Steam Marines Review (PC)

Steam Marines is the latest futuristic roguelike in town, recently released from the rather bizarrely named development studio, Worthless Bums. It offers a tactical squad turn-based gaming experience with some rather novel but very exact gaming mechanics which help it to stand out from the crowd. It boasts huge levels of difficulty and promises to provide the kind of old-school frustration which rogue players love to hate. The gameplay clearly caters to the kind of player who likes to make carefully calculated moves and always checks twice to ensure no mistakes happen, and for that type of player this game could well be the next thing on their shopping list. However, whether or not Steam Marines is a great deal of fun for anyone else is quite another matter.

The action takes place on a steampunk styled spaceship which is under attack. Your marine squad has been abruptly woken out of cryostasis to deal with whatever-the-hell is going on out there; an array of strange enemy robots and aliens. Details are left unexplained as you enter the top-down isometric playing field to take care of the invaders and progress through the game as far as you can.

The classes have variable stats which are generated at the game's start

The roguelike formula is interestingly twisted by the spaceship setting. Walls can be torn apart by both your team and the enemy. This offers the possibility of simply smashing through the walls rather than opening the doors. It also means you can be ambushed from boarding enemies at any particular moment. Equally, you can blast backwards enemies with knock-back weapons sending them into space and causing instant death. The objective of each randomly generated level is to find the elevator and descend. Each set of levels is split into the main decks – engineering, bridge, etc. – of the ship, all of them having their own tile-set and enemy unit types. After completing a deck and facing some kind of mini-boss you may choose the next deck to continue with.

Your squad consists of four soldiers who can be any one of four different classes. Those consist of the leader, who has a shotgun; the scout, who has a long range gun and good visual range; the support, who has a machine gun; and the grenadier, who has an area of effect grenade launcher. XP is gained from exploring, descending, and killing enemies. The marines can be levelled up four times, each time you get to choose one of two special abilities; all of which are unique for that class. Additionally, special items, grenades and weapon upgrades can be found throughout the levels and made use of. There are even some mechanized unit upgrades available which transform your marines into massive mech units with heavy armour and powerful weaponry.

One of the game's large and dangerous mini-bosses

The game is designed to be completely unforgiving even on normal difficulty levels (and there are two more difficulty settings higher than that) and it shows. One stupid mistake can easily cost you dearly, and the game is auto-saved in only one save game slot so there’s no way of reversing a disaster. The good news is that your marines do have hit points and therefore can normally withstand a small amount of damage, however; a great deal of errors do result in the death of a squad member. Thankfully, every time you progress to the next level down there is a possible chance of encountering a new marine with a random class-type.

There are also a few rather unique game mechanics in the game which are worth a mention because they make the tactical experience somewhat novel. For example, area of effect damage cannot initially kill units. This means that the grenadier can initially decimate a room of enemies, but can only finish one of them off at a time with direct hits. In addition, the game features flanking bonus damage where attacks from the side or back get additional damage. This is taken to extremes when facing certain kind of units with directional armour meaning that they cannot be damaged from the front.

Marines can receive up to four promotions providing new special skills

The gameplay is compelling from a strategic and discovery perspective; in addition the game can move at a fairly fast-pace thanks to the ability to reduce the AI move-delay in the options menu. The combination of deadly enemies, ambushes through the walls, and a short standard weapon-range all adds up to an experience which could be rather charming for a certain type of tactical geek. It’s far from Fire Emblem, but for an indie effort it does a decent job of capturing that turn-by-turn tension which tactical games are known for.

Conversely, the storyline is rather weak and doesn’t offer the kind of compulsion that, say, the space rouge-like Faster Than Light offered. Aside from a few Christmas cracker jokes from the marines and scraps of semi-nonsensical text discovered on computer consoles – which are really just acting as XP boosts – there really isn’t much plot to speak of. On top of that the game doesn’t offer an awful lot of customization. New weapons are few and far between and the four classes aren’t all that diverse; at least not to the extent of other roguelikes.

Putting it all together, Steam Marines may be a tasty little challenge for some, but it’s not going to be everyone’s cup of tea. Perhaps it’ll be a nice addition to a rogue fan’s collection, and maybe a few indie diehards would like to pick it up to see what it’s all about. However, it doesn’t do a sufficient number of things in a new way or provide enough of a compelling experience to make it a hit for everyone; it’s nothing special, but it’s alright.

Top game moment: In general the sense of discovery that all decent rougelikes have, and in particular finding new powerful weaponry such as the mech suit.

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