Review: Steamworld Quest: Hand of Gilgamech

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This game was selected as one of our two May 2019 Reader’s Choice Reviews. Learn more on our Patreon page.

I don’t know about you, but when I hear the term “RPG” I imagine some grandiose quest to decide the fate of an entire world. It’s not always the case; there are certainly RPGs that decide little more than the fate of a single character or how they’re going to feel when they wake up in the morning. But scope is important in games where you invest in the growth of your characters, and Steamworld Quest is certainly one of the more limited ones I’ve played. It’s still a fine story, propped up by snappy writing, beautiful art, and a brilliant battle system. Just don’t expect it to reach the same heights as the classics or even its contemporaries.

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Young Armilly was raised on a steady diet of heroic tales and rural living, leaving her with a relentless drive to become a great adventurer. Despite her skills as a fighter and her overflowing spirit, though, there’s just not much questing to do in their sleepy realm and the local guild is more interested in nepotism than heroism. All that changes when a mysterious army sweeps through their village, snatching up the guild members and leaving destruction in their wake. Joined by her magically-inclined companion Copernica, Armilly sets off on a journey to free her kin, track down her foes, and foil the dark machinations that put her upon her quest.

Let me get right to the issue of scope, since I’m sure that sounded like a perfectly good RPG hook. And it is, because it’ll take you from the quiet forests and trails of your hometown to the mystical towers of an arcane stronghold, and the sinister caverns of a cursed mountain chain. But that’s kinda it, honestly. Your journey is a pretty straight shot through forests and caves to magical towers to scarier caves, and while the stakes certainly rise it’s not all that apparent from your surroundings. Something like Final Fantasy or Dragon Quest starts you out chasing slimes around a thicket and ends with you fighting the cyber reincarnation of a fallen god on the roof of cathedral unstuck from time. In Steamworld Quest, you’re mostly following a bad guy up to the place where he’s going to do a bad thing. The story has reveals along the way, of course, but that doesn’t stop the journey from feeling like a small one.

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Part of this has to be the way the chapters are designed. Steamworld Quest is a tale told across 18 chapters, each a small assortment of brawler-style rooms to scoot through and occasionally find loot in. Most chapters will take 30 to 45 minutes to finish, and cover sections of the story like figuring out how to open a locked gate, or locating a relic to make a magical bridge appear. The maps are generally linear, with a few optional and hidden rooms to find chests of loot in. There’s never any break from this structure, whether you’re hunting mushrooms in the forest or chasing down a legendary threat. You won’t be visiting any towns, talking with any NPCs outside cutscenes, or doing much exploring past what you need to reach your destination.

I’ve spent all this time harping on the scope of the game because it’s really the one weak point amidst some very, very solid game design. Even if the journey feels small, the story told along the way is quite good and held up by some incredibly likable characters and snappy dialog. The graphics are a big help in this department too, as I’m sure I don’t need to tell you how lovingly detailed and wonderfully animated everything is. There’s a storybook presentation to everything, complete with yellowed pages for your menus and a grandfatherly narrator for the chapter transitions. Steamworld Quest feels very inviting and familiar to play, which is another big part of any RPG’s appeal.

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As for the combat, the developers have jumped on the current deck building bandwagon with their own sharp take on the formula. Each of your characters (you’ll gather more than just Armilly and Copernica, of course) builds a deck of useful turn-based combat actions found in treasure chests and crafted from a traveling merchant. These decks must be exactly 8 cards, and consist of roughly two card types. Cards with no cost add one SP to your team’s pool when played, and cards with costs drain that amount of SP when played. Naturally cards that cost SP have more dramatic effects, so the main challenge in deck building is balancing the two types against each other so you always have the SP you need in any situation. Battles are never mindless affairs, either, so be prepared to dig into the mechanics of this one.

The real fun is putting your decks into action. Your active party is up to three characters, and your deck for battle is all three of their decks mixed together. You draw up to six cards in your hand each turn and can play three, and they can do anything from normal attacks to elemental blasts to status effects to buffs to your team, and even manipulation of the rules like drawing extra cards or generating extra SP. Combos are also a huge part of combat, as you get a special fourth character-specific action if you play three cards from a single character at once. These actions can have a profound effect on battles, so building decks that will draw into good combo hands is key. Oh, and you can re-draw two cards per turn without penalty, which is a huge tactical feature that I’m sure I’m going to miss going back to other card battlers.

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Really with this one it comes down to what kind of RPG you’re in the market for. If you’re here for charming presentation or engaging battles, Steamworld Quest will more than fit the bill. I’ve had a great time crafting cards and testing decks for my characters, and the story’s been enough motivation on top of that to keep going. But if you’re looking more for big character moments or an epic journey, I don’t think this will do the trick. I tend to prefer those elements and their absence is notable, but the rest of the game is good enough that I don’t mind too much. Steamworld Quest is probably an ideal sort of indie RPG, one that does what it focuses on really, really well, just without covering quite all of its bases.

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