Is this really what we sound like? Star-spangled, teeth gritting and augmented with pulsing robot arms? A clankity jamboree opening with a Merry Marvel Marching Society theme? Is this the after-taste of that recent lunar eclipse when we took space marines and steampunk games really seriously? Is Japan making fun of the west for that? I kind of hope so. I do. It’s healthy. It’s like that wince when you hear a recording of your own voice. “Oof, I gotta stop saying uhm.” In Japan, the country where this XCOM-inspired alliance was made, Code Name S.T.E.A.M. is called Lincoln vs Aliens. It is Nintendo’s take on another time zone’s games—and it’s fun, if not embarrassing.
Rule Britannia is under assault from a strange race of icy aliens, and while they make quick mince of Victorian London, The Red Badge of Courage’s patriot Henry Fleming and folk legend John Henry (outfitted with cyborg parts after collapsing from his steel driving race) happened to be on the ground. Being recruited into Honest Abe Lincoln’s S.T.E.A.M. army, a League of Extraordinary Gentlemen yanked from Peter Pan, Tom Sawyer and Oz. A few grids at a time, you need to free the heart of the commonwealth while saying the word “steam.”
They say the word “steam” so much.
Do you like the word steam? I like Steam, I like a few steampunk games, but I don’t put cogs on hats and pipes on my clocks because I like to imagine I’ll have people over. Also why would I do that. So a word of warning: before I start telling you why Code Name S.T.E.A.M. is worth your time, remember every speaking character takes every opportunity to utter the s-word like Mister Freeze with ice in Schumacher’s Gotham. Tickity tockety pneumatic tubes were all over BioShock and Grim Fandango, but they spared us the migraines of reminding us of the fuel for their world, similar to how you and I don’t relate everything to voltage and oil. We’re better than that. Most of us.
If you can get past that, though, you’ll find Nintendo successfully balancing the often-brutalizing turn-based strategy genre with certain aids that make it accessible without being a cakewalk. Your movements—using your weapons and scurrying across grids—are leveled by, sigh, little tufts of steam, but they are only finalized after a party member fires a shot or interacts, kind of like letting go of your chess piece. This means you are free to maneuver around, scout easily and even pick up coins without sacrificing a turn.
There’s little ambiguity to the effectiveness of your attacks as well. Meters tell you how big a slice of damage your shot will take off enemies, so, outside of missing completely, the only place to go is up, as each enemy has a zit-like weakpoint. The difficulty is hidden in the … hiding. There’s no fog of war, but the environments, scattered with boxes, debris and, sigh, steam pipes, give your rivals a lot of places to ambush you. If you carelessly waltz past a doorframe, there’s a chance an alien has saved their, sigh, steam to pull a retaliation attack, a move you’re also capable of, and usually results in stunning on top of damage. So even with the softballs you gotta play smart, try to figure out ways to fish the enemies out before they can get the drop. You can do this with caution, but some levels have a knack for reinforcements; there was one courtyard rescue mission where the party got busy fast after I thought I was in the clear.
Code Name, sigh, S.T.E.A.M. is a fun nightmare, then. The denotations that this is somehow a riff on steampunk or a capitalization are hard to uncover earnesty in Japanese titles is usually detected by exaggeration, which isn’t as, sigh, fuming here as it was in the macho president classic Metal Wolf Chaos. So if you can be comfortable diving flag-first into a cartoon nerd empire built with ad hoc literary appropriation and Lovecraftian ice menaces, one that is completely sincere, you will be rewarded. For now I’m, sigh, all out of steam.