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SteamWorld Heist Review – Star Scrap

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SteamWorld Dig is easily one of my favorite games of the last few years. A charming Metroidvania, replete with a beautiful art style and a marvellous cast of characters that didn’t outstay its welcome.

It’s sequel SteamWorld Heist, which has finally made its way to PS4 and Vita, is a very different, yet still ultimately fantastic experience. Set in the same brilliantly-realized universe as Dig, Heist puts players in the rusty boots of a gang of opportunistic spacers led by the enigmatic Captain Piper. Fighting against a ramshackle group of crazed bandits known as the scrappers, the crew of the Serenity (sorry, the Bebop–actually you’re never told the name of their vessel but you get the idea), go on an adventure to make the sector safe for both honest steambots and the more morally ambiguous the only way they know how: by ransacking every scrapper ship they come across and gunning down anyone who gets in the way.

Much like Dig, the presentation is absolutely charming, complete with gibberish dialogue and memorable characters, including the aforementioned captain, her grumpy first mate Sea Brass, and upstart geriatric sniper and part time chimney sweep Valentine. As well as a wonderful soundtrack provided by the phenomenal Steam Powered Giraffe.

Though the plot is in many ways as compelling as its predecessor compared to Dig’s focus on a single planet and a small core group of well-developed characters, by taking the action galaxy-wide in Heist, I didn’t really care about anyone aside from Piper and her crew.  Despite being on a mission to make the system safe from the scrappers, I didn’t care about the wider cast at all. It’s just your merry band of misfits against the universe, and damn anyone that gets in the way. Then again, maybe that’s the point.

Gameplay-wise, Heist is a completely different kettle of steaming fish to Dig. The crafting-heavy Metroidvania has been replaced with what could best be described as a 2D Valkyria Chronicles. The bulk of the gameplay is turn-based, with each member of your away-team given a limited range of movement and the ability to perform one action per turn, including various class based skills or aim your gun and attacking. Like Valkyria, you aim manually. Successful critical hits (which are all but guaranteed if you can pull off a head shot) are just as much a matter of skill as they are luck. As befitting the space opera/spaghetti western setting, you can also deflect shots off of the roof and walls to hit difficult targets. Managing to send a bullet bouncing round the hull of a ship before finding its mark never fails to feel incredibly gratifying.  You can also opt to sprint further than your allotted movement if you don’t attack. If you miss your shot, you can knock off an enemies hat and reclaim it later on to customize your crew, and there are nearly a hundred to find, from dapper top hats to an old fish.

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The action is relatively fast paced and incredibly nuanced. Finding cover and being mindful of where your crew are positioned is vital. Making sure you can find cover and use the destructible items in the environment to your advantage is really the key to victory. Which weapons you equip will also dramatically effect the way you approach a situation, as each class of gun has different rates of fire, ranges, and ammo types; it’s best to mix up your gun types. Personally, I like giving Piper a decent revolver, and backing her up with Valentine and a solid sniper rifle. Sea Brass gets a nice hardy machine gun and Ivanski a grenade launcher for maximum damage.

The equipment system is well crafted, starting off fairly manageable, but steadily ramping up as the loot you find swiftly overwhelms your available inventory space. Though this can be expanded, there’s never quite enough room. This forces players to carefully consider which items they keep and which they sell off–which, thankfully, is as simple as pressing a button, keeping inventory management quick and easy.

Each crew member can equip two items, and the gear they have equipped significantly effects the way they handle during missions. Defensive items like boots increase your range of movement, armor increases your defense but reduces your movement, and healing packs (as well as offensive options such as grenades and side arms) give you plenty of options to adapt your team. You can fit them to your own preferred playstyle as well as successfully adapt your tactics for a particular level if needs be. The simplicity and surprising depth of the system makes it welcoming to newcomers while sophisticated enough that advanced players will find plenty to tinker with.

Maps are always interesting and well-constructed, thanks to Heist’s well-implemented procedural generation, and replaying the same mission for additional loot or clearing a missed objective never feels like a grind.  There’s always a new route to find, as each map provides multiple routes on top of the locations rearranging themselves with each new attempt.

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If you already have SteamWorld Heist on 3Ds, there’s not really much point in getting it again on the PS4 and Vita (unless you really like trophy hunting), save for being rendered at 1080p and running at 60fps on the PS4. There is no major changes or additions to the gameplay or feel of the game. In fact, I prefer having the extra info provided while playing the game with dual screens.

On the plus side, you do get both the PS4 and Vita game for one price as they feature cross buy, though, oddly, not cross save functionality. (I’m of the general opinion if you have one, you should really have the other.)

Regardless of what platform you choose to play it on, SteamWorld Heist is a great turn-based strategy game. Simple and speedy enough for people who normally shy away from the genre, yet it has enough depth and thoughtfulness to satisfy veterans. With a deep and nuanced combat system and a sliding difficulty scale to satisfy pretty much everyone, it’s another fine entry into the SteamWorld series, and I, for one, can’t wait to see what genre Image and Form and their wonderful Steambots tackle next.

SteamWorld Heist was reviewed on PS4 with a copy provided by the developer.

Developer: Image & Form | Publisher: Image& Form |  Genre: Turn based Strategy | Platform: PC,PS4 PS Vita, Xbox One, WiiU, 3DS | PEGI/ESRB: 7+/E10 | Release Date: November 16, 2015 (3DS), May 31, 2016 (PS4, PS Vita) TBA (Xbox One, WiiU)

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Review

Etherborn Review — A Brief, Beautiful Defiance of Gravity

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Etherborn

Indie developers in 2019 truly have the freedom to create the games they want. When Fig-funded game Etherborn reached its funding target, developer Altered Matter set out to craft a gravity-shifting puzzle platformer. Players sold on this concept have a lot to look forward to as Altered Matter has delivered on its promise. The mind-bending mechanics of Etherborn force players to approach the world from a new perspective amidst some stunning visual landscapes. 

In Etherborn, the player takes control of a voiceless, newly-born being who follows a bodiless voice in search of meaning. Such a philosophical premise promises an experience that will answer key questions regarding self-identity and the quest for meaning. The answer plays into the age old cliche that we are born to create our own destiny. The game’s narrative discussions around these topics are disappointing, though they do demonstrate that the narrative is less important than the themes behind them. 

Etherborn

One of the biggest frustrations with the story is that the language used complicated the simple message the developer was trying to tell. The soothing yet commanding tone of the omniscient voice would have been enough to carry along a more refined script that served the themes with clarity. Instead, Altered Matter opted to write something poetic by using lots of really big words that sound like they have lots of meaning, which instead detract from the actual meaning. 

Etherborn has a linear structure that takes place across five distinct levels. The levels are completed by solving gravity-defying puzzles to collect light orbs that open the pathway forward. Once all levels are completed, a new game+ mode is unlocked, creating replayability through the additional challenge of new, well-hidden light orb locations. Including this game mode offers players a chance to enjoy a more difficult experience without an additional learning curve. 

What sets Etherborn apart is the unique mechanic that underpins the gameplay. To traverse the landscape, players must jump and use ramps to change their perspective, turning walls into floors to move through the level. The opening level does an exceptional job of introducing the player to how this concept will be manipulated throughout the game. Controls in Etherborn are simple and intuitive, allowing for an experience that focuses the challenge purely within the design. Despite being able to run, the movement speed of the character seems sluggish for the most part, yet can be too fast for easy maneuverability in levels that require finesse to execute. 

Etherborn is deeply beautiful. The soft hues and subtle colour palette create a truly ethereal experience that carries through until the final level where the tone shifts into something somewhat dark, yet utterly breathtaking. Skeletal bodies, frozen in time, dwarf the character to create a visual masterpiece that captivates the viewer. Accompanying the divine art direction is killer sound design that makes the world feel complete. The ambient music creates an atmosphere that indulges in the landscape it calls home in a way that elevates the experience. 

The short length of Etherborn leaves players wanting more. In OnlySP’s preview of the game in 2018, the Alpha build contained the same five levels that are seen in the final game. Having spent so much time on these levels has meant the final product is highly polished yet disappointingly short. The gravity bending puzzles at play are so clever, well designed, and satisfying to complete that a lack of experimentation through more level designs to satiate the player’s hunger for more is disappointing.  

The challenging gameplay, gorgeous sound design, and stunning aesthetics all make Etherborn a worthwhile experience, even for those not fond of puzzle-platformers. Every level demonstrates a craftsmanship that encourages the curiosity to think and engage with the world. Completing puzzles is satisfying, even if the length of the game is not. Some minor issues may crop up along the way, but Etherborn is still a clever, fun game that challenges players and their perspective of the world. 

OnlySP Review Score 3 Credit

Reviewed on Nintendo Switch. Also available on PC, PlayStation 4, and Xbox One.

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