You’ve got to ask yourself one question: Do I feel lucky? Well, do you Steampunk?
SteamWorld Quest: Hand of Gilgamech is the latest entry in the loosely-connected SteamWorld series from developer Image & Form Games. Another genre shift in the vein of turn-based strategy game SteamWorld Heist, Quest is a card-based RPG with a solid story and excellent combat. While the experience is extremely linear in terms of exploration, there are numerous possibilities and strategies that arise from the tight and fine-tuned turn-based battles.
SteamWorld Quest follows aspiring knight Armilly and her pals Copernica and Galleo as they return to their village only to find it up in flames. The story sees the heroes pursue the menacing Void army responsible for all of the destruction, and it takes them to places like the college of alchemy where Copernica studied and the Cursed City, which houses a Colosseum with extra challenges. The writing is filled with wit and charm, and pop culture and video game references come up regularly. You eventually encounter two other party members that join your group of three, and you can switch them in and out in between battles.
Prior to combat, you create a deck of 24 Punch Cards that represent actions you can take when you get into a fight. Each character must be assigned eight cards from all of the cards in their inventory, and this makes up the moves they can use. For example, Copernica can have four copies of Book Bash, a physical attack, and four copies of Flame Wave, a magic attack that hits all enemies on the screen. Basic physical attacks and certain support cards generate Steam Pressure (SP), which is indicated with a bar at the top of the screen. You can spend SP to play stronger cards and use magical abilities. During each round of combat, you select three cards to play out of six that are dealt to you, and if all of the cards belong to one character, that character will perform a follow up Heroic Chain action based on their equipped weapon. Copernica’s Barrier Field Heroic Chain is particularly effective as it provides a damage-soaking shield to all party members.
There is a deep strategy to choosing specific cards that complement each other. For instance, you can use Galleo’s support cards like Fixer and Lunacy to buff your stats and accumulate SP before launching powerful elemental spells with Copernica on the following turn. After each round of combat, cards you have played are spent and your hand is refreshed to bring you back up to six cards, but if you don’t like the hand you’ve been dealt, you can swap out up to two cards for random ones from your deck. The use of cards and deck building expertly intertwine randomness with player agency in a way that collectable card games, both physical and digital, have done for years. It’s extremely satisfying to earn or craft new cards and figure out how they work with the ones you already have.
The game is divided into 19 chapters across four acts, and the normal campaign clocks in at about 10 hours. This might seem a little on the shorter side for a role-playing game, but the use of chapters and frequent boss battles give SteamWorld Quest a really good pace. Experience earned from combat allows you to level up often, increasing your health, strength, or magic stats. You can equip different weapons that boost your strength and/or magic and bestow a different Heroic Chain ability. Two equipment slots are available for accessories, and these can raise your stats as well, make you more adept with certain elemental types, or render you immune to negative effects like poison or sleep. The simplicity of the RPG elements adds a good amount of accessibility to the game, but even on the normal difficulty you are likely to encounter certain boss fights that require a new strategy and new cards. Fortunately, auto-saves are frequent, which means death never sets you back very far.
In between battles, you explore outdoor areas and dungeons where you can see your foes on screen. Similar to Paper Mario, SteamWorld Quest allows you to whack opponents with your weapon to initiate combat, and doing so does a little bit of damage to each of your foes. There are treasure chests to find, too, and most chapters show you the percentage of chests you found, giving a little incentive to replay areas to seek out what you missed. You can also smack bushes, barrels, and other objects in the world to find coins, and coins can be spent at the caravan of a travelling merchant who seems to follow you throughout the world. From the merchant you can buy items, weapons, and accessories, but you can also upgrade existing cards to make them more powerful and craft completely new cards using materials you gain from eliminating enemies. Finding the merchant in each chapter and outfitting your characters with new equipment and cards adds variety and contributes to the sense of progression in the game.
Quest employs a vivid and bright cartoon art style similar to other SteamWorld games. The music and sound effects are pretty standard fantasy RPG fare, but they certainly don’t detract from the game. What does stand out, however, is the character design. The combination of RPG archetypes—the knight, the sorceress, the healer—with the robotic, steampunk characters works really well, and while you do end up seeing many of the same types of enemies pretty often, the bosses and side characters you encounter are delightfully unique.
SteamWorld Quest is a well-paced and fun expansion into the RPG genre. Fans of previous SteamWorld games will appreciate the aesthetic and style of the game, and RPG enthusiasts will find a deep but accessible card-based combat system. Outside of the Colosseum challenges and the three difficulty modes (Squire, Knight, and Legend), I don’t see much of a reason to return after completing the game, but I found the length to be just right. My time with SteamWorld Quest was thoroughly satisfying, and in between playing lengthy Final Fantasy ports, I was glad to have a more compact experience close at hand. Rather than running out of steam, Hand of Gilgamech plays its cards rather perfectly.