Free aiming and ricochet shots bring wild life to this exquisite turn-based blaster.
Has everybody been playing Hearthstone? SteamWorld Heist tips its hat to Blizzard's CCG at the end of each mission, when you scan through the loot you've just robbed from whichever procedurally-generated space hulk you've been infiltrating, and open up the goody bags and treasure chests to see what's inside. There's a shudder as each package reveals its contents, and a flash of colourful light if you've found something really special. In reality it's just blasters and armour and assorted back-up items, but that light, that shudder, makes it all so thrilling. Very few games, I suspect, wouldn't benefit from a little pack-opening spirit.
Most of the time, however, SteamWorld Heist channels other influences. This is a turn-based tactics adventure, so there's plenty of XCOM in here, not least in the ceaselessly empowering system that trades a muddle of action points for the simple idea that each unit can do two things in a turn - move and move, move and shoot, move and lob a grenade. There's also a little Disgaea or Fire Emblem or what-have-you in the perks that can be found by nestling the right units next to each other at the right time to share a bonus. More than anything though, developer Image & Form is focusing in on its own sensibilities. As with SteamWorld Dig, Heist takes a recognisable idea and reduces it beautifully to its most pleasing elements. Then it twists those elements in an unusual way to make the whole thing seem fresh.
And on this occasion, that means turn-based battling seen from a 2D side-scrolling perspective. You lead a rattling party of space-robot-cowboy-pirates on a mission to plunder the galaxy for righteous causes, one mega-ship at a time. Inside, these things are a mass of gantries and ladders and tractor beams, all rendered with a wonderful eye for comic detail, and once you've achieved your goal - it could be killing everyone, looting everything, destroying generators, taking out a boss, or any number of other things - you have to beat it to the exit too. Movement ranges are conveyed very simply with different-coloured highlights, and, as with XCOM, cover is crucial if you want to win the day. The twist that the side-on perspective allows for, however, is that you can set RNG aside for the most part and aim your shots, making use of ricocheting bullets at the same time.
This comes across most clearly with the sharpshooter, who can use guns that are decked out with powerful laser sights. Each exchange of gunfire, essentially, allows you to set up a complex bank-shot, bouncing bullets off walls and ceilings to get around obstacles and hopefully plug somebody who deserves it right between the eyes. As with Code Name: STEAM, you have to take into account the shooter's breathing. The targeting laser bobs up and down, adding a welcome sense of twitch to proceedings while also opening things up for a happy accident or two. This is hardly a huge addition to an established formula, but it keeps things frisky, and combined with quick missions, plenty of loot and a campaign that opens out based on the number of reputation stars you collect from each sortie, it makes for a compact game that contains a surprising number of elements to master.
Even if you're not too bothered about sniping, the other units on offer each pack their own twists. I never go into battle without Seabrass in my squad, since he (?) comes with a payback skill that makes him more powerful after taking damage. Sally's not bad either: she gets an extra shot after killing someone. She works brilliantly with Seabrass, actually, as the one softens and the other finishes. The game is full of these elegant synergies.
Enemies scale from simple bots to freaky aliens who can teleport and hide behind shields powered by crystal generators that need to be tracked down and then taken out, and every major battle throws in a twist, such as one memorable foe who used rebound shots to truly dazzling effect. Elsewhere missions often use timers in a similar manner to the security meter in Invisible, Inc - as a way of calling in reinforcements without seeming arbitrary or unfair - and at the end of each heist, you're left with truly agonising decisions to make as you work out which loot to keep and which to get rid of, given your limited inventory space.
SteamWorld Heist is filled with wit and invention, in other words. Like any master burglar, it's plundered wisely, but it's got plenty of its own tricks to balance that out.