Intelligent Systems is one of Nintendo's more renowned internal development studios, and it's especially known for making one thing very well: great strategy games. The studio’s hits range from Fire Emblem to Advance Wars, so it's no real surprise that its latest release, Codename Steam, is one of the best strategy games available for the Nintendo 3DS.
What is surprising, though, is just how weird this game is. At its core, Steam is a relatively conservative tactical game. But it's also set in a world where Abraham Lincoln leads an elite squad of steampunk soldiers in a fight against a mysterious alien menace. That squad includes everyone from Tom Sawyer to the Lion from the Wizard of Oz, and at one point you get to pilot a giant mechanized robot called ABE (short for Anthropomorphized Battle Engine). All of that happens just a few chapters in — things get significantly stranger after that.
The actual game has you venturing into a series of dense urban environments, from London to Boston, trying to eliminate an aggressive alien force. It's a turn-based affair, which means that you and the computer-controlled aliens will take turns making moves. You'll control a team of four soldiers, and each has a steam gauge that depletes every time they move or perform an action like firing a weapon or healing an ally; once you're done making your moves, your opponent does the same. It’s all about doing the most with the limited options at hand. Some missions simply have you trying to reach an exit, while others range from fighting gigantic boss aliens to safely rescuing the Queen from Buckingham Palace.
One of the key differences between Codename Steam and most turn-based games is the perspective: instead of just moving tiny units around a map, you'll actually control them like in a third-person action game. It really brings you closer to the action; you can hide behind cover and actually aim your gun for a headshot. It's sort of like Gears of War meets Fire Emblem.
Codename Steam's missions are long and challenging — I've played a lot of Intelligent Systems games, and I found myself dying even in the earliest missions. But it also has a very forgiving checkpoint system that both makes restarting less painful, and lets you play in short bursts (a necessity for a portable game). And if you are forced to restart a map, there's a huge cast of characters to choose from, each with different weapons and abilities, giving you lots of room to experiment with your approach to a particular mission. All told, this is a long, deep game, and while it can be a bit slow at times — waiting for your opponent to move gets tiresome very fast — it's also incredibly well-tuned and feels perfectly at home on the 3DS. It even makes use of the New 3DS XL's second analog nub so that you can easily control the in-game camera.
Gears of War meets Fire Emblem
But that straight-laced game is hidden beneath an absolutely crazy world and premise. Codename Steam throws new characters and plot points at you constantly, and at no point does it worry about it making any sense. It doesn't take long before you just accept that Tom Sawyer is a young mechanical genius who wields a gun that fires a mechanized boxing glove. It works because the game doesn't take itself seriously at all, and instead seems to revel in its insanity. Aside from a few questionable racial stereotypes — particularly the Native American and African members of your squad — the world and characters give Codename Steam a unique charm that's only furthered by its Silver Age comic book-meets-steampunk art style.
Nintendo is no stranger to weird games — in fact, it makes some of the oddest mainstream games around. But Codename Steam is different. It's not weird for the sake of weird, but instead a deep strategy game that just so happens to bet set in a wacky world that barely makes any sense. And those two sides of the game play well together, as the lighthearted tone makes the hardcore tactics more approachable. I don't get as mad about dying when it happens at the hands (trunk?) of an alien that looks like an elephant.
Codename Steam is available on the Nintendo 3DS today.