A masterpiece in game design, SteamWorld Quest: Hand of Gilgamech is the best card based battle rpg ever made.
The interesting thing about adventure card based turn battle video games is, there aren’t as many as you’d think. Those that are out there are so few and far between, and it’s fair to wonder why? The concept feels simple enough. Draw a card from a deck on each turn, see it play out, and wait for the opponent’s response. Deck building strategy games, like Hearthstone or Gwent, though similar in style, usually don’t include traditional turn based adventure RPG elements. So when reviewing a game like SteamWorld Quest, there isn’t a whole lot to pull on from past experience. And maybe that’s what makes it so special. From beginning to end, the game offers something that feels different, new, and well executed. At least from my experience, it’s not such an easy task for developers to find the perfect mix of difficulty, skill, luck, and to make each battle fun enough for the player to not get burned out on the system. SteamWorld Quest’s approach of deck building and combat is refreshing and never feels dull. Mix in an extremely like-able cast and an excellent rpg leveling system, and the game sky-rockets to the top of the list for releases in 2019 so far.
The most obvious comparisons for SteamWorld Quest would be Baten Kaitos and Paper Mario: Color Splash. When Paper Mario: Color Splash was shown for the Wii U, a lot of fans, including myself, saw some real potential of what might be. But really, it didn’t meet my personal expectations in part because of how easy it is, and it just didn’t feel that interesting using the cards in battle. I have never played the Baten Kaitos games, but from watching a few gameplay videos, I can say that SteamWorld Quest is probably in the same realm in terms of battle, though it distinguishes itself. Now, let’s get into some of the specifics of the game!
I am not a huge SteamWorld nerd, but from what I understand, the opening cutscene will show off some sort of timeline placement for the game in the universe. So maybe those with a better understanding of the story in the games can fill me in on that!
SteamWorld Quest follows a group of protagonists set off on an unexpected adventure. Armilly, the knight character and aspiring guild member, begins her story in search of a rare mushroom with her best friend, Copernica. Copernica, the alchemist, would like to use the mushroom for it’s medicinal purposes. Armilly’s intention is to impress the Guild Heroes so she can join their rank. After finding the mushroom, they return home to find their village set ablaze, with an unknown force called The Void intent on capturing all of the Guild Heroes in the town. It is soon learned they are the hand of The Dark Lord. And so, an unexpected story of heroism and peril ensues.
Armilly is a really cute, and maybe a bit naive, character who chooses to narrate her own adventures from time to time. This is a really small detail that the developers, Image & Form, added to the dialogue, but immediately, Armilly’s narrations add comedic relief while also portraying her as someone who seeks her own sense of heroism. This is a really important progression for her character throughout the game, and it’s a clever way to introduce it to the player.
“After friendly banter, our heroes decided to cast aside their weariness to instead follow this new lead.”Armilly, SteamWorld Quest
Armilly also will quote from a book, the Heroes Handbook, which she carries with her, this too is important to the story. Gilgamech, the hero that banished evil, is Armilly’s biggest inspirtation, and she will reference that as each chapter plays out.
Accompanying Milly on her journey is her best friend, Copernica, and later their friend Galleo.
Copernica is the alchemist of the group. She’s level headed and not so gung-ho on what’s transpiring. She will often attempt to talk Armilly out of her recklessness and offer a different solution. The dialogue exchanges between these two, and really all the characters, are smart and witty. Copernica went to the local alchemist academy and had some problems while she was there. Her arc is focused on her time there, where things maybe didn’t work out as she had hoped.
Galleo lives in his mom’s basement, reluctant to leave home, happy to be the hermit and work on his inventions. His arc revolves around this, and what starts as a running joke becomes more personal as the story progresses. He acts mostly as a healer in battle, more on that later though.
Two other playable characters, though three in total, will join them on their journey through the world, each with contributions to the team and to the story.
Orik is the old companion and partner of the fabled hero Gilgamech. He brings a sense of zen to the group, always offering focused advice or an inspiring word. He has an array of different masks that influence how he battles.
Last we have the twin siblings, Tarah and Thayne. These two add a cool element to battle, as they each have different types of attacks, one with physical damage and one with arcane magic. Their story is a bit sad, having been raised in an orphanage, which has influenced them to become the thieves.
As you might expect, things aren’t as they seem, and events quickly unravel amidst the twists and turns of their adventure, as the heroes try to stop The Dark Lord from bringing the evil back that Gilgamech banished long ago.
The character’s stories unfold in text bubbles with a mumbling noise accompanying the text from the character that’s speaking. The sounds the character make during the dialogue will be familiar to many gamers from the N64 era, I’m sure. These sounds are also generated in battle, which some of them are just fun to hear. Galleo has this happy grunt sound he makes with each buff or healing action, and I can’t imagine playing the game without that noise.
The game is presented with beautifully hand-drawn artwork. Each character design is unique and creative, and the landscapes and maps of the world are beautiful. Though not super detailed or complex, they are clean and fitting for the game. Enemy design is excellent, though maybe not as varied as I would personally like for a game like this, as enemy assets are re-used with different skins fairly often. This is an extremely common practice, especially for rpgs, so it isn’t too much to gripe about. Still, I’d appreciate a handful more unique enemies to fight in the 20-25 hour+ adventure.
If I may gripe for a moment, it would be because each area, where you traverse a labyrinth type level to progress the story, feels a little…samey. Maybe not aesthetically, but just in terms of how the levels play out. Basically, you just travel through a very similar dungeon or map while fighting enemies and looking for loot until a boss fight at the end. Perhaps I’m selling the design a bit short though, because there are some puzzles to solve and moving through the maps never gets old, persay, it’s just that it becomes a bit predictable. This is the direction the developers chose, and while it’s not inherently bad, it can get repetitive. Rinse, Wash, Repeat. Searching for chests that contain items, gold, and new cards never really gets old though, nor does fighting enemies, but there isn’t much variety or surprises in the overworld… Except for a duck mini boss which was, actually yeah, that did surprise me.
Now, let’s get into the absolute best part about SteamWorld Quest.
The battle system is FREAKING AWESOME!! Remember how I spoke of how the card battle system for Paper Mario: Color Splash didn’t really feel that good, and it wasn’t fulfilling to battle? Scrap all that with SteamWorld Quest. The battle system is engaging, difficult, strategic, and so smartly instituted by Image & Form. It is flawless in my opinion, one of the most perfectly crafted systems ever created. Let’s get into the details.
The basics of battle come down to a 24 card deck, 8 cards for each character. You can only have three fighters in your battle party at a time, and finding the right mix of characters and cards is a big part of finding success in the game. Each character has a mix of cards they can choose from, but again, only 8 can be selected at a time to take into battle. It’s important to consider what type of card you are adding to your character, because sometimes you will want a certain type to help your team.
Once in battle, you’ll be given a choice of 7 random cards to begin each fight and 17 will be in your pull pile. You can choose to swap out two cards each turn, but you will not be able to use those cards until the next card shuffle, which happens when all 17 in your pull pile have been put into the playable cards. Moving on.
There are four types of cards, and now, my students, I will teach you about Steam Pressure.
First, we have your standard attack/buff/debuff card. These cards don’t use Steam Pressure, no no no. They actually add Steam Pressure(or SP, from here on) to your team. You’ll notice a horizontal line of gear shapes at the top of the screen that will fill as you use these standard cards.
Next are the skill cards, or ones that use SP. These range from 1 SP to…I believe there is one card that uses 5 SP at a time, but most max out at 4 SP. There is a number in the top right corner of the card that shows how much SP it will cost to use that card. Cards with more SP tend to be more powerful, but you won’t be able to use them without SP, which you have to build up with the common cards. Something for you to keep in mind.
We also have cards that don’t use any SP, but they also don’t add any SP to your gauge. These cards have a number 0 in the right hand corner, and while you might think loading up on them is a good strategy…well, ya know what, maybe it is!
Last are cards with an X on them, and these can be used at any time, but their power is based on the amount of SP you have built up. Use them when your Steam Guage is full, to devastating effect, or use them when empty to finish off a hero combo. Again, it’s all up to you how you want to play the game and what strategies to employ.
Experimenting with different deck builds for each character is really great, and what’s awesome about SteamWorld Quest is that you can change how each character plays based on their deck build. Want Copernica to be your attacker? Load her up with spells and damage cards. Or would you rather her be a standard alchemist, meant to help the team but deal little damage? Adjust your deck so she can utilize that skill-set. All 5 playable characters have around 25 cards to choose from by the end of the game, and with only 8 in each build, it’s really easy and fun to experiment with different play styles. This is one of the most interesting parts of the game, because I’m not even joking when I say each character can feel like 2 or 3 different types of fighters based on their deck build. It is absolutely brilliant game design, but it doesn’t even stop there.
Your team can pull off combos in battle. There are two different types, but the most common one is using three cards in a row on your turn from the same character. This is where strategy comes into play, because when you activate this character combo, the same character will automatically play a 4th card. The effect of this card varies widely from character to character, and it can also change based on what weapon you have equipped for that character. Oh, I haven’t even touched on that. Yeah, while you are at the merchant, you can buy new weapons, so don’t forget to do that when you get enough coins. Each weapon offers one of at least 3, perhaps 4 different combo cards for the character. For example, Armilly has a combo card called ‘Lacerate,’ which will do a small amount of damage to an enemy, but also inflict Bleed. Anytime that enemy does an action for the next few rounds they will take residual damage. This is just one example! There are lots of options for your play style, from healing for your team, defense up, a shield for the whole party, or element attacks. Will you mix and match who plays the cards, or choose to go for the character specific combo? It’s completely up to you how you want to approach a battle.
Can I catch my breath for a second? NO, because there is another type of combo, one that can be activated between two characters. If the strategy of the game wasn’t already enough, you can build decks around these combos. Several cards, usually 2 or 3 per character, have the option to activate this combo. A little picture of which character the card can interact with will be shown on the bottom of the card. One such card of Copernica’s, when used after a card played by Galleo, grants healing to the entire team. Galleo and Armilly have a card where Armilly adds to Galleo’s attack power for the card. The combo card must always be played after the activation card for the combo to take place, so keep that in mind. Not every character has a combo card with every other character, so picking your active party around these can also be a good way to build a deck and a team.
Ok. So, battles take place with these cards, and after your turn the enemy gets to act. They use cards in the same way, though they can’t use combos. They will use attack or defense cards, or maybe they’ll use a buff or debuff. Standard buffs include Physical Strength Up, Defense Up, Dodge Up, Element Attack Up, etc.. Standard debuffs include Poison, Defense Down, Magic Down, Blind, Bleed, Element Attack Down, etc.. You’ll find strategies with your deck build based on some of these types of cards, too. For example, Galleo has a Poison card which is really useful, so I almost always had it in his deck. These are things you’ll want to consider and try out as you get a hang of the deck building.
What feels almost like an afterthought, you can also play item cards to heal, revive, or cure your team of debuffs. These cards can be found in chests or from winning battles, or bought at the vendor. Sometimes you’ll need to stock up on these for some of the more difficult boss fights or if your team isn’t leveled high enough.
Your team will add more cards by finding chests and buying new cards from the vendor, or from important story moments. You can craft new cards from the merchant too, these you won’t find anywhere else in the world, so check in with the traveling vendor often. On top of this, some cards can be enhanced to make them even more powerful. You’ll need gold and items that you receive from winning battles in order to upgrade and craft new cards. And, one last thing. Cards will also have a standard, passive upgrade in damage and effectiveness as your characters level up. So if you like using a specific card it will always keep its usefulness. That’s not to say you won’t find better cards, but even the initial cards in your character decks will have a use, if you choose, late in the game.
Should we recap?
- Steam Pressure – Build your decks around cards that add/use SP
- Combos – Set your party and your deck around cards that can interact with one another
- Buff/Debuffs – Keep in mind what the enemy cards do and build your deck around those.
- More cards to try out as you progress, old cards still have use as you level up.
I found nice deck builds that I had success with, but in reality you will find a deck that probably looks nothing like mine and you will crush with it! I switched up my party and cards often, because frankly, it’s really fun. That’s what is so wonderful about this system, it can cater to so many different types of players. With a little experimenting, you’ll find a play style that suits you before you know it.
Before I move on from the battle system, I should probably mention that there are three difficulty levels that the player can choose from, and I would suggest the normal setting for a good challenge. The most difficult setting is for advanced players that want a very difficult experience, and the low setting is for someone not all that interested in a challenging experience. I found the middle setting to be perfect. Still difficult if you don’t have a proper deck and/or party build, but not so difficult to feel unfair.
Let’s take a break and peruse some screenshots.
More to Love
Up for a challenge? Later in the game you can unlock an arena style battle challenge where your team can earn gold, items, and new cards. The cool part about this mode is that there are different scenarios to overcome. One example is that your entire team is poisoned throughout all the battles(up to 10 straight without stopping,) and cannot be cured. This adds even more strategic elements and will make the player build decks around this debuff. Again, this mode, like all the battles in this game, is stellar.
The soundtrack for the game is excellent. It has this very heroic and adventurous feel, but also playful. It is often driven by a violin and piano, and it’s just really well done. The battle music and boss music is recycled throughout the game and each area has a unique track or two, and really, it’s a little difficult to put into words how well the soundtrack suits the game, but here is an example.
This is the merchant track, and I don’t know, it is just so fitting to the theme of the entire game, and that is an extremely focused theme throughout. Heroism, adventure, with a hint of playfulness. It’s wonderful. I think the soundtrack elevates the game to an even higher standard, and that is something that, on top of all the other great things about the game, was the final piece of the puzzle for me when considering what score to award SteamWorld Quest: Hand of Gilgamech.
If you haven’t noticed by now, I love SteamWorld Quest: Hand of Gilgamech. The characters are great, so well designed. The story is fairly engaging and has some very “real” moments as the characters unlock the mysteries of their situation and their battle against the Dark Lord and the Void army. I am intentionally being vague with the story though, as not to spoil anything. It ends in an epic battle that for me lasted 67 turns on normal difficulty! Even standard battles feel difficult in this game, and I love a game that makes you work a little bit for the glory. The soundtrack, though maybe a bit understated, is wonderful, and enstills the player with the theme of the game, Heroism. The repetition in the enemy design and overall style of the different areas and overworld are my only real gripes, and they are small.
The deck building card system in SteamWorld Quest is one of my favorite battle systems in all of gaming. It can’t be overstated, Image & Form have something so special in this system, so organic, it comes together in a way that works on all fronts. There are no flaws in the deck building, the team building, Steam Pressure, the leveling up, the weapons and items, the management and pacing of funds. The cards have tons of variety that allow the player to pick and choose a suitable play style. Battles are balanced and almost always offer a challenge, even common enemies can cause some problems. I can say this without hesitation, the card system in SteamWorld Quest is perfect. I don’t see any way it could get any better.
I think this game is so good, exceptional, really, that I would recommend it to anyone. It is the type of game that transcends preferences, in my opinion, one that should be experienced not just by rpg lovers, not just by indie fans. It is a game that shouldn’t be missed, a generational achievement that pushes and expands the card battle genre into new territory. It is excellence that is rarely seen, the best Battle Card RPG ever made, probably, and has “Instant Classic,” written all over it.