Code Name: STEAM review: off the rails

Game Info
Box Art N/A
Platform 3DS
Publisher Nintendo
Developer Intelligent Systems
Release Date Mar 13, 2015

Code Name: STEAM has a truly bizarre premise: Abraham Lincoln fakes his own death so he can build a steampunk army of famous literary characters like John Henry and the Cowardly Lion to battle an alien invasion. It's baffling in the best possible way.

If only the incomprehensible choices had stopped at the narrative.

With wild difficulty spikes, intentionally annoying battles and the absolute worst pacing in any game I've ever played, there aren't a whole lot of decisions in Code Name: STEAM that make much sense at all.

There's no overhead view, no map, no nothing

If you've played XCOM: Enemy Unknown or Valkyria Chronicles, the tactical action of Code Name: STEAM shouldn't be too foreign. You lead a team of four literary heroes into a grid-based battle against an ever-approaching enemy. With each new turn, each hero is granted a certain amount of steam that they can expend moving, attacking or using other abilities. If a character withholds enough steam at their turn's end, they enter an "Overwatch" mode that lets them automatically attack enemies that hover into their field of view.

codename steam review screen 1

Despite a few variations, your goal typically is just to get at least one of your characters to a set "goal" square. You can take out enemies that stand in your way, but more aliens will just respawn in at random times and locations, so dawdling almost never makes sense. This messaging is complicated by collectibles you need to upgrade your squad throughout the level. You have to expend steam and turns to find these items, so how, exactly, it's best to proceed is often a crapshoot.

Getting one soldier to a designated spot should be a snap, but it's often complicated by one of the first truly odd facets of Code Name: STEAM. There's no overhead view, no map, no nothing, it's solely dependent on what you can see from each of your teammates' perspectives. Lose track of where the goal is and you could spend turn upon turn ambling around looking for it. At one point, infuriatingly, the goal was hidden behind an enemy.


The lack of an overhead view is intrinsically connected to Code Name: STEAM's biggest sin. After you take your turn, you're subjected to an enemy phase of movement. Sometimes that means watching an opponent clobber one of your teammates, but most of the time you don't know where every enemy is, so you spend a few mind-numbing seconds just staring into space as this mystery enemy moves. To be clear: That's a few mind-numbing seconds per enemy mind you. That quickly piled up to chunks of 60 to 90 seconds where I was unable to do anything. The best bit? This is unskippable, and unfast-forwardable.

This would be bad in any game, but on a portable platform where you may just have a few minutes on the bus to play? It's unfathomable.

codename steam tall screen

Not quite as bad as wasting player time is how Code Name: STEAM wastes its fantastic premise with incredibly generic dialogue and meandering narrative. It's never a good thing when games provide zero distinguishing personality features for its protagonists, but when that game features some of literature's greatest heroes? It's just embarrassing. Special clemency granted to actor and geek idol Wil Wheaton, who injects his portrayal of Abraham Lincoln with enough energy and verve to occasionally buoy the leaden script.

When Code Name: STEAM isn't boring, it's often just annoying. There are nearly impossible-to-kill flying enemies that can stun you from halfway across the map. Foes have their own overwatch, so you can often get shot, move just a hair, and get shot again. And again. Aliens have a weak point to shoot, but their animations bring it in and out of the targeting reticle, and firing isn't instantaneous, so hitting them is often guesswork.

codename steam review screen 2

Rarely, specifically when you're in a single close quarters fight or being lead through a linear map, Code Name: STEAM can be kind of pleasant, especially when you can use two teammates' abilities in concert to demolish a foe. I especially liked blasting enemies with Henry Fleming's (of Red Badge of Courage fame) rifle, only to use the Tin Man to fill him up for another round.

But before long, the game's pacing or annoying tendencies rear their head to spoil the fun. The dead weight even sinks bits of the game that should be strengths. With no map and no real details provided before a mission, you're left to guess what squad and weapon loadout would work best. The Tin Man's ability to share steam might be really useful, but is it worth giving up Tiger Lily's healing bomb? There's no way of knowing.

dead weight even sinks bits of the game that should be strengths

In other games, this might have created a pleasant opportunity for experimentation, but Code Name: STEAM is so watching-paint-dry-boring that the realization that I had the wrong loadout provided nothing but gnawing dread as the panic-inducing thought set in: "I have to start the level again. [shudder]"

You may not have that reaction, of course. You may, like a sane person, decide that you're done wasting your time. I didn't have that luxury, as I was reviewing the game. This was a scenario that was creating no small amount of consternation for me, as I had, as of 3 p.m. Friday (the 13th), spent four hours of my 26-hour play time with Code Name: STEAM attempting to beat what I was lead to believe was the next-to-last boss of the game. On the verge of death (or throwing my 3DS through a window), I was miraculously saved by review editor Arthur Gies who said I didn't have to finish it providing I'd just stop whining about it. I'm considering naming my next child after him.

Wrap Up:

Code Name: STEAM is misguided and horrifically dull

So, there's my deep dark secret, I didn't finish Code Name: STEAM. Sneer all you want, but the credit scroll would literally have to include a treasure map to a working jetpack before I'd consider finishing this brutally misguided, horrifically dull debacle.

Code Name: STEAM was reviewed using a pre-release download code provided by Nintendo. You can find additional information about Polygon's ethics policy here.

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