain scenarios and enemy types, the simplicity of the deck-building system allowing for quick and easy revisions. In many ways, SteamWorld Quest feels more like a puzzle title that encourages as many solutions as the player can find, rewarding inventive play and alternative solutions.
While in dungeons, players can visit the whimsical merchant, who offers the ability to use materials from fallen enemies in order to craft and upgrade cards. When I say upgrade, I should clarify: all cards in SteamWorld Quest scale based on percentage, possessing damage outputs based on how the characters’ stats are distributed. The party gains experience and levels up independently of the cards, but upgrades can add higher percentages or secondary effects to cards that increase their usefulness. If there’s any grinding to be done in SteamWorld Quest, it comes from the hunt for materials, although players can buy them from the shopkeeper for a price, as well. Some upgrade materials are rather rare, however, and will require surmounting more intense challenges in order to access.
Narrative and Aesthetics
As always, the SteamWorld aesthetic is ever-present, although because of the storybook nature of the narrative, things are a bit less post-apocalyptic. In fact, much of Quest’s world is purely fantastic, with dank caves, rolling orchards, frosty mountains, castles and academies alike. It’s the citizens of the realm that possess the steampunk elements, with many mixing fantasy archetypes with robotic frames. Some characters are just full-on wacky, such as a unicycle fencer with a birdcage for a head, while others are simply “the steampunk version of a magician.” Several members of the Void Army have jackal-theming, but they are one of the few exceptions in terms of additional design oddities. You’ll face off against an occasional organic enemy, as well, though they are usually reserved for more titanic struggles. I was a bit bummed to see a regular old organic dragon stomping about, rather than a mechanical monstrosity. There are still a healthy number of clockwork characters, and enough memorable designs on the whole to overlook this one instance.
The developers at Image and Form wanted to tell a story about would-be heroes rising to the occasion, and Quest doesn’t disappoint. The usual witticisms of the SteamWorld games are certainly intact, with a sharp sense of humor and plenty of neat little scenarios scattered throughout each chapter, though the main cast is a bit static at times. While the game isn’t necessarily going for a very dramatic tone, The Hand of Gilgamech works best when the gameplay objectives align with the narrative. There are several chapters early on where the events feel directly tied to what the player themselves wishes to accomplish, but there are several chapters that feel a bit like “fetch quests,” which is an odd thing to say about a mostly linear Role-playing game. Essentially, some chapters do appear to be filler in terms of narrative weight, though this cannot really be considered a complaint. I personally welcomed every opportunity to meet new enemy types and explore different areas. Despite this filler, there’s also a substantial amount of lore, which plays into the motivations of specific characters and the direction that the narrative takes. The plot itself may have some familiar beats, but it’s hardly predictable, and blends the charming sensibilities of the usual SteamWorld humor with some fantasy drama.
Though I wouldn’t necessarily rank Quest’s soundtrack on par with the work done on Heist or even some of the more atmospheric songs of Dig 2, it still reflects the series’ tone while adding some pulse-pounding guitars and rock and roll drumlines in order to keep energy high. The environmental navigation themes are suitable, though none caused me to stop in order to appreciate their majesty. Not saying that they need to, either- a sign of a good turn-based battle system is whether or not the stakes can still feel high despite having all the time in the world to select your inputs. Luckily, the battle themes and their variations manage to get the blood pumping in the best way.
Impressions and Conclusions
If I were to sum up SteamWorld Quest, it would be in the same way that I have described all of the previous Image and Form titles- highly addictive. The game knows what players want to do, and it gives them a vast array of tools to play with and enjoy. This constant state of card acquisition and strategic alteration keeps a sense of momentum that makes the end of each dungeon feel like a cliffhanger. You just have to keep playing- whether you want to collect more cards, try out a new deck combination, or see if a new enemy type will challenge your current build. The amount of options present for each character is impressive, though the later additions to the party push their archetypes into entirely new directions and are both wacky and awesome. As a turn-based Role-playing combat system, its card decks give off strong Mega Man Battle Network vibes, but the unique elements that the developers have brought to such a system make it stand out from its contemporaries. In terms of content, there are three different difficulty settings, as well as a brutally tough set of challenges to complete for materials at the in-game coliseum.
Many of my nitpicks of the game are highly specific, such as the maps being somewhat convoluted to view and the enemy variety sloping off towards the end of the game (the second to last chapter features a set of enemies that, while a unique fight, are a bit predictable), though there is one aspect in particular that I feel needs addressing. The game can be set to a permanent fast forward mode, which enhances the addictive pacing of the experience even more and makes the normal speed feel snail-like in comparison, but cutscenes and the skip function for them are woefully clunky. This is a shame particularly because returning to any previous chapter means going through all of the cutscenes again, even when your playable cast has increased. In some of the more narrative-driven chapters of the game, this can prove to be irksome, especially since dialogue can be skipped, though character animations cannot. These animations also don’t play out at enhanced speed, which means they end up feeling very sluggish. A cutscene or dialogue toggle would also be appreciated, especially since many treasure chests throughout the game are hidden in deceptively tricky locations that might require two or three return trips.
While this is an argument made for the sake of total completion, SteamWorld Quest can be finished in around relatively 20-ish hours by a player more concerned with seeing the credits. You won’t have to do much grinding or even inventory completion in order to face down the final boss, though I would be mindful of preparation for said battle, as it can span upwards of 120 turns. Without an obsessive mentality of finding 100% of all items, SteamWorld Quest constantly pushes the player forwards using many of the level design and character progression systems that make Image and Form games so appealing. Though its narrative leans more towards humor with a few sparing and surprising character moments, this first run at the Role-playing genre shows that the developers are more than capable of striking gold by pairing their SteamWorld characters with solid and balanced mechanics.