Image & Form are constantly pushing the boundaries of their SteamWorld series. What began as a humble tower defense game has crossed genres, from digging exploration games to turn-based tactical games. This trend continues with SteamWorld Quest: Hand of Gilgamech as the developers explore the card battling RPG genre, but does it retain the same charm as previous games?
Set way before the events of SteamWorld Dig, SteamWorld Quest: Hand of Gilgamech tells the tale of intrepid robot warriors on a quest to save their kingdom from some nefarious deeds. All of this is presented in a stunning hand-drawn fantasy world which blends both steampunk and fantasy in a way that just… works. It’s bizarre, really, but somehow Imagine & Form have managed to take two very different styles and have managed to put them together seamlessly.
Unlike previous SteamWorld entries (or just like other entries, depending on how you look at it) SteamWorld Quest is a little different to previous titles. Our good friend Rusty isn’t here (obviously) and instead, we’re introduced to a cast of entirely new characters. The game also attempts to tackle a completely new genre: the humble card-based RPG. In the game, players explore a vast fantasy world and engage in battles. In order to attack players use a series of punch cards they collect – each of which is tied to their own character.
Now, I’m a huge fan of the SteamWorld series, SteamWorld Dig was a blast, SteamWorld Heist was different but equally fun, and Dig 2 was even better than the first. It seemed like Image & Form could do no wrong and I’d hoped the same would be for SteamWorld Quest. Now, don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying it’s a bad game, but it’s definitely an acquired taste.
I’ll admit, at first I found the card battling to be quite boring. It’s interesting in the way that it works, but I found myself getting into the same old loop with nothing overly interesting happening. But the more I progressed, unlocked new cards, and found new characters, things got a little more interesting but not quite on the same level as previous SteamWorld titles.
So let’s talk about the card battling system. As mentioned, each character has their own “deck” of eight cards. These decks consist of three types of cards; the first two are a basic attack card or “Strike” and a passive “Upgrade” card, these cards are “free” as it were, in that it doesn’t require players to spend Steam Pressure (SP) in order to use them. In addition to attacks or temporary buffing, these Strike and Upgrade cards also actually give players SP which can be used with more advanced cards. This moves me nicely onto the second card; Skill cards, these cards offer an advanced attack or ability which usually require a certain number of cogs to use.
As I said, at first I got into a loop of using Strike/Upgrade cards in order to earn SP then using more advanced attacks to take down the enemy. However the more I progressed the longer this gameplay loop took to actually get anywhere and I’ll admit, it became really tedious on a number of occasions. It wasn’t until I had a proper deep dive into the card system itself that I found it was less about bashing through the same cards, but evolving as you went on, using and building each character’s deck to synergize with one another.
The more cards you collect and craft, the more you’ll stray away from basic physical attacks and begin to dish out status effects and elemental-based attacks. This is where the game starts to get interesting and takes the focus away from the gameplay itself and actually tailoring a deck for the attack ahead. This gets even more complex when you’re offered additional characters which can be switched out. It’s finding combinations of cards that work which provides the most joy out of SteamWorld Quest – something I enjoyed, but still wasn’t overly enthused by.
Fortunately SteamWorld Quest isn’t one of those games that leads you up shit creek without a paddle as there’s a fairly in-depth compendium of tutorials which allows you to run through the mechanics in the game, whether it’s learning more about card types, elemental effects, or how heroes can band together to unleash deadlier attacks. I found this compendium more than useful on a number of occasions, and without it, I think I’d have probably tossed out the game a few hours in.
In terms of the actual gameplay, for each level players will navigate from “room” to “room” finding chests that contain cards or cash, as well as enemies and other level-specific mechanics (like levers). There are also restore points which work a little like DarkSouls’ bonfires in that they’ll heal your party and save the game, but also regenerate all of the enemies you previously battled, which means going back on yourself can be a challenge. Oh, and Image & Form’s telltale humor is stitched within too which at times can really catch you off guard.
While I personally found the game to be a little outside of my tastes, I’ve got to had it to Image & Form once again. They’ve managed to go out of their comfort zone to create something that’s unique but also familiar to fans of their game series. SteamWorld Quest isn’t a bad game, but I feel that it’ll have a very specific audience and may not resonate well with fans of games like Dig. That being said, Quest is a pretty deep game if you want to get into it, and I think that’s where this game succeeds.
With hundreds of cards to collect for each of the game’s characters, players can spend hours developing deck builds which find the balance between earning enough SP to unleash powerful attacks, as well as finding combinations of characters and cards which work well with each other. While you can rush through the game using the same cards and barely scratch the surface of what the deck building can offer, taking time and paying attention to each card is where you’ll truly find the joy in this game, especially when your efforts pay off and you create a truly kick-ass deck. Though it does take a fair bit of trial and error.
As for the story, it tells a tale of unlikely heroes doing what the “actual heroes” could not. It’s full of tropes and I did, for the most part, skip past some of the dialogue in order to get into the gameplay. One thing I did notice though was the sheer number of different enemies you’ll encounter. This is anything from gigantic robot thugs, to arcane bots, to sentient mushrooms, and dragons. You can’t have a fantasy game without dragons, right?
There’s oodles of replayability too, as each completed chapter shows you how much you explored and how much treasure you found, allowing you to replay at any point to try and find that elusive chest. Though it’s not as simple as you might think as there’s trickery afoot.
Overall, SteamWorld Quest: Hand of Gilgamech is definitely a departure for Image & Form but what they’ve created is a pretty top-notch card battler – if that’s your thing. While I much prefer their more action-based titles like Dig and Heist, I can definitely see how you could get sucked into this rich fantasy world.