SteamWorld Quest: Hand of Gilgamech

Disclosure time: Image & Form top dog Brjann Sigurgeirsson (a name that sounds like someone began to sneeze mid-pronunciation) is a friend of mine. But I’m not sure what that does for a developer besides giving me a direct line to let them know all the numerous ways they fuck up their games. Brjann and I have an understanding: he makes the games, I review the games. No matter my opinion, our friendship remains unchanged. And since I take my critic duties seriously, I don’t talk about their projects still in development with him. I think it’s sort of unethical for a critic to get too hyped for a game that they’re going to cover. It’s not fair to the game. So I didn’t know all that much about today’s game until very recently. I think maybe he might have told me they’d be following SteamWorld Dig 2 with an RPG, but if he did I forgot. When I saw SteamWorld Quest unveiled, I was like “oh, well that’ll be different.” But I didn’t find out about the card-based attack system until right before I started playing it. When I heard about that, my first visceral thought was “well, they were due to have a game suck anyway.”

Nostradamus I ain’t. SteamWorld Quest is the most fun I’ve had playing an indie RPG. You know Brjann, it’s hard to test the legitimacy of our friendship if you don’t make a game I can dislike.

My cynicism was based their chosen combat scheme. I hate card-based attack systems in games. I loved Kingdom Hearts, but hated Chain of Memories. As a teenager who had just gotten hugely into RPGs and was starving for games for it, I couldn’t even like Baten Kaitos. I think I was the only one who didn’t. Before it, I tried Lost Kingdoms on the GameCube, was bored sick, gave the “improved” sequel a try and thought they made it worse. I even tried Eye of Judgement (the gimmicky PlayStation AR game) because, hey look, real cards! It sucked. If any card-based game had potential to hook me, it was the Metal Gear Acid games, but it turns out I was hoodwinked and they’re actually a series of load screens interrupted by a brief card-based tactical RPG snippets. The series was actually fine. Clunky, but fine. But seriously, I think the second level of Ac!d is still stuck loading.

And yes, for those who follow me on Twitter, I play Magic: The Gathering and enjoyed the Steam version of it. Do you know what the difference is? It’s based on the actual physical card game. That does make a difference, ya know?

It doesn’t help that SteamWorld Quest gets off to a start so slow that the jump from prokaryotes to eukaryotes looks tame in comparison. Part of that has to do with the writing, which I’ll get to in a bit. But first, those card mechanics. The idea is you construct a deck of eight cards for each hero you have. When a battle begins, you’re randomly dealt a mixture of six cards from all the heroes. Each turn, you pick three of them to use. They might be attacks, or defensive maneuvers, or special moves that will come into play later in the fight. The real novelty is that each card either comes free or at a cost. If the card has no cost, it adds a counter to a charge meter that you spend on the priced, more powerful cards. It’s clever and works well, but SteamWorld Quest goes the extra mile by including cards that cooperate tag team-style with each-other. Or, if you use three of a single hero’s cards, you get a bonus 4th card separate from the ones included in your deck with a desirable special effect or attack. It’s a rich, satisfying combat system that never gets boring and can be adapted to anyone’s play style. Well, at least after an hour or so.

See the blue bars in my health meters above? That’s probably the most over-powered tactic in the game. See the chick in the witch’s hat in the center? That’s her special combo card when you use three of her cards when she’s equipped with certain weapons. It essentially renders damage to all your characters null and void for a few turns. In fact, she was, to me, the true star of the game. I stacked her with no-cost cards, including one that allowed me to draw extra cards my next turn, and absolutely annihilated battles. I had to voluntarily nerf her by switching to a different weapon (which changes the bonus combo card you get) just to create my own challenge on normal difficulty.

The truth is, I was bored at the start of Quest. The combat system’s eventual wealth of complexity is nowhere to be seen at the start of the game, and what you do start with gives no sign of the greatness to come. You don’t even get a taste of the potential until you open the third and especially the fourth character of the game, at which point you can dump main character Armilly and her boring ass moves. You’ll also have acquired more cards by this point and the ability to create even more. It turns what feels like a gimmicky system into the world’s most entertaining combat laboratory. I remember when playing Hollow Knight that fans kept assuring me that I’d be “opening up the game any minute now.” Well, that really does happen in SteamWorld Quest.

I don’t know if the slow start could have been fixed. Maybe if you started with three characters instead of two (and really, there’s no reason why Galleo coudln’t have been part of your party at the start of the game instead of about thirty or so minutes in). In truth, you can probably “open the game up” in an hour, give or take fifteen minutes. Once you do, you’ll find a combat system that is deceptively deep, allowing for multiple strategies and mad-scientist levels of experimenting. I had just as much fun tinkering with loadouts one card or one accessory at a time as I did opening up new levels. That’s no joke. I’d change a single card in a deck and get positively giddy at the thought of seeing how it worked with the other twenty-three cards. And it’s super easy to grind because you can use save stations to refill your health at a “cost” of respawning all the enemies (besides sub-bosses) in a stage. SteamWorld Quest is a rare game that I enjoyed that feels like it’s going to bore for the first hour or so, warms up, and takes about three hours truly hit its stride. Once it does, I honestly can’t remember the last time I had so much fun with a no-action-prompt, turn-based RPG’s combat system. It might be my favorite ever, indie or otherwise.

If there’s a problem with Quest’s combat, it’s the rewards for beating enemies just aren’t plentiful enough. Leveling up is not the issue. You’ll do it a couple times a chapter. There’s safeguards in place to prevent screw-grinding. The issue comes from enemies not dropping enough resources to craft or upgrade cards. Especially the upgrade part, which requires tons of materials to go all the way with. My strategy for upgrading was to start by focusing on the common, cost-free attacks that most of decks consisted of. But, once I had those beefed up, I realized that I had to go get more materials for the rest of the cards, but getting enough to make meaningful upgrades took forever. It requires you to replay previous chapters, now with a presumably overpowered party, hoping against hope the enemies will drop the stuff you need. Not until very late into the game do resources seem to start to become abundant. I don’t know if I was upgrading cards ahead of schedule or not. Probably not, since some of those upgrades require you to get rare materials that don’t appear until the late game. So you do have to grind, but in the mid-late game, it sort of becomes a chore. Though even flattening enemies doesn’t completely bore. Just remember to hold the right trigger down to fast forward though attack animations.

Balance isn’t too much of an issue (besides Cope’s team-shield thing she does). Really, that they had so many cards without screwing up the balance is remarkable, especially given the rock-scissors-paper nature of enemy types.

What they should have done was had the enemies upgrade alongside with you. Quest is broken up into four acts with a few chapters in each. You’re not exploring big, open worlds. You’re playing relatively tiny levels, most of which you should be able to comfortably knock out in under 20 minutes. The bite-sized stages works, but comes at a cost of having to replay entire chapters, with all the original dialog, cut scenes, and boss fights intact, in order to do the grinding and find the treasure chests that could contain new, valuable cards that you missed before. There’s a “skip” option during cut scenes, but our definitions of “skip” seem to differ greatly. When I press “skip” I expect the cut scene to end and the action to start. For Image & Form, “skip” means “end this sentence, begin the next.” It could take over a minute of slamming the B button to finally “skip” past all dialog you’ve presumably already heard once and thus want to, you know, skip, and start playing the game. I hate it when games do this. I call it “Going Pony” because in some chapters, you’ll be screaming “SHUT THE FUCK UP!” until you’re a little hoarse.

The two self-evident fixes (maybe having the option of beefing up enemies when you replay chapters and being able to skip the cut-scenes entirely when you replay chapters) would have taken any sting out of grinding. Because the combat never gets boring once you start to build up your heroes and their card collections. I joke all the time about “minimum indie badness” but here that was potentially the difference between the best RPG combat system I’ve ever played and just a very, very good one.

I can’t stress enough: the combat is awesome. Eventually. But this is an RPG, the one genre where a game needs equal parts compelling story to go along with interesting and novel gameplay. SteamWorld Quest follows Armilly, lowly daughter of a grocer and fangirl of legendary hero Gilgamech. She wishes to join the hero’s guild, can’t, but ends up having a wacky adventure where she eventually teams up with a ragtag group of misfits and outcasts, including the former sidekick of her idol. It’s a good story. Suitable for all ages. There was even a nice twist that I genuinely didn’t see coming. There’s just one problem: Armilly is written horribly.

One last game design nitpick: I wish the levels felt less like glorified sidewalks. There is some hidden stuff, but it’s done via just covering chests or switches with foreground objects. It makes the environment feel like a facade or a set, instead of a big, thriving world. Like a bunch of kids LARPing at Disneyland.

Let me preface this section by noting I’m not some kind of student of literature or creative writing. I’m an investor by trade who dabbles in game criticism as a hobby. But, I’m familiar with the concept of the hero’s journey. SteamWorld Quest seems to want to take Armilly on a fairly standard hero’s journey path and checks all the boxes for it. But the dialog takes the oomph out of her adventure because she’s just too much of a smart ass with no reason to be. She also has this gee-golly-shucks way about her, especially when she goes all slobbering fandom on retired Gilgamech sidekick Orik when they meet up. The smart assery and the starstruck fangirl delivery of her dialog aren’t compatible. Usually when characters are wise asses in fiction, it’s to make up for an inadequacy. When Buffy gets smart-alecky with Giles, it’s a defensive mechanism. If Bart Simpson mouths off, it’s for attention. When Archie Bunker says something bigoted, it’s because he’s insecure. Unless you’re doing a full-on comedy, sarcasm should always be grounded as a coping mechanism. Backtalk or sass without foundation is sort of dull because instead of flavoring a character’s idiosyncrasies, the sarcasm becomes what defines the entire character. And Armilly, who is the center of attention, among friends, and the leader of her group, has no reason to be non-stop sarcasm and quips. It’s the same flaw I found with the Peter Venkman character in Ghostbusters. Perhaps the only flaw in the entire movie. He’s unlikable. And I’m sorry to say it, but Armilly is unlikable.

Plus it doesn’t help that her sarcasm isn’t remotely funny. It’s just kind of awkward.

I wasn’t sure if this direction was done because the game is meant to be lighthearted and semi-satirical. But, while it’s true that there’s a bit of Paper Mario-esq tomfoolery about SteamWorld Quest, the plot is simple and engaging, and Armilly is the only character that really feels like she betrays the gravity of the situation with her dialog. The “wannabe heroes become heroes in an unexpected way” trope usually works because you see them grow into the roles. I don’t feel a sense of growth in Armilly and wish she was written a bit more sympathetic. Imagine if Luke Skywalker had been a slobbering Jedi fanboy who fawned all over Obi-Won with bad sitcom quips when it was revealed he was a former Jedi Knight. Who could get someone behind that? These traits need to be tempered with flaws and insecurities, or else they’re just someone who is the hero because they’re the main character. Thankfully, the other characters and even the villains have relatively sharp dialog and for me were the real stars of the game. Hey Image & Form: give us a spinoff or DLC with just the twins. Make it happen!

I complain because I love. And in the case of SteamWorld Quest, I truly love this game. But, the scary thing is that it could have been even better, and the ways it could have been better are so self-evident that a transcendent game is potentially in play for the sequel. I’d be curious how it might work in a more open, less linear format. And while I wish it had a stronger lead character, everything else is either good enough to satisfy or downright inspired. I keep going back to the balanced, joyful combat. It’s a game that relies on luck of the draw, and yet it never once felt like my battles were failing because of bad luck. It always felt like it was on me constructing bad decks. I don’t think I’ve ever had more fun tinkering in menus, outside the core gameplay than I had with Hand of Gilgamech. I’d scurry back and forth between looking at the cards I had for one character and then another and ask myself which ones complemented each other. I reverted back to being that ten year old whose parents went a little overboard getting her Magic cards in an attempt to get her to do social stuff, but the social stuff never happened because I was so busy constructing decks. For me, that’s the ultimate high a game can achieve: make me fee like a kid again. It gets off to a slow start, sure. You know who else got off to a slow start? Einstein. You’re in good company, SteamWorld Quest.

SteamWorld Quest was developed by Image & Form
Point of Sale: Nintendo Switch, Steam

$24.99 said seriously Image & Form: spinoff with Tarah & Thayne or I fart into an empty coffee can and mail it to you in the making of this review.

A review copy of SteamWorld Quest was supplied by Image & Form. Upon its release, a copy was purchased by me. All indie games reviewed at Indie Gamer Chick are paid for by me out of my own pocket. Even when friends pay for a copy for me when I tell them I have to buy my own copy because that’s how I roll. For more on this policy, check my FAQ.

SteamWorld Quest is Chick Approved and ranked on the Indie Gamer Chick Leaderboard.

About Indie Gamer Chick
Indie game reviews and editorials.

2 Responses to SteamWorld Quest: Hand of Gilgamech

  1. Matt says:

    Pretty awesome analysis of a pretty awesome game. It’s cool you are friends with Brjann Sigurgeirsson (I had to copy and paste that name), Image & Form always does excellent work with the SteamWorld saga.

    Like you, at first I was skeptical on whether I would like Quest, but I ended up loving it.

What do you think?

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: