Review: SteamWorld Quest: Hand of Gilgamech (Nintendo Switch)

Reviewed by Garrett Walters, posted May 6, 2019, last updated May 6, 2019
Digital card games are really starting to get good.
May 6, 2019
  • Release Date (NA): April 25, 2019
  • Release Date (EU): April 25, 2019
  • Publisher: Image & Form Games
  • Developer: Image & Form Games
  • Genres: Card-based RPG
  • ESRB Rating: Everyone 10 and up
  • PEGI Rating: Twelve years and older
  • Single player
    Local Multiplayer
    Online Multiplayer
    Co-operative
The latest in the SteamWorld franchise is a bright and uplifting story-based RPG. Does it have gameplay depth to match?
Garrett Walters

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Admittedly and shamefully, I had not played any of the other SteamWorld games previous to Quest. I'll certainly be seeking them out after the delightful time I've had with this one.

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Introduction

After selecting a difficulty, the story opens upon a father-son framing narrative and we're introduced to two of the game's protagonists: the eccentric, hero-idolizing Armilly, and the inquisitive, pragmatic Copernica. As is standard RPG fare, our heroes begin the game on some rather minor quest, tasked with retrieving a specific type of mushroom from the forest. Though somewhat generic, it's still considerably more creative than a cellar full of rats, and the character dialogue here is well-written and humorous. You initiate combat by striking an enemy before they spot you in the overworld, additionally granting you an advantage in the form of all enemies in the group starting with slightly less than max HP. Thankfully, enemies spotting you and running in to you first does not have the same automatic HP loss effect on your party, you only lose the advantage.

Our group comes across a couple troupes of 'coglins' before being introduced to a fork in the road. Heading south introduces us to the first of the game's statues of Gilgamech, which, besides having the effect of making Armilly starstruck, allows you manually update your save. The game also auto-saves, of course. North takes you to the first of the game's tougher enemies, though as long as you've paid attention to the tutorial panels to this point, he's far from impossible. Behind him lies the first treasure chest reward.

After venturing a little further into the woods and fighting off a much larger sentient mushroom in order to retrieve the objective of their quest, Armilly and Copernica return to their village to find it on fire and occupied by an army of strangers. It's here they meet up with another ally known to them, the frog-like Galleo, and so it's here that you'll first fill up your active party roster. That being the case, it's also a good place to stop and inspect the cards that each character has available to them, and which are included in the default decks.

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Blowing off Some Steam

Combat in SteamWorld Quest is simple initially, perhaps deceptively so. As you play strike and upgrade cards to attack enemies or buff/protect allies, you build up steam pressure (SP). Skill cards are powerful abilities that expend a certain amount of steam pressure based on their effects. You can play up to three cards per turn, and playing three cards from the same hero results in an additional effect (based on equipped weapon) being added on to the end of your party's actions. Additionally, you can re-draw up to two cards per turn, and certain character cards can create a combo effect even when mixing actions from different heroes. Elemental damage effects and various status conditions come as part of the package.  Oh, there's also the ever-handy "speed up" button (ZR) which can be held to make all animations considerably faster both in and out of battle.

Of course, the really interesting part of any card-based game is customizing your own deck(s) and strategies to create synergy among character interactions. New cards can be crafted, and already-owned cards can be upgraded at the merchant, who follows you from level to level. Each character has an active deck that must consist of exactly eight cards, and deciding what to trim can be somewhat daunting, especially as you continue to be rewarded with more options as the game progresses. Ultimately though, there are a lot of viable builds to choose from, and every character has enough flexibility to play a tank, DPS, or healer role. The game will also just as happily let you create imbalanced decks with too many strike, upgrade, or skill cards, so it's probably best not to stray too far from the default four strike/upgrade-four skill card split. 

Every character has a weapon and two accessory slots to fill. Weapons change the effect of characters' combo chain abilities as well as enhancing either their attack or magic stats, or both. Accessories grant either defensive or offensive bonuses, or sometimes add effects triggered when attacking or taking damage. Fairly standard, although nicely streamlined to guarantee you won't be spending the majority of your time in-game mulling over equipment changes.

Once the enigmatic masked character Orik was added to my party, I kept him, Galleo, and Coperinca as my active roster for most of my play-through. Orik I focused on lightning/physical damage with a couple heals mixed in. Galleo I made into a paladin-type character with some water damage/defbuffs mixed in, though he somewhat trends that way naturally. And Coperica I assigned to be the heavy DPS lightning/water mage with minimal utility mixed in (barrier field as combo ability), so you could see how these characters might work well together. Of course, with different deck builds, any of these characters would be able to synergize with Armilly or the tricky and troublesome Tarah & Thane equally as well. Armilly can be focused on fire damage and massive damage physical skills with minimal healing mixed in, Tarah & Thanye are insanely versatile with the potential for arcane/poison/physical damage output and self/team leech life abilities.

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Polishing the Cogs

SteamWorld Quest presents itself flawlessly in nearly every aspect. Being entirely hand-drawn, the game world is 2.5D and exploration at first feels somewhat limited as a result, but the developers do a clever job of using the aesthetic to hide treasure chests and switches behind other 2D objects throughout environments. The aesthetic is full of bright and vibrant hand-drawn scenes that almost seem to include the use of watercolors. The soundtrack is amazing, full of keyboard/electric guitar tunes that somebody poured their heart and soul into. Voiced dialogue is limited to gibberish, think Okami more than Banjo-Kazooie, but it never got on my nerves or made the experience unpleasant. The game is, of course, better in motion than it is in stills, the spell/attack animations are cool, and characters are wonderfully emotive. The story is an engaging one that includes themes of confronting self-doubt and one's own inner demons, as well as including some Lovecraftian elements. Enemies are fairly varied, and there are also some recurring enemy characters.

Of note, the screenshots I've posted here are 720p, so they are more reflective of what the game looks like in portable mode. I was playing in docked mode and the game did appear to be running at 1080p to my eye.

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Conclusion

As of this writing, I have completed the game's story but have yet to finish all of the arena combat events. On average I've claimed only about 75% of the treasure available in each chapter. My save shows a play time of just under 20 hours, and I loved every minute of it. Not to say the game doesn't have a couple flaws, all games do. There are some steep difficulty spikes on normal (Knight) difficulty in the latter half of the game. Only a couple puzzles are included throughout the game, and they consist solely of memorizing the order/orientation of a few symbols. I also would've liked to see a little more gameplay content outside of combat and time spent with the merchant, in the form of mini-games perhaps. Beyond these minor gripes, however, the bottom line is that the game is a lighthearted adventure with strategic depth aplenty and worthwhile storytelling. It's also got a great closing sequence, not quite on par with Portal's, perhaps, but still worth beating the game to see.

Verdict
Pros
+ Well-crafted combat mechanics
+ Killer soundtrack
+ Bright and colorful hand-drawn aesthetic
+ Great story with universal themes
Cons
- Some difficulty spikes
- The few puzzles included are too basic
9 Presentation
Aesthetically a joy to look at on the big screen or in portable mode. A fantastic soundtrack that evokes some pixel-era RPG greats. Solid humor and storytelling.
8 Gameplay
Combat has quite a bit of strategic depth to it, as does deckbuilding. Completionists will enjoy trying to find all the treasure hidden in every chapter. Quality of puzzles is lacking.
7 Lasting Appeal
A solid 25-30 hours of content here for completionists on normal (Knight) difficulty alone. There's certainly some appeal in attempting the highest difficulty (Legend) afterward too, as that would likely be on par with a rogue-lite experience, and dialogue scenes can be quickly skipped.
8.8
out of 10
Overall (not an average)
An excellent addition to the SteamWorld series of games, and a delightful experience from beginning to end. I can happily recommend this to both fans of RPGs and fans of the strategy inherent to collectible card games. The fine folks at Image & Form Games should be proud of what they've created in SteamWorld Quest, and I look forward to giving other games in the series a try.


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