Tuesday, April 5, 2022

SteamWorld Quest: Not Dealing From A Full Deck

Last month's free Amazon Prime games included a real gem, SteamWorld Quest: Hand of Gilgamesh. I started playing it almost immediately and just finished it today. It took me a little over twenty hours to complete, playing on the default difficulty level, "Soldier", described as "A suitable difficulty for most players".

The other two are "Squire" ("Battles are easier and you'll have an easier time overall.") and Legend" ("Battles are significantly harder. Recommended for players who like an extra challenge.") If that's not enough choice, when you beat the game for the first time you can choose "New Game +", which lets you begin all over again, only with all your progress and extra cards intact. New Game + also adds a fourth difficulty, "Legend Remix" ("Battles are even harder and most foes have brand new tricks up their sleeves. The ultimate challenge".)

I really enjoyed SWQ:HoG. I'd recommend it unreservedly to anyone who likes slow, steady, unhurried gameplay and simple, clear, uninflected narrative. The characters are endearing, the art is evocative, the music is tuneful and the aesthetic is well-realised. There's no real world-building to speak of, even though it's part of a well-established I.P., but there's a surprising amount that can be inferred if you pay attention. It's skilful work.

As a game, I found the default difficulty pitched almost perfectly for both my skill level and personal taste. I haven't really played many turn-based, tactical card games other than Wizard 101, if that even counts, so I have little direct experience to draw on but I do seem to have read an awful lot of blog posts abut them. My guess is that afficinados of the form would probably want to jump straight to the Legend difficulty because if I managed to complete the game in a single run without losing more than a couple of battles throughout, it would probably feel much too easy for more experienced players.

It's not just that I was able to beat the game, more the way I was able to do it. As far as I can tell, the whole point of games like this is that you work towards acquiring a very large range of options in terms of both cards and characters so as to allow you to build teams and decks appropriate for every situation. It's supposed to be as much a tactical challenge as anything.

Didn't really work that way for me.

My team, as they were after the final battle.

It did at the beginning. There was a time, close to the start of the game, where I had few options, some of the fights were quite challenging and I had to think my way to a win. One or two of my handful of lost battles happened around then, before I'd really gotten into the swing of things. Once I got the feel of the game, though, I pretty much played the same cards and the same characters all the time and then I didn't lose at all.

By about half way through, when I'd met all the characters I was going to meet and added to them to the roster, I spent a while playing around with different line-ups just out of curiosity. You can only have three on a team for a given battle and you end up with a choice of five but although various combinations seemed to work well together, fairly soon I came to the conclusion that the original three were the best.

I benched the two later additions and did the last several chapters, including most of the bigger set-piece fights, using the classic combo of Fighter/Healer/Mage. (The two I left out roughly align to the Bard and Rogue archetypes, although less closely than the original three cleave to theirs.)

Along the way I acquired a truly overwhelming number of cards. Eighty-six to be precise. Each character can only have eight cards in their deck and you can have multiple copies of the same card. For the bulk of the game, I ended up using not just the same three characters but the same twenty-one cards.

What's more, the great majority of those twenty-one cards were ones I acquired in the first half of the game and they were almost all low-value. Cards cost from zero to four cogs to use and my deck of choice consisted of eleven no-cog cards, six one-coggers, three twos and a three. Rather than add higher-value cards I just upgraded the low ones as far as they'd go, which seemed to give far more bang for the cog.

I did go through an experimental phase in the mid-game, where I tried using some heavy-hitting three and four cog cards but I hardly ever built up the cogs to use them. Those were the other couple of times I lost a battle. Later on, I found myself regularly amassing enough cogs to cast cards like that but by then I was used to the rhythm of the low-cost cards and didn't want to change.

A really nice touch is that once you finish the game you get access to a Gallery of sketches like this and a Jukebox with all the music.

I suspect the cadence of my combat would cause most players to crack and change the deck for something more dynamic. Some of the fights lasted a long, long time. Battles lasting twenty rounds were fairly common. Some of the boss fights took twice that. I was almost an hour beating one particularly stubborn group of baddies, all of whom seemed to prefer healing to fighting.

It suited me very well. I can't abide long boss battles in mmorpgs but that's because you can't just get up and walk away when you want, to make a coffee for example or answer the door. In mmorpgs, with their real-time, always-on, live action gameplay, any individual fight that takes more than about five minutes is a bona fide pain in the backside. 

In a turn-based card battler, long fights are perfectly acceptable. The only problem with this particular game is that you can only actively save your progress at specific points, namely certain statues you have to click. The game itself saves your progress a lot more often than that but never in the middle of a fight. 

On the other hand, you can Retreat if you want, so you have a get-out clause. I only did that once and then only because I was losing. It was very near the beginning and it felt so wrong I never tried it again, even when things looked dire. And just as well, too, because I was almost always able to pull things out of the fire when it mattered.

Counter-intuitively, recovering from a bad situation got a lot easier toward the end of the game, when the fights got harder. I have an annoying disinclination in all games to use most kinds of potions or devices during combat. I carry the things around but I always feel they're there for emegencies and nothing ever feels quite emergent enough.

If I was going to play through the game again, especially on one of those harder difficulty settings (Something I have absolutely no intention of doing.) the one major change to my tactics I'd make would be to spend a lot more money on those potions, carry a lot more of them and use them a lot more freely. They are hugely overpowered and not that expensive, either.

The final few boss fights went much more easily than I expected. I put it down to two things: Blindness and Potions. 

The Blindside card, which I picked up very early on, is crazily powerful. It costs nothing to cast, is never resisted and has the effect of giving every attack made by a Blinded enemy a fifty per cent chance of missing completely. I put two Blindside cards in my Healer's deck and that meant most fights ended up feeling as if the opposing team were one or two players down almost from the start.

As for the potions, there are 25%, 50% and 100% heals and resurrections that bring a character back at 50% health. There aren't any limits on how many you can have or use other than how much money you want to spend and they aren't that expensive. 

In the event, it turned out I'd been wise to be cautious about using them. When it came to the final two bosses I ended up needing just about every one I had. With hindsight, though, what I should have done was save all the money I wasted on upgrades for the characters I never really played and spent it on a whole lot more potions instead.

All of which suggests to me that people who really enjoy the subtleties and strategies of these kind of games would probably find SteamQuest a bit babyish. Not to mention the true fact that even now I've finished the game there are still whole rafts of information about it I probably ought to know but still don't. An embarassing amount of detail flew straight over my head. 

Even though I was quite comfortable with the gameplay, I never really understood some of the mechanics. Most of the mechanics, if I'm honest. The first few chapters are a kind of tutorial and they go over the basics well enough but I ended up not knowing much more than those basics for the whole of the game and there are lot of things the Tutorial never even mentions, let alone explains.

 It really didn't seem to make much difference.

I never worked out exactly how the cogs built up, for example, or why some cards have no cog value , others a value of zero and still others a value of "X". At no point, though, did I ever feel I needed to go look it up. Not knowing seemed to have no impact on my performance at all.

I was three-quarters of the way through the game before I realised it actually shows you how many cards your opponents can play. As for the Bestiary, where you can look up to see which creatures use what cards, what resisitances they have and other similarly helpful information, I didn't even realise it existed until the game was over.

There are plenty of other things I missed. I won't elaborate. I've embarassed myself enough. Suffice it to say, I was able to play through the entire game, very enjoyably, with the equivalent of one arm tied behind my back, both knees tied together and a patch over one eye.

I offer that as a recommendation but you can take it as a warning if you want.


  1. I'm a huge fan of the Steamworld games having played them on the various Nintendo handhelds. Not a big fan of the card games but I might try it out.

    1. It looks like an interesting "universe" although there's precious little explanation in the game I played. I'll have to see if I can get hold of the others.


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