Steam Marines (PC)

By Walter Hare

Published on Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Steam Marines is a turn based strategy game involving space marines on a spaceship. In fact, the general scarcity of steam around the ship and on the character models was my immediate concern when I began playing. I spent many an hour wondering how ‘steam’ as a concept was even remotely involved with the game either aesthetically or mechanically as I mowed down rows of clearly electric-powered robots and organ-powered space-zombies.

 At the beginning of the game you customize a group of four marines, choosing each character’s class and a special perk granting one of a handful of moderately useful abilities. The game then gives you some story, which is basically “space shit has hit the space fan on the spaceship,” and you are thrust into a randomly generated level with characters whose stats and equipment are also randomly generated within certain parameters.

 All actions are governed by a simple action point system wherein most movements and actions expend one point, with some special actions requiring more and reloading expending all remaining AP. Shoot the enemies, explore the level, find items and level up through a fairly rudimentary system of promotion.

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The movement system is spiced up ever so slightly by your ability to break down any wall in the game. While this often exposes the ship to the void of space it doesn’t seem to have any ill affects, so breaking walls becomes a good way to create more tactically advantageous positions for your soldiers and carries no innate consequences aside from the removal of potential cover. Enemies for the most part cannot do the same so this ends up being your primary advantage on the map.

 So with these core elements in tow, it seemed to me at first that Steam Marines would be a cute little TBS with some flat humor and awkward aesthetics. But in my first hour of play I was struck by a few major issues; first was that there is no saving the game. You may quit and continue but if you start a new game or die, that’s it. So, it lays some claim to that which defines the contemporary ‘rogue-like.’ Second, when it is the enemy’s turn, the camera changes to their location, even if is in the fog of war, and follows their movement. While not every enemy on the map will necessarily move, those within a fairly large radius around your units often will. This presents two problems. You always vaguely know where nearby enemies are, unless they spawn randomly in on the map as a handful will, and turns are going to take an extremely long time. While I’m not sure if the latter could not have been solved through better programming, the former could have at least been solved a la the classic XCOM solution of masking the screen during hidden enemy movement.

 Both of these problems confused me, but I ‘steam’ marined on nonetheless. But the more I played, the more awkward hitches that marred my enjoyment cropped up, whether they were technical and visual shortcomings or extremely confused design decisions. For instance, there are raised platforms in the game. Visually, they just look like tiles that were offset with a black bar at the bottom, and to this very moment I have consistent problems correctly moving left and right off of them, confusing which ‘x’ axis they lie on. I suppose they confer some advantage, but I never found them to be a terribly relevant component of the level.

Levels seem to be generated with poorly set parameters. About ten percent of the time I spawned directly on top of the elevator going down. Or I’d spawn in a room with no entries or exits. Since you can destroy walls it’s not game-breaking, but it makes the level generation feel lazy, allowing itself to be accommodated by other mechanics rather than be focused on creating interesting and at least semi-logical designs

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The accuracy system is similarly awkward. Instead of having a max range with accuracy intervals based on the weapon type, the max range is a “sweet spot” that will never miss. If your marine is any closer then their accuracy suffers, regardless of the weapon type. While this occasionally created some interesting tactical scenarios, particularly when setting my team up for overwatch duty, it more often just felt awkward and forced. It also had the effect of making the weapons feel indistinct from each other, since range on any given gun was a random value, so your sniper might end up with the same range as your shotgunner.

 Stats and equipment suffer from their own hitches. New armor and weapons are rare, and since everything seems to be randomized you’ll often find equipment with bizarrely useless or overpowered numbers. Stats gained through levels don’t make much sense to me either. For instance, health and speed are two of the three upgradeable stats. One point in health equates to two additional hitpoints. That is a substantial increase, as most marines start with between eight and twelve. One point of speed increases AP by .25, sight by .25 and evasion by 2%. Considering you start with between six and eight AP with any given marine, sight is decided tile by tile and hit percentages are all based around distance, speed represents such a useless and inane stat it continues to boggle my mind as to why its included. Further, increasing speed does not seem to increase your speed statistic in the overall stats panel. This could be a small bug or perhaps some separation between equipment stats and personal stats, but I find either of these explanations to be completely inadequate. I have similar problems with the entirety of the equipment and leveling system, which is riddled with poorly thought out interactions across the board.

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I could go on with the number of small glitches and UI problems I encountered, but I think the following will sum up nicely my general disappointment and confusion with the game. As I’ve mentioned, there are no saves, just continues and perma-death. The general trend for games with this design are for any given ‘run’ to last between thirty minutes to an hour, with exceptional runs lasting longer.

After a few hours of play, most of it waiting for the somewhat dumb but aggressive enemy AI, I finally encountered the first boss and defeated him. I was then greeted with a screen asking me which of the several remaining decks I would like to assault. In other words, Steam Marines expects you to roll out between 6-10 hours of play without wiping, against fairly numerous enemies that waste a huge amount of your time while moving, all the while using a confused and awkwardly designed stat and equipment system in randomized levels.

 There is no reason for this game to incorporate this rogue-like structure. There is no need for it to have the word ‘steam’ in the name either, both are superfluous and utterly foreign to the essentials of the design, as far as I’m concerned.

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So what’s the takeaway? Oddly enough, despite having just spent several pages railing against Steam Marines, I still find myself compelled to go back and play a little more. Emphasis being on ‘little.’ I find the actual experience of playing the game and being successful in it endearing. Endearing has thus become my word for “moderately okay/bad game that I kind of want to keep playing,” it seems. There’s some heart to this game, revealed by the little quips of dialogue that your marines will occasionally spout. It’s never funny and is often completely without context or reason, but it points to some care.
It’s a non-element then that attracts me to the game, something indescribable which sits in between the confused structure and gives me a modicum of enjoyment. Saying that, I would never recommend this game for purchase, for genre fans or otherwise. It’s fairly ugly, except for the character models which are truly well done, is awkward to the point of being unsatisfying and seems more focused on trendy concepts like ‘steam’ and ‘rogue-like-light-lite-like.’ But there’s a beating heart somewhere in here, and for those who can stomach its problems, a bit of joy can be found.

 

Steam Marines can be found at the developer’s website here, at Humble Bundle or at your local Steam retailer.

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