SteamWorld Quest: Hand of Gilgamech is a turn-based, deck-building RPG that takes elements from both genres and smushes them together into a satisfying, attractive package. During combat, instead of choosing from your party’s pool of attacks, you draw from a deck containing all your party’s different offensive moves. This act of crafting your own move pools and randomly pulling attacks creates a more dynamic, customisable and varied experience. It’s really unlike any turn-based RPG I’ve personally experienced before.
Once upon a time…
The game’s colourful, hand-drawn art style evokes memories of picture books and illustrated fairytales. Outlines are bold and scratchy, with trees and bushes blurring into watercolour-esque backdrops. The warm and comfortable aesthetic ties in perfectly with the new fantasy setting – a departure from the Western and Pirate aesthetics of previous SteamWorld titles. The areas you explore are beautifully realised and the art style lends itself well to the spooky forests, creepy caves and other settings.
An animated, fully voice acted introductory cut-scene reeled me in immediately, preparing me for the adventure I was about to go on. Sadly, I felt a bit deflated when the rest of the game returned to the series’ trademark of robot gibberish adding flavour to text dialogue. Whilst this was a shame, it was by no means a deal-breaker, as distinct personalities were still delivered well through the dialogue.
As I’ve come to expect from the SteamWorld games, the character designs are unsurprisingly excellent. Each playable character is a well thought out nod to the RPG class they represent. Armilly the bold hero-to-be is clad in armour with oversized shoulder pads, whilst Copernica the smart, timid wizard wears a dress and a flower in her wizard’s cap. In fact, all of the characters you meet on your journey, from NPCs to bosses, are fun fusions of steam-powered robots and the game’s fantasy setting.
Enemies and bosses also follow the same classic fantasy theme, with the like of slimes and goblins featuring throughout the title. Unfortunately, at times, they do fall victim to repetition though. There was one particular boss design that, to my distaste, was recycled on three occasions with extremely minor variations.
There was a band of heroes…
SteamWorld Quest’s story is a linear adventure through the game’s chapters and acts. In each chapter, you can control whichever playable character you want, but they all function the same. Your aim is to move from area to area seeking enemies to battle, chests to open and the odd NPC character to talk to. The levels offer minor elements of exploration in hidden rooms and chests, but really you’ll be following a set path, defeating enemies and trying to find the end of each level.
At the start of your journey, the party is made up of two characters. Along the way, you meet more party members and end up with a variety to choose from. A party is made up of three characters, but you can choose which characters you battle with and the rest are still present during cutscenes.
There’s a delightful sense of humour running through the story, which stands out prominently. Whilst the plot and characters can be whimsical and light-hearted, there’s a lot of darker underlying themes: Inadequacy, regret, abandonment and irrelevance. This may not be a sprawling epic tale to become completely absorbed in and shocked by, there are a tonne of memorable moments and characters to enjoy in this roughly 20-hour tale.
I completely understand why Image & Form wanted to tell their story in a linear fashion, putting the card combat front and centre. However, I finished the game wishing there was a little more to it. There was no hometown to visit for gear and shopping, no side quests to undertake as I saw fit, and no alternate paths to choose from that would make the quest my own.
For me, a large part of RPGs is getting involved in the world and characters. SteamWorld Quest lacked comfortable, familiar settings full of NPCs to talk to, which could have fleshed out not only the game’s lore but also the party of heroes. The very linear narrative holds back what could have been a more winding, fleshed out plot and an intriguing world to explore. Thankfully, the combat that the game so clearly focuses on is exceptional enough to back it up.
They fought through cards…
The real meat of SteamWorld Quest is the combat. Like other turn-based RPGs, you can plan turns around your characters individual skills, attacks and spells – with an added RNG twist. Each party member has their own deck consisting of eight punch cards. These cards make up their skill set and decks can be composed of any cards you see fit.
SteamWorld Quest’s deck building feature offers an impressive amount of control over how you play the game. Other card-based titles usually encourage players to build decks that revolve around powerful combos, in order to oppress enemies with status effects and deal damage over time. While many RPG games might try to be less abstract and designate characters as damage dealers or support givers. The beauty of the system that Image & Form have created for SteamWorld Quest is that both of these approaches work, and provide a wonderful depth that’s certainly worth exploring.
At the beginning of each battle, all the active party’s decks are shuffled into a single deck, from which a hand of six cards are then drawn. Cards come in three different types: strike, upgrade and skill. Strike cards are your attacks, these deal physical or elemental damage to enemies. Upgrade cards buff characters temporarily with effects that can increase defences, raise damage, increase dodge chance, etc. Skill cards are the most powerful type of card in the game and as such require “Steam Power” to use. Steam power (SP) is a type of mana that you generate by playing strike and upgrade cards, which means pulling off huge damage attacks and spells requires some thought and planning.
Because the game lets you plan out each turn before you commit to it, there are some welcome elements of strategy. You might choose to lower the defence of an enemy with an upgrade card, protect a vulnerable party member with a mana shield and then use the gained SP to unleash a powerful skill card attack. Alternatively, you might decide there’s more damage to be done by saving your SP for next turn and taking advantage of the combo system.
Cards can combo together in a couple of ways. By using three of the same party member’s cards in one turn, a fourth ‘chain card’ is played at the end. Depending on the character’s equipped weapon, this fourth card can have different effects. There are also cards designed to be more powerful or to have a special bonus effect if played after any card of a specific party member. Thinking two turns ahead and setting up a perfect series of combos feels amazing when it all comes together. This feeling is magnified when you start coming up with your own strategies across multiple character decks, tearing through previously tough enemies like tissue paper.
As you progress through SteamWorld Quest, you’ll find and unlock additional cards for your deck. Important moments for each party member are immortalised through a new card being unlocked, which is a fantastic way of showing character progression. Cards can also be crafted by trading gold or enemy spoils with the game’s travelling merchant and more become available as the game progresses. Drafting your decks from your collection is a key element of strategy card games. Being able to craft from a huge pool of cards really emulates that feeling and goes to show that SteamWorld Quest is a card game at heart.
Each character can make use of their card collection through a variety of combinations and deck styles. Experimenting with how characters work together creates a cacophony of party dynamics. There’s a really deep level of customisation that lends itself to a multitude of different play styles. With so many ways to mix and match cards, decks, parties and strategies, it’s almost overwhelming how much fun there is to be had with the combat system. If you’re not normally a fan of turn-based RPGs, then it’s well worth giving SteamWorld Quest’s fresh approach a try.
I hope that if Image & Form continue the SteamWorld Quest series, that they implement multiple deck slots – providing an easier method for players to swap between party builds. Coming up against a tough boss, changing my strategy and then completely forgetting how my decks were built before could have been avoided!
And they felled mighty beasts…
A classic element of turn-based RPGs is their reliance on random encounters, which I personally find off-putting. Thankfully, SteamWorld Quest is more respectful of your time. Every encounter is deliberate and pointless fodder enemies, designed to slow you down without much reward, are nowhere to be seen.
Enemy variety is plentiful, with each one wielding their own card decks. You knew when you were coming up against an enemy, that they were going to poison you, or paralyse you, or heal themselves repeatedly. Learning how to deal with those enemies (and compose your decks to counter them) is a lot more fun than just grinding to overpower or brute force them.
Normal enemies won’t provide much of a challenge alone, but when you’re fighting three or four of them and each one gets a chance to play a card, they can prove hazardous. The boss monsters strewn across your adventure naturally provide the biggest challenge in the game. Not only do these monsters get to play more than one card on their turn, but they also have their own SP meters. Boss skill cards can completely change the strategy of a battle and some bosses forced me to try completely new combinations in order to win.
These bosses felt much more like playing an opponent at a card game, as they could do as much as I could during their turn. This level playing ground forced me to think about each action more carefully. Most bosses took me at least two attempts to beat, as I was woefully under-prepared when I started the encounter. Fortunately, this gave me time to think, flick through my card collection, and come up with a new strategy.
SteamWorld Quest also features a Battle Colosseum, which is unlocked at a certain point in the story. Pitting you against waves of enemies (with no time for healing or playing with decks), this gauntlet of challenges was a fun and difficult distraction. However, it’s offerings were not enough to keep me from pushing onward to the game’s climax.
When you finally beat the game and the credits roll, you are transported back to the start of the final chapter. There’s no new game plus, no post-game challenges, and the only thing to do (besides replaying old chapters) is to tackle the Colosseum. Although I’d beaten the game, I was nowhere near max level and still had a tonne of cards to craft / upgrade. My adventure was over, but there was still so much of the combat I hadn’t explored – mainly due to combat heavily outweighing the rest of the SteamWorld Quest’s content.
It would have been nice to jump into a new game plus with enemies and loot scaled to match, but there was no such option. Changing the difficulty meant I could re-try earlier chapters with more of a challenge, but because of how linear the game is set up, there was really nothing pulling me back in.