Review: SteamWorld Quest: Hand of Gilgamech

In one sense, it’s surprising how well Image & Form have remained consistent in their output for high quality releases. While some may attempt to deter by noting the persistence of a 2D plane and relative confinement in an aesthetic, it takes little away from how much the SteamWorld series has gone from strength to strength over the years, with 2017’s SteamWorld Dig 2 heralded by many as the studio’s best work — a sequel that not only built on its originator’s premise, but also proved to be a delightful spin on the now-established Metroidvania resurgence of the past few years. You might initially think that bringing the SteamWorld mold of robotic characters in a vibrant world to a completely new genre opens the door (not for the first time) for the studio to underestimate. Maybe even falter, due not just to the alternate set of expectations that genre entails, but of the fanbase already established. Of potentially losing those who grew to appreciate the series’ ventures in traditional RPG and explorative leanings alike.

Standing proud as a purely linear, card-orientated, turn-based RPG this time round, SteamWorld Quest: Hand of Gilgamech is clearly confident of the ideas it wants to put forth. Namely its combat, which serves as the beating heart with which all other elements revolve around. For a large chunk of the eighteen to twenty hour run-time, that confidence — even if consolidated on a single concept — is more than justified. Image & Form approaching the very implementation of cards during turn-based combat as if it were a part of their original repertoire to begin with. And despite never really deviating or adding to the basic premise that is drawing three of a randomly-selected grouping of six cards to compose one’s turn, SteamWorld Quest seldom wanes from its early proposition. Maintaining for the most part what was such brilliant first impression to begin with.

The basic gist is that for each of the characters that form your active party of three selected characters — starting off with what you could consider the “main” protagonists in aspired (if a little lost in the moment) knight Armilly and level-headed alchemist Copernica — comes a deck of eight cards with which players can swap in and out during one’s travels. Deducing what cards, divided into three categories, to take into battle and what quantities to allocate, without going over the permanent maximum allotting of eight total, is part of the conundrum. Part of Quest‘s flexibility, thus its enjoyment in more ways than one, is finding that required balance between attack and defense depending on the situation. Between cards that allow high value attacks, those that can support said attacks (be it for the character associated or for anyone else), healing types, elemental/magic attacks. Even potentially helpful status ailments one can inflict on the enemy combatant that can help turn the tide in one’s favor.

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SteamWorld Quest
may be relying on the familiar and the recognizable attributes so far as its elemental and ailment types for example — ones we’ve seen in many a JPRG or MMO alike — yet the joy is in how open the possibilities are in setting up your required deck(s) of cards. All the while keeping to that strict allowance of eight per character; what may seem like too strict a requirement, especially when the amount of cards/options for each character can span three pages. But it ultimately encourages the player furthermore to think carefully of who and what characteristics to prioritize going into the next encounter. What strengths to focus on, all the while being mindful of the potential gaps/shortcomings in such a tactic. Not one character or party member easily slots into a suited role and while some may seem better suited as the go-to attacker, mage, support, tank, healer or whatnot, the great thing is that such roles can alter and be altered at any given moment. Namely the enemy types that get a lot more tricky and skilled themselves a la their own arsenal of offensive and defensive moves alike. The latter half of the game especially pushing the need to consider the risk/consequence of status ailments. Combined with the illustrious and wonderfully-eclectic mix of character designs — for heroes, NPCs, enemies and bosses alike — and SteamWorld Quest on its visual approach, though familiar, is never far from throwing another interesting rendition before you.

But it’s the moment to moment gameplay whose appreciation only gains the further you delve into Quest’s tale — something with such an ease of accessibility yet incredible depth when potential bonuses come into play. Activated when, for example, three cards from the same character’s deck are played (adding a fourth move to one’s turn, based on the equipped weapon at the time) or when a card from one character’s deck is played immediately after a card from another specific character — resulting in anything from a buffed move, damage-absorbing barriers, even the ability to play an additional card the next turn. There’s even the possibility that, luck aside, you find yourself drawing a whopping six cards in a given scenario and it’s this depth, this opportune branching-out of strategies, that keeps every one of SteamWorld Quest’s battles that touch more thoughtful and entertaining to see unfold. Even if part of that entertainment is in hoping lady luck shines brightly on you that turn.

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Naturally, luck won’t always be on your side when it comes to filling up your drawn hand again mid-battle and while some of that vague RNG responsibility lies behind-the-scenes on the game’s part, it’s nothing that can’t be pitted at the player’s own feet. It’s here where SteamWorld Quest deserves credit in making sure to pit the ball right back in the player’s court in regards to how they plan for that next inevitable encounter. Making sure, for example, to equip cards that serve to rack up Steam Points/SP (the currency with which certain designated cards are enabled) in the event the hand you’re drawn doesn’t go your way. Though the game does offer you the chance to swap out an additional two random cards per turn in the event of a bad deal, at the same time it never feels like some crowbarred-in crutch or unnecessary easing of proceedings for the player. Quest, in general, rarely gives its player an easy ride — boss battles especially while can be written off as slow-and-steady chipping away at a larger health-bar, do at times present a one-off gimmick or deceptive trick that potentially can catch players off-guard. Not unlike the boss fight gimmicks seen in a game like Octopath Traveler

Such is the undying enjoyment in exploring Quest’s core mechanics here; it’s easy to dismiss the other areas of the games that while not a negative, don’t exactly meet the lofty heights deservedly set by its gameplay. The main narrative, not entirely original in its set-up, doesn’t quite deliver as an effective a punch in its many story beats, even during the closing parts when its grand revelations late on try, but for the most part falter on their originality. The writing too, never far or absent for long stretches from some pleasant back-and-forth between its focal party of protagonists, quickly settles stood in the shadows of Quest’s turn-based combat.

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During your travels, however, are opportunities to explore what is essentially a chapter-by-chapter set of linear levels to get from point A to point B. This takes the form of areas split off from the main path that, usually upon clearing out an alternate route of tougher foes, yield anything from additional gold to even extra cards one can add to their deck which, by default, is expanded upon as the story progresses. Think Super Paper Mario essentially in its level design and you’ll likely have a clearer idea on chapter/story structure here. The inclusion of statues, however, dotted throughout the game — often placed half-way and usually before a boss battle of sorts — while serve to save the game, and if desired, recover your party’s HP, do come at the cost of reviving all enemies slain during that chapter. While later chapters do capitalize a bit more on this caveat in relation to the structure of levels and the positioning of tempting loot, the consequence for healing rarely materializes into one that incurs tough decision-making. Statues serving as mandatory auto-save moments but little else.

It’s genuinely impressive how well SteamWorld Quest manages to maintain the intrigue of its combat and how the simplicity in its presentation and delivery is not detrimental to the genuine challenge put before the player. Even as the game proceeds to maintain the status quo, albeit one of high standard, in other areas such as artistic design, aesthetic and the general relaying of information, for a large portion of the adventure, one could so easily draw the conclusion that this is the game to dethrone Dig 2 as Image & Form’s best work. One that, while not revolutionizing or offering marvels at every corner, can be considered a faultless voyage through its near-twenty chapters. Sadly, SteamWorld Quest finds one too many unforgivable inclusions and fundamental choices alike springing to the forefront. Elements that unfortunately play so central a role in one’s travels, it ends up leaving a uncanny bitter taste at the end of what should be a splendid showing.

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For one, the over-priced inventory and items with which one can purchase on many an occasion throughout feel almost like a gloating towards its players. Offered up in a kind of: “look at all these items/accessories/materials you won’t be purchasing anytime soon” fashion; SteamWorld Quest‘s uncharacteristically blind-sided requirements, whether that’s crafting new cards, upgrading those already owned to higher levels or simply getting a character the next higher-level weapons, often results in scraping together just to afford one purchase above all else. Even going so far as to sell some potentially-precious materials just to afford a few extra healing items. Whether this is the fault of the low amount of currency dropped in chapters or the generally high demands of crafting materials, more often than not you’ll find the ability to upgrade and enhance your arsenal proving impossible and rarely met.

The tedium that is grinding earlier chapters just to feel sufficiently-equipped for the next tricky boss encounter, while not an inevitability, ultimately begins to creep in and is never too far away from becoming an action the player may, through gritted teeth, have to embark on. And yet at the same time, some of the awards to be reaped by way of additional damage output (should you find the means to accumulate the ridiculous amounts demanded) in cards or increased health/magic for items purchased, can waver drastically from meaningful to meaningless. Plenty of new equipment or accessories characters can equip, resulting in near-ineffective 5% additions. If a game like Anthem can be so easily criticized for its pointlessness in weapon relevancy and variance in damage output with loot drops, SteamWorld Quest — while not as detrimental — can suffer from that same mentality of simply tacking on higher numbers without it making it feel all that impactful or considered.

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But perhaps the most frustrating moment — and one that is bound to trip anyone up, regardless of the experience harbored during the previous fifteen-or-so chapters — is the unforeseen difficulty spike the game thrusts on players during its climax. The final set of boss battles, in a period that is all about throwing one climactic encounter after the next, are put bluntly the game’s solitary bad design and one, unfortunately, that can result in an impossible victory should you be equipped with a certain type of card (or lack thereof to put it another way). Without veering into plot spoilers here, one encounter — which serves as the opening salvo in that one-after-another foray of tough battles — finds you taking on a foe immune entirely to physical attacks…so should you take out its comrades beforehand, yet be left without magic-based cards well…it’s a hard reset for you and right back to the beginning to take on that battle all over again.

Such a horrid oversight on the developer’s part here is not only baffling, but the literal road-block these closing chapters come across as feel unapologetic in their presence — as if automatically assuming that players have been making sure to maximize not just some, but all their cards in preparation for the final showdown. Which, in one sense, seems at odds with the game’s general philosophy and encouraging of players mixing-and-matching to find their own personal synergy. And with the already-mentioned issues with pricing — as well as some minor nit-picks with the second half, namely its pacing of introducing multiple dilemmas mid-battle — you can’t say that the game seems justified in its assumption of player thinking. In the grand scheme of things, the closing segments could possibly be shooed away as unfortunate, but given how well Quest excels on its concept for a large chunk of its adventure previous, the difficulty spike seems not only perplexing, but disappointing.

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Closing Comments:

When taken as an overall package, there’s no getting away from expressing how brilliant and addictive the card-based approach to RPG combat is here. In a game that might not dart as wildly away from its established artistic and aesthetic roots, SteamWorld Quest: Hand of Gilgamech more than lives up to expectations — expectations that were already, justifiably, set on high thanks to one of the finest first impressions, that is its opening chapter, for some time. Gameplay that manages to be both approachable yet woven with a surprising level of depth and potential, the end product is a welcome yet fond mix of old and new, familiar staples and original ideas alike. Image & Form may fall short sadly on handing Quest the title of new champion to beat, thanks to some unforgivable pricing/crafting aspects and a late-game difficulty spike that, potentially, could grate a little too much. But if you’re quick to forgive, the ease at which the game invites yet another unique idea to the ever-expanding SteamWorld palette — and does so with such impeccable ease and approachable fashion — can not be understated. Held back by one too many erroneous factors unfortunate that may be, SteamWorld Quest: Hand of Gilgamech is still by far Image & Form’s most fascinating and mechanically-impressive entry in the series to date.