SteamWorld Quest: Hand of Gilgamech
SteamWorld Quest is a classic console RPG, but typical combat is replaced with a card-based deckbuilding system similar to tabletop games like Magic: the Gathering, Dominion and Star Realms.
-Classic JRPG gameplay
-Witty and humorous dialogue
15 hours on standard difficulty
April 25th, 2019
If you asked me what my gaming passions were in the mid-90s, I would have said Final Fantasy and Magic: the Gathering. Twenty-five years later, I would say The Legend of Heroes and Star Realms, but the principle remains the same: I love JRPGs and card games with cool effects and deck-building elements. So, you can imagine my excitement when I heard about SteamWorld Quest, a classic console RPG with card-based combat. Will it be like peanut butter and jelly, or more like chocolate and ranch dressing? Let’s find out!
Violence: The game largely consists of battles against monsters and humanoid (but robotic) enemies, and the violence is all cartoony. Damage is represented as numbers, not blood. The main characters get in fights with NPCs fairly frequently. It’s beyond tame for, teenagers and older, but maybe not appropriate for elementary school kids. (I expected a rating of E10+, not E, from the ESRB.)
Sexuality: There was a very vague comment about one character’s love for another being “platonic” or not. Both characters were female robots.
Language: There were a few cuss words, “d–n” and “h–l.” I cannot remember if “b-tch” was said, but I believe it was.
Spirituality: The story is primarily about what it means to be a hero, and somewhat about the misuse of science, but there aren’t any religious parallels to draw from.
SteamWorld Quest is a story of three (robotic) friends from a village who go on a journey to stop an ancient evil, and discover the true meaning of heroism. Does that sound generic (other than the robots)? It should. The game’s plot development depends not on an innovative story, but entirely upon a humorous and witty tone throughout the narrative. It mostly succeeds here; I found myself laughing out loud at various points in the story (particularly the ending cutscenes), but also found that this approach made serious emotional investment in the characters more difficult. This is more like Mario & Luigi than a tear-jerking Final Fantasy game.
The lighthearted tone is no secret, as the game’s superb, colorful graphics also make it quite clear. The music was good, but nothing memorable—three or four days later, I can’t recall any of the melodies. The “voice acting” is a bunch of mumbled, blurred “robot voices,” but it serves the role fine and is better than nothing. While characters and environments are beautifully illustrated, they are also incredibly static, with the only exploration being searching for treasure chests in various dead ends.
In fact, the entire game is linear; you are never asked to make a choice about what path to take next. The only side quest includes some optional battles in a colosseum, and 100% completion in each chapter is simply finding all the chests. There is literally one NPC that you interact with that isn’t part of the main story, the same merchant that sells you stuff over and over. This doesn’t bother me at all; I generally bulldoze straight through the main quest of RPGs and skip the side quests anyway, but I recognize it may disappoint others. The game took me 15 hours to complete on standard difficulty; I can’t imagine it would take more than 25, or even 20 hours, to fully complete the game. It’s worth mentioning that nearly 3 of those hours (a disproportionate amount of time) were spent grinding through the slew of bosses in the last area; I felt that the final boss fight was too long and repetitive.
What I’ve described so far is a fairly basic JRPG shell, with nothing to make SteamWorld Quest stand out. What makes the game unique is the card-based combat system. Each character has an 8-card deck, so a party of 3 has a 24-card deck mixed together for each fight. You play up to 3 cards each round (or can use items in place of a card), then draw new cards up to six cards in hand. The deck shuffles through and brings cards back in if the fight goes long enough, and each turn, a player can discard a card and draw a new one (a “redraw”) up to two times.
It’s worth noting that the deck-building system is more like Magic or Hearthstone, not Dominion or Star Realms. Each character’s deck is customized outside of combat, in the same menus where you change equipment, just as you might set up spells or techs in another RPG. At the shop, players can buy new cards or upgrade current ones to stronger effects. This system sounds great, and it’s tightly designed, but it’s missing everything that makes deck-building unique and fun.
I’ve played my share of deck-building games; thousands of games of Dominion and Star Realms, and long before that, I traveled around nationally to play in Magic tournaments (mostly to waste money and to scrub out of the one National Championship I attended). The point is, I feel like I have a strong sense of what makes deck-building of any type fun, and it seems to be missing here. I don’t play card games because I enjoy getting a bad hand on card draws. Sure, I enjoy the risk and reward, but more so I play them because I enjoy manipulating those elements of chance.
SteamWorld Quest has this, but a paltry amount. A few of Copernica’s cards let you draw extra cards, or temporarily gain extra redraws. One other character has a single card that lets you shuffle in a few extra cards mid-combat. There is very little other than standard combat abilities. Think of all the different effects in other games: manipulating the top few cards of the deck, putting a card from the discard pile on top of your deck, trashing or scrapping cards from the deck mid-combat, and so on. You can’t even see the contents of your deck or of your discard pile mid-combat, let alone manipulate it.
Instead, it mostly just feels like you’re at the mercy of your card draws, other than your two redraws each turn. This is compounded when you consider that 1) there is a bonus for playing all cards from the same character in one turn and 2) if a character is disabled, paralyzed, or KO-ed, their cards are dead weight in your hand and deck. I definitely lost two boss fights I could have won with better draws, but I was unable to manipulate the deck much. At the bare minimum, if I could view the contents of the deck and discard pile, I could more intentionally decide when and how to use a redraw to force a reshuffle. Even after completing the whole game, I still don’t know if cards played in a turn just before a shuffle go into the new shuffle or remain outside (i.e. they are discarded before the new cards are drawn).
There are also a few annoying UI issues, like status effects trailing off the screen, and a weird sub-menu that requires pausing combat to see the length of status effects. But my main complaint is that they forgot to put in the fun parts of deck-building games. It is fun to work on different “builds” in the menu before combat, similar to fashioning your own unique “brew” in a game like Magic or Hearthstone. But most boss fights require pretty specific cards, if not entire builds, and you won’t know that until you jump into the boss fight with the cool deck that you custom-made and lose, forcing you to go back and tweak the deck into the “right” deck—which is exactly what drives people away from tournament-level Magic.
SteamWorld Quest is a tightly designed indie game, with an incredibly low price, great graphics, and amusing characters, but it puts all of its eggs in the deck-building basket, and still fails to deliver.
A review copy of SteamWorld Quest was generously provided by Thunderful Publishing.
+ Wonderful graphics
+ Low price
+ Amusing, punny dialogue
+ Tightly designed
- Light tone means little emotional investment
- Very shallow environments, -one- side quest
- Some UI issues
- Deckbuilding element is lacking