In the first episode of Penny Dreadful, an American gunslinger is recruited to help fight monsters in Victorian-era London. He doesn’t question his strange companions in the heat of battle, but once there’s a pause in the action, he turns to them and has to ask, “Who the fuck are you people?”
I really wanted one of the characters in Code Name: S.T.E.A.M. to ask that same question. Much like Penny Dreadful, the game is a literary and historical mash-up, pitting a team including Tiger Lily, the Cowardly Lion (who’s quite brave here), and Tom Sawyer against alien horrors. But beyond a few shallow reactions when you recruit a new character at the start of a level, like “You look young” and “That’s a strange name,” the game never does much with this bizarre team dynamic. It’s disappointing given how good Intelligent Systems, which also developed the long-running Fire Emblem series, has proven it can be at building characters and relationships. Had this opportunity not been passed up, it might have been a reason to forgive the game’s bigger flaws.
Code Name: S.T.E.A.M. fuses elements of modern shooter games with the tactical combat found in Fire Emblem, where characters take turns maneuvering around a grid. Each of your soldiers is loaded with steampunk gear, and the amount of steam they’re packing determines how far they can move and what sort of attacks they can pull off when you aim their sights using the 3DS’ touchscreen. Have some steam left over when you end your turn, and you’ll have a chance to automatically attack enemies that move within range. Like in a shooter, finding cover and moving stealthily is essential because some alien enemies are capable of doing the same thing.
That all sounds good in principle, and most of the time it works. There are a lot of factors to consider during each turn. Your team members have a variety of attacks well beyond the standard point-and-shoot, ranging from bombs to healing grenades to penguins that explode after waddling into something. Maneuvering the right characters around the map to make the best use of their specialties in a given situation requires plenty of thought. Leave a character exposed, and they can easily be knocked out of the fight. Cluster too tightly, and you’re vulnerable to aliens with grenade launchers. The board is littered with medals and gears you need to collect to upgrade your team, but gathering them will often take you off the path to a level’s end goal. Waiting to hunt for goodies until after all your enemies have been dispatched doesn’t work because the game will regularly introduce enemy reinforcements if you dally. Even the save points scattered around the board need to be used mindfully, as they let you exchange medals to heal beat-up characters. Deciding when to use them is an exercise in resource management.
But difficult games are only fun when they feel fair, and sometimes Code Name: S.T.E.A.M. doesn’t. It’s hard to know what exactly your enemies can attack during your turn. It’s possible for their traps to trigger over and over again while you’re trying to find a safe space to hide, even if character is just shuffling within the same square on the game board. Having invulnerable enemies you need to hide from forces you to change up tactics, but having enemies that are effectively invulnerable because they’re so tiny—you can only get them in your crosshairs with a feat of precision the 3DS’ touchscreen seems almost incapable of—is infuriating. And the introduction of a new character should be an exciting moment, but many of the soldiers you meet don’t come equipped with the secondary weapons needed for flexibility in combat. I wound up dreading the chance of meeting someone new because it meant dragging them through their introductory level until I could get them back to base and properly geared up.
The way enemy turns are handled is by far the game’s worst offense. Once you’re done with your turn, the aliens get a chance to move and attack, but the only way to see this is if it’s happening within your soldiers’ line of sight. Most of the time, you’re stuck twiddling your thumbs while enemies you don’t even care about shuffle around and wait to ambush you on the other side of the level. Sometimes the aliens rush you or you get to make a surprise attack, but mostly, you wait for the “Alien Movement” bar to fill up. The idle time lessens as you blow enemies away, but otherwise, it’s infuriatingly slow.
Code Name: S.T.E.A.M. has some great components. Your organization is led by Abraham Lincoln, who faked his own assassination so he could join the fight against alien invaders from the helm of a steam-powered mech. Henry Fleming—of The Red Badge Of Courage—fires “extremely patriotic” shots and chucks eagle-shaped grenades. Too often, though, the game devolves into a frustrating slog of minute maneuvering in the hopes of shortening the maddening crawl of enemy turns. A ridiculous steampunk world might be on the line, but considering the game never takes the time to invest in it or its cast, it’s hard to feel a need to keep fighting.
Code Name: S.T.E.A.M.
Developer: Intelligent Systems
Platform: Nintendo 3DS