Digging Into SteamWorld – My Favourite Gaming Series

How Image & Form balance the new with the comforting

If you were to ask me which gaming series I’m most excited about another instalment for, the answer would be an easy one.  No, it wouldn’t be Metroid Prime, though I’m patiently waiting for updates.  No, it wouldn’t be Halo Infinite either, though that is going to be an automatic Day One purchase.  And, no, it wouldn’t be a Resident Evil 4 remake, even though that would be a must-buy if it was released.  I’m sorry Nintendo, Capcom and Microsoft, but you’re going to have to play second fiddle to Image & Form and their SteamWorld series.

Image & Form are a Swedish studio that has been releasing games of staggeringly consistent quality for the last decade.  SteamWorld is the prime example of their calibre and it is the video game that holds my attention above all others.

Consisting of five games released over the last 10 years, the SteamWorld series manages to make each game feel simultaneously unique and comfortingly familiar. When simply listed out, except for the name, they largely feel distinct. You have SteamWorld Tower Defence, the 2010 strategy tower-defence game. Then there is SteamWorld Dig 1, an action and puzzle platformer, and the only game in the series to have a direct sequel – SteamWorld Dig 2. SteamWorld Heist flips the setting into a craftily designed 2D turn-based shooter, and is the only game in the series set in space. Last year SteamWorld Quest gave us a deck-building RPG in a fantasy setting – dungeons and dragons meets steampunk with addictive gameplay. Despite these differences, each new entry somehow feels equal measures fresh and familiar.

Just as importantly, each new entry is damned good.

Five Games, Four Genres – But One Series

So, what do a tower defence game, two action-platformers, a turn-based shooter and a deck-building RPG have in common? For starters, they are inhabited by robots. Humans exist, but if they appear at all they play a very background role and largely an aggressive one. These games are carried by machines – charming, nervous, funny and very real machines. Few games make me laugh or care about my characters as much as SteamWorld titles do.

The throwaway humour, the individual journeys, the personality – all these are always front and centre. This detail isn’t reserved just for your heroes either. Cannon fodder, evil henchmen and arch-villains are all given the same treatment. A trooper who is in the game for less than a minute can very well be one of the most memorable characters, making each introduction a potential delight. If I had to pick one key ingredient of what really makes a SteamWorld game then it would be this sense of humour and the personality it embodies in all its characters.

These characters are also given fitting narratives. From Armilly and Copernica in SteamWorld Heist to the intrepid Dorothy in SteamWorld Dig 2, each character’s stories are both comic and epic. We’re talking ancient heroes, galactic regimes and destroyed worlds. These blockbuster narratives are beautifully juxtaposed by the down-to-earth characters that lead them, never taking themselves or the events around them too seriously.

Connected SteamWorlds

The games are all very loosely connected (some more than others) and inhabit the same universe. SteamWorld Quest, for example, explains it’s fantasy setting by being a fairytale told in the more sci-fi steampunk world of the other games. All of the games, except for Quest, have a very Western vibe. Even the space-set SteamWorld Heist has a Western heart. Crazy-showdown shootouts and stand-offs are at the centre of the game, the fact these happen in spaceships doesn’t take away any of that wild-west vibe.

Most importantly, each game manages to feel like a SteamWorld game. A lot of this is down to the distinctive art style. Despite being separated by genre, each game is still, in essence, a beautifully designed cartoon world inhabited by emotive robots. The way the robots look and even move is consistent game to game, as is their human attire. They are brought to life by what they wear, whether it’s Piper Faraday’s many hats of Armilly’s ill-fitting armour.  Each character looks and feels distinct, but in a reassuringly familiar way.

Each of the game worlds share this similarity. True, Dig 1 and 2 take place in a desert, Heist in space and Quest throughout a fantasy land. But each world is meticulously designed, with even the dankest dungeons containing hidden pops of colour. This consistent and charming art design is echoed from game to game and has begun to signify a marker of quality every time I see it.

Best in Brass

It’s a marker of quality these games have earned. The looks, charm and humour would mean little if there wasn’t some substance behind them. Thankfully, not only does SteamWorld switch genres with each entry, it manages to make each one a stand-out title. This is particularly true of the last three entries in the series. SteamWorld Heist offers highly addictive turn-based combat, its range of weapons opening up multiple play-styles. You’ll struggle to find a more satisfying Metroidvania than SteamWorld Dig 2. The balance between exploring and combat is near perfect, and the upgradable systems give a real sense of progression.

However, it is last years SteamWorld Quest that is my personal high-point of the series. The 20+ hour adventure is one of the few deck-building games that has really grabbed me. The turn-based combat is kept fresh by the intuitive deck designs, and the multiple characters again offer different tactics. The story is equal measures epic and hilarious (so, classic SteamWorld) and the characters are some of my favourite in the series.

I don’t want a direct sequel to any SteamWorld game, but if I had to I’d pick this one.

Towards a Steam-Filled Future

And that’s the point of SteamWorld, and why it’s my current favourite series. I don’t want a sequel, I want to see what those geniuses at Image & Form come up with next. I want to try a completely new genre, likely with a new set of rag-tag robots. Who they are, and what they’ll be doing, is a mystery. What I do know is two things. One, it will be unlike any of the previous adventures in the series. And two, it will be incredible.

This is why, when most eyes are firmly fixed on the next generation of consoles, I’m just waiting to see that next puff of Steam on the horizon.