By Ian Boone. It’s DEMO TIME! Let’s look at Codename: S.T.E.A.M.

cns1Nintendo has a slew of handheld hype to unleash in February, with the upcoming releases of the New Nintendo 3DS XL handheld: Monster Hunter 4 Ultimate, and Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask 3D. But if you still have an empty slot in the old carrying case by March, there’s a fresh new first-party debut that may be worth your time in the form of Codename: S.T.E.A.M.

Personally, I had all but dismissed this title due to poor marketing and misconstrued coverage. Codename S.T.E.A.M. seemed like a bunch of slapdash nerd-bait pasted together on a bold, cel-shaded art style that was overly simplistic for what the 3DS could handle. But when I learned that Intelligent Systems (Advance Wars, Fire Emblem) was putting out this game, I had to give it a try. A newly arrived demo on the eShop has made that dream come true, so thanks, Marketers and Gaming Press. Now get out of my way and let me try this puppy out.

cns2So going into this hotness, I knew only that the premise is immeasurable in its goofiness: Abraham Lincoln fights an alien invasion (“inspired” by Lovecraft mythos) with a organization of characters “inspired” from the pages of public domain literary classics, all set within a steampunk London. The demo doesn’t really go much further into detail than that, so who knows if this hodgepodge of dramatic elements has any stronger connection other than being placeholder concepts that graduated into production. (There is some in-game surreality, such as Henry Fleming acting surprised to see President Lincoln alive.)

Even if its trappings remain skin deep, the gameplay of Codename S.T.E.A.M. is decidedly sound. Players control a squad of one to four characters in strategic combat against alien scum. Each character’s action drains their personal STEAM reserve. There’s no restrictions on who is moved or what they do, so advanced tactics can see scenarios like John Henry destroying enemy cover with a grenade while The Cowardly Lion snipes the true cowards as they scatter.

Levels are dotted with collectible items that can upgrade your diverse roster of S.T.E.A.M. agents with a better arsenal and stronger S.T.E.A.M. boilers. The demo does not explore these upgrades at all, but from the playable characters it provides, I can see there’ll be a lot of opportunity for specialist strategy. Certain weapons and sub-weapons can heal squadmates, while at least one will launch you in a mighty pounce towards an enemy. (Or to a better vantage point for sniping!)

cns3The demo does run out of, well, steam. Rather suddenly too, especially after providing a couple of meaty missions to play through. Since I don’t want to leave you hanging just as abruptly, here are a few more closing impressions:

It does get easier. I almost swore off the Codename S.T.E.A.M. demo for forcing me to start with only two agents when I faced overwhelming odds. More characters do ultimately join (and they join quickly), but for a tutorial level this game does not pull any punches.

Keep an ever-watchful eye on things. If things need to be handled more defensively, characters with STEAM readily available can take shots at alien troops that move into range during an enemy turn. This Overwatch mode is super useful, but not every weapon can be fired with this kind of response. If a character is providing cover, be sure at the end of your turn that they have something appropriate equipped for them. Enemies also use Overwatch too, so be on the lookout for aliens that are idly biding their moves, as they will spring to life with fury if they catch your movement.

cns4Vision is restricted for a strategy game, and that’s deliberate. Unlike other Intelligent Systems strategy titles where you have a birds-eye view of the map, Codename: S.T.E.A.M. restricts your camera to a third-person view behind your characters. At first this annoyed me, but it adds more challenge to finding hidden medals, gears, or exploitable strategic advantages in the field. This also lends a more strategic consideration for your troop movements, as every squaddie is a pair of eyes and ears for you.

A body in motion wants to stay in motion. So actions are dictated by how much STEAM your character has: the more you do during a turn, the more STEAM you use. (The game designers didn’t want to merely implement a means by which to cancel a move straight-up, citing inelegance.) So instead, a character can be moved around the map, but it can also be brought back to their starting point to regain STEAM. This can be easily exploited to allow a player to grab all the powerups within the reach of a character before actually committing to a move. (Picking up health or making an attack is a permanent use of STEAM, so it isn’t a perfect loophole.) This will still trivialize things in the long run.

cns5Please, God, let there be a point to all this. With so many different story elements getting thrown together, it would be exciting to think that the plot of this game maybe isn’t so random. Maybe there’s a scenario in which an alternate universe has an Abraham Lincoln who cheated death through steam technology and now traverses all reality to gather champions? Knowing Nintendo, we’ll probably be left to draw our own crazy fan fiction conclusions, but Intelligent Systems has been known for their more serious fare and lore.

Codename: S.T.E.A.M. has great sleeper potential, especially in the aftermath of so many high-profile releases. I urge 3DS strategy lovers to hop online and download the demo post-haste. If you like what you see, reserve this sucker and pick it up March 17th.