In a weird way Code Name S.T.E.A.M. is more frustrating because of everything it gets right rather than everything that it gets wrong. Intelligent Systems (the folks behind Fire Emblem and Advance Wars) have delivered a very amusing and oddball world for their latest tactical strategy game. It’s a fun place to be. Yet, the design of the game is too flawed for actually play to bring much joy. Sure, it’s challenging and satisfying when you get a grip on how to compensate for the flaws, but ultimately I found myself irritated almost as much as I was enthralled. There’s an element of waiting to be found in all games with some turn based combat, but this sucker pushed my patience past the limit far too often.
Now, there is that wonderful game world that I mentioned that deserves some praise. Set in a steampunk fantasy vision of the 1800s, Code Name S.T.E.A.M. serves up some surreal historical and fan faction. Aliens with a somewhat a Lovecraftian look have invaded the world and must be stopped. Who better to stop them than good ol’ honest Abe Lincoln and an all-star strike force, right? Don’t agree? Well too bad because Abe’s in charge and he has alien asses to kick. Joining him on the adventure are a collection of equally bizarre public domain characters like Tom Sawyer, John Henry, Moby Dick’s Queequeg, and a Lion (don’t ask, at least he’s not cowardly as far as I can tell). The plot plays out in a lovingly ludicrous way with a tongue borrowed deep in its cheek (it’s not as good as Alan Moore’s League Of Extraordinary Gentlemen, but it’s certainly better than the movie those comics inspired). You can’t help but giggle at the insanity that’s all been lovingly designed to fit within a delightfully cartoony comic book aesthetic (complete with paneled cut scenes, word bubbles, and onomatopoeia). I really enjoyed the universe that Intelligent Systems introduced me to. Trouble reared its ugly head once I started playing the game.
The whole game is based around steam (as you might have guessed by the title and steampunk aesthetic). You’ll cling to steam for your life, needing it not just for attacks but simply to move around the world. There’s a great deal of strategy involved given that you’ll even need to worry about paying for saves at a certain point (with gold in that case, get ready to stockpile anything and everything). It’s a tough game and not in a bad way. Tactical strategy games are supposed to get the brain pumping and this is no exception. It does exactly that, though often not for the right reasons.
The view on this sucker is third person. Unless you have a fancy pants new thumb nub 3DS, you’ll be using the stylus to control the camera. The technique was introduced back in Kid Icarus and I actually don’t mind it despite the hand-cramps that occasionally slip into the process. Nope, with this design, you’ll have to move the camera around and carefully position characters for attacks against your alien enemies. Unfortunately those enemies jump around in idle animation and you’ll have to time your attack with pinpoint accuracy to compensate for both the enemy’s animation and your own, while also worrying about proper camera placement. This can lead to tediously frustrating misses that are no fault of your own, but of the game design. Now, obviously this thing was designed to challenge experienced players and I get that. But given all the plotting required to conserve steam to fire off your weapons, misses based on glitches and character animation will cause you to yell at your poor little 3DS quite often and the system doesn’t deserve that abuse.
Unfortunately, that’s not the only animation-related flaw in Imagination Systems’ design. Nope, it’s not the worst one either. The most irritating aspect of Code Name S.T.E.A.M. is the fact that you have to wait endlessly for each and every enemy attack. It can take 30-40 seconds to get past the status bar and animation for each alien’s to attack and sometimes you’ll even have to wait just to find out that they’ll be standing still and not attacking. There is absolutely no way to fast-forward or skip through these sections of the turn based battles. Admittedly, this is a good looking game, so I can see why the designers wanted to ensure that players got to see all their fine work. However, even in a more leisurely genre like tactical strategy, pacing is important. If you find yourself becoming frustrated that you’ve stumbled into a battle because it’s going to be a boring waiting game, something went very wrong. It certainly doesn’t help that there aren’t really that many different enemies in this thing, so you’ll be seeing the same animations grind this sucker to a halt endlessly and that’s enough to make you want to shut off the game in disgust rather frequently.
So, I’m rather torn about my experience with Code Name S.T.E.A.M. On one hand, I loved the world and the visual design. It’s a beautiful little 3DS game, one of the best produced for the system by third party developers. When I wasn’t deeply frustrated by the gameplay flaws, I even enjoyed the experience. Unfortunately, I found myself irritated far too often. Admittedly, the tactical strategy genre isn’t my favorite. So perhaps others will be more forgiving of this flawed design. However, based on my limited experience with other games in this genre, I know that it doesn’t have to be this tedious. When Code Name S.T.E.A.M. works, it’s a blast. When it doesn’t, it’s a drag. Your enjoyment level will depend on how much you can ignore the latter. For me, I could ignore it enough not to hate the overall experience, but I also can’t pretend that I love it by any stretch of the imagination.