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John Henry is a folk hero who inspires many emotions, poured out in ballads, stories and plays across decades. One hitherto-absent reaction to such works is a desire to gag the most recognisable victim of superman syndrome ever. It took  Code Name: STEAM a turn-based squad strategy game from  Fire Emblem  creator Intelligent Systems to achieve that.

It wouldn’t be easy, mind, this legendary hulk bulked up by the boiler on his back and the steam-powered armaments in his hands, plus two mechanical limbs. Yes, this patriotic comic-book reinvention is hardly faithful to the source, but it does look the part, and the same goes for his league of extraordinary teammates. The horrors begin when they open their mouths.

“Musta heard me clankin’ around,” he booms with mind-numbing regularity when he passes within sight of an alien. “I never was any good at hidin’,” he bellows, even when enemies stumble across him during their turn, as if a tell were needed when the follow-up is two shots to the face. “So much for stealth!” You don’t say?


But perhaps these too-frequent quips would sting less were they not reminders of how often Code Name: STEAM punctures its own combat systems, letting the air out of a template of no small promise. There is still much to like: your squad, which soon fills out to four, is picked from a growing selection box of quirky literary characters, each with a main gun, a selectable subweapon and an often delightful one-shot special ability. These are directly controlled during your turn
in real time, with moves between the grid squares superimposed on top of charming 3D maps consuming a unit of steam from your tank. Fine adjustments on a tile are effectively free, and you can also backpedal, reclaiming your steam. You aim manually, using either New 3DS’s second-stick nub, the touchscreen or the face buttons, seeking the weakspots on enemy forces to increase damage. The result is a tactical system that emphasises finesse and spatial positioning at least when it isn’t fighting against the lack of a tactical map, and the overwatch mechanic.

As in X-Com, both your team and ranged aliens can adopt a state where they’ll take a snap reaction shot at opponents that move into sight and range during their turn. All this requires is enough steam left in the tank to fire your equipped weapon, and a gun that supports it. But there’s a decided inequality between the two sides, emphasised particularly in the mid-game, where the difficulty spikes repeatedly. Weapon ranges are ambiguous, so it’s hard to judge exactly when aliens
pose a threat, and the chunky nature of movement and aiming means that you’ll almost always trigger reaction fire before you can loose your own shots (at least until you unlock two characters with very long-ranged guns deep into the campaign). Your foe suffers no such disadvantage, leading to painful moments where you view a squadmate on overwatch get bypassed or riddled from just out of range without answering fire.

Every mission, meanwhile, is designed to keep your squad moving, fresh enemies spawning in to discourage dawdling. Early in the campaign, scenarios are also introduced where you’ll face orbital bombardment if you don’t crack on. In short, this is a design where a spiked wall pushes you forward into the snare traps in your path. At least a patch that speeds up enemy turns means it will no longer drag while it does so.

Punishing systems are  part of this design document, of course, but Intelligent Systems doesn’t always know when to end the pain. Some enemies barely move, leaving multiple reaction shots in the tank. Since these are an unknown quantity and will be triggered by the tiniest fraction of movement, you can take several hits once you’re in danger. Even X-Com never punished you for turning on the spot to aim. Reaction shots also come with a chance to induce stun, robbing a teammate of the rest of their go and making them more vulnerable to damage. Failing in a Hail Mary sprint to the goal because the game spawned two enemies outside the exit this turn, which dish out a hail of reaction shots and stun your last man, is sure to raise your blood pressure.

You’ll also face tiny insects in the sky whose every shot stuns and are near-impossible to hit, bobbing teasingly out of your crosshairs even when directly overhead. The thing is, while all the aliens have harsh tricks, several are far more manageable, so the sensation flip flops between fighting stacked odds and ill-tuned systems.Where Code Name: STEAM partially redeems itself is in its hammy tone and variety of inventive guns and mission types. For a tale that draws heavily from HP Lovecraft, there’s something endearing about putting Abraham Lincoln in a wheezing, steam-wreathed mech suit to battle a gigantic blue monster in a minute-long boss fight, and sprinkling the script with hot-air puns. And Wil Wheaton’s Honest Abe is so tonally right as  to almost justify leaving the voice volume slider alone.

There is guilty pleasure to be had in wielding shuriken launchers and exploding metal penguins, too, or using Henry’s Bear Grenade to set up sympathetic explosions with the delayed-fuse jack-o’-lantern bombs that The Wizard Of Oz’s scarecrow can lay down. King Queg’s (AKA Queequeg) harpoon special is an animated treat; Tiger Lily’s healing mortar enlivens a traditionally boring role. The mission objectives are no less varied, with saving civilians, hunting queens and defending airships all complementing the get-to-the-goal basics.

None, however, can grant enough clemency for the thorny, regular gameplay failings. Clanking is fine on an aesthetic level, but Code Name: STEAM’s rattling parts would have had a lot more appeal if they had stayed confined to these heroes’ backs.

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