In Image & Form we trust, but can they pull off yet another genre shift and nail the RPG formula?
At a Glance – 9.5/10
There are minor problems with pacing of battles and resources in the main campaign, but while they do stop me from giving it our highest score, they only do so by the slightest of a hair. SteamWorld Quest is a smart, funny, card based JRPG that is as charming as it is pretty to look at. Regardless of whether you like card mechanics in general–or maybe even if you don’t typically like turn based RPG games–I suspect you’ll find something to love in Image & Form’s latest.
I’m going to start with a strong statement and say that SteamWorld Quest is my favorite game I’ve played so far this year. That isn’t really entirely surprising to me as Image & Form is the same developer that put out one of the best Metroidvania games I’ve ever played in SteamWorld Dig 2 and released a spectacular tactics game with SteamWorld Heist. Let’s face it, I love these assorted robot folk, and so I knew I would like their newest iteration in this shared mythos.
I didn’t expect to fall totally and utterly in love with it.
Let’s start with love at first sight, and by that I mean the stellar art that went into the game. Each character, backdrop, and effect is lovingly crafted and look hand drawn, much like the previous games in the series. SteamWorld Quest manages to stand out in this regard though thanks to its fantasy setting which allows fields of lush green, and gorgeous magical explosions. The character designs themselves are true works of art and Orik is my favorite among them—you’ll know why when you meet him.
The combat of SteamWorld Quest is deceptively simple, but can be incredibly deep depending on how much you want to fiddle with the deck builder. When I first heard that the game was going to have a card battling mechanic I was instantly worried, but I shouldn’t have been as Image & Form pull this off with exceptional skill. Essentially you’ll be locked in a turn based battle with your foes, and each of your characters have access to a rotating pool of 8 cards a piece that are then shuffled into a larger deck. There are cards that build your resource to spend on larger attacks and abilities using that resource that have a wide variety of impact to the overall battle. Playing three cards from a single character will allow you to pull off a combo allowing a final free move that often gives you a powerful boost in combat. If you pull a rotten hand, never fear, as every turn you can discard up to two cards and redraw two, insuring that you are almost never left with nothing at all to play. This only happened to me a handful of times, and it speaks to the balance of the system that I never saw a game over due to bad luck.
Of course some of that has to do with how you build your deck–which I’m typically horrible at–but restricting it to only a total of 24 cards to deal with really helped me to narrow down my focus. It helps that each card is clear in its effect, and you can see what combos you might be able to come up with easily while building. If you throw too many high level attacks in your deck then you might not be able to actually use them unless you balance that out with several resource building cards. Each and every character can be played within the game in whatever combination you choose, because the developers made sure that each has a balanced approach with numerous ways to be played. One of my characters was a damage dealer that specialized in swapping out masks to buff his overall abilities, but at some point I turned him into a critical hit storm damage character that worked in conjunction with my other characters to absolutely wreck enemies in every battle. It is this experimentation and building the ultimate deck that makes each character feel like your own, while still maintaining their own style of combat and personality.
The characters themselves are slight archetypes, but in a way I found endearing. Narrative wise it isn’t anything too grandiose, and is told in classic Image & Form style with a lot of wonderfully hammy jokes and plenty of tongue in cheek moments. Of course, there are story beats that tugged on my heart string where I saw some true growth within the characters in my sixteen hours with the game—so it isn’t all Dad jokes and silliness. There are moments where our heroes lose faith and hope, but overall this is a classic fantasy tale of good versus evil, and it is an extremely charming one that managed to keep a smile on my face throughout its telling.
There is no massive overworld, instead you’ll travel from chapter to chapter with the ability to replay each if you missed any treasures or just want to level up your characters more often. Saving at statues heals your characters, but also respawns enemies, allowing you to grind to your heart’s content in each area as well. One of my biggest pet peeves in many JRPG style games is the developer’s penchant for leaning on grinding to artificially inflate their game, but it isn’t necessary within SteamWorld Quest, and I’m very appreciative for that. If you fight every battle you come across, and use a solid strategy, you’ll never find that you have the need to force level your characters.
In general there are very few things that I can fault the game for, and those in and of themselves are the most minor of gripes. Even though the game does a great job of consistently rewarding you with new and powerful cards through the story, crafting cards can be expensive both in gold and crafting resources used to craft the cards. Just playing through the main campaign and searching for every chest, with no grinding, I was able to make every card I was interested in, however, if you want to craft them all you will most certainly have to grind. Battles can go slower than most modern JRPGs, though it also depends greatly on how you play each individual character. You can be slow and safe, or fast and aggressive, so typically the pace comes down to you, but some of the enemies can be huge sponges of damages. The enemies don’t always seem perfectly balanced in that regards.
Again though, these are minor problems in an otherwise stellar game. While these issues do stop me from giving it our highest score, they only do so by the slightest of a hair. SteamWorld Quest is a smart, funny, card based JRPG that is as charming as it is pretty to look at. Regardless of whether you like card mechanics in general, or maybe even if you don’t typically like turn based RPG games, I suspect you’ll find something to love in Image & Form’s latest.