A year and a half after the release of the masterful Steamworld Dig 2, developer Image & Form is back with RPG card game Steamworld Quest. Though not as pitch-perfect as its predecessor, Steamworld Quest is an enjoyable romp through the Steamworld universe that continues Image & Form’s trend of exploring an under-explored genre, finding that genre’s procedural core, and elaborating upon it with singular style and imagination.
The player takes control of a robot named Armilly, whose defining traits are a penchant for self-narration and fascination with the Steamworld mythos. Her quest starts humbly enough with the simple task of finding a mushroom, but before long Armilly finds herself engaged in much more consequential predicaments alongside several allies. While its story beats and dialogue are passable, its writing is at its best when it harnesses its varied cast to delve into its contemporaneous themes of self-acceptance and problematic allegiance to outmoded collective narratives.
Though Quest is thematically interesting enough, it feels notably less nuanced than the many story-driven RPGs it begs comparison to, as its characters and central conflicts often come across as superficial and archetypal. Still, Quest’s story is serviceable and perhaps optimal given its relatively short runtime (using a helpful option that speeds up gameplay, I finished the game in around 14 hours and imagine it would take around 20 to 100%).
Visually, Quest retains the vivid, clear, expressive hand-drawn art style of past Steamworld games. And while certain environments and characters are especially detailed and gorgeous (such as the early game forest and the mushroom baddies who dwell there), some of the settings and models end up feeling slightly overused by the game’s end. While this may have to do with the uniform level design and repeated enemy models, no one area shines quite as brightly or uniquely as the most memorable locations in Steamworld Dig 2, instead of feeling like lightly stylized interpretations of conventional fantasy settings rather than wholly unique settings that flesh out a specific world. Still, the art itself is never not attractive, and some areas manage to feel regal and lush with detail and color.
Where Quest truly stands out from its predecessors is its card-based RPG gameplay, which has players build a deck, draw a card of six hands, and play up to three cards from that hand to essentially attack or defend. On top of this, there are bonuses for playing three cards of the same character or playing certain cards before or after others. It’s a fun and innovative system that streamlines games like Hearthstone or Slay the Spire while adding a layer of narrative significance.
However, it sometimes feels as though these mechanics are a bit too shallow as a card game and too repetitive as an RPG combat system. In fact, I managed to make it through the entire game with the decks I built in the game’s starting chapters, only changing things up from time to time for the purpose of writing this review. While I’d say this is a difficulty issue, the game’s normal mode feels like it puts up a decent enough fight; rather, the game’s many overlapping upgrade systems end up taking precedence over actual strategy.
Several fixes could be to encourage deeper and more diverse strategizing, such as increasing the importance of type weaknesses and defenses, adding Chrono–Trigger-like team attacks, and getting rid of items and equipment, which feel superfluously shoehorned in from RPGs and don’t fit the core gameplay. Instead, the game seems to almost encourage a one-note experience by not leveling up unused characters at the same rate as used characters, and by essentially allowing the player to power through any situation by using extremely powerful items and grinding (neither of which I actually did since the game is fairly easy). All of this means that even though the core gameplay of Steamworld Quest may be fairly customizable, there is rarely an incentive for experimenting with different decks, cards, characters, or strategies outside of one’s personal preference, which can make the game grow stale by the end of its campaign.
When the player isn’t engaged in card combat, they are exploring the world, which is laid out like a series of room-sized tiles. Even though these sections could be painted as transitional sequences between rounds of the core card-based gameplay, they don’t add much to the overarching experience because they rarely ask the player to engage in any interesting navigation or puzzle-solving. Meanwhile, the little gameplay here feels surprisingly unpolished, with questionable hitboxes, unimaginative secrets, and little in way of secondary tasks or minigames (and of course multiplayer) that could spice up or add longevity to the experience.
Compared to a game like Paper Mario: Color Splash, which similarly alternates between card-based combat and an overworld to explore, Quest’s overworld feels barren and repetitive. Part of this probably has to do with the fact that the world is laid out in a grid-based fashion — having more open space or cramped passageways could have diversified the exploration while also allowing the player to shape their own experience. Instead, most levels have the player move from “room” to nearly identical “room,” each containing perhaps one or two battles or items. Though the back half of the game slightly toys with this formula, greater diversity and difficulty earlier on could have added a lot to the experience.
It’s tough to compare Steamworld Quest to the inimitable Steamworld Dig 2 without sounding like Quest is a step backwards. And in many ways it is — its gameplay is less refined, its environments less meaningfully varied, its constituent experience less consistently novel and awe-inspiring. But in just as many ways, Steamworld Quest allows Image & Form to stretch their legs and keep dabbling in new genres to make their mark on an increasingly wide array of games. For the most part, Quest is an enjoyable game that can be hard to put down. But while Dig 2 was near-perfect, Quest is held back by many seemingly minor flaws that pile on top of each other to dampen the overall experience. Still, there is a strong base here, and seeing the incredible leap Image & Form made between Dig and Dig 2, I certainly look forward to a Quest 2 that I could unabashedly fawn over, rather than feeling like I have to temper my generally positive feelings with myriad minor concerns about the game’s design.