Steel & Steam: Episode 1 - Review  

Hard Surfaces, Difficult to See
by Mike "JuMeSyn" Moehnke

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Less than 20 Hours
+ It pays to look around for goodies
+ Enemies are generous in defeat
- Narrative needs more material
- Enemies are often nasty
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   Steel & Steam: Episode 1 was recently the recipient of a successful Kickstarter fundraiser by its developer, Red Meat Games. The publicity bills this as a throwback to the 16-bit days of RPGs in as many respects as possible, and this description is somewhat accurate. Not everything about the good old days demands replication in the present though, and based on the piece of content Episode 1 supplies, this project can stand some serious improvements for the next episode.

   Steel & Steam chronicles the tale of Noah and Alyssa, two adventurers first shown fighting off a large bear's aggressive onslaught. Their quest to track down a professor of mutual acquaintance leads into a mission to save miners caught in an accident, a task that leads into some unexpected complications. At the end of them Noah gains a talkative elemental ally, which will come in very handy for dealing with a sudden incursion of soldiers with a knack for avidly demonstrating their indifference to the feelings of the local populace.

   Rather appropriately for a game seeking to channel the spirit of 16-bit RPGs, dialogue doesn't take up much time. In this respect the game feels more like something from the early 16-bit era, when story was dispensed with quickly and gameplay took up the vast majority of one's time. The narrative could have used more development, leaving the state of the world and the exact relationship between the two leads barely touched upon. Noah and Alyssa receive skimpy characterization, and are still better developed than their eventual companion Godfrey, who seems to continue along their journey for lack of anything more urgent occupying his horizons. Most early events rush along without bothering to supply sufficient history to achieve effectiveness, and the last portion is full of hooks to lead into Episode 2. Some proofreading would have helped as well, given the frequency of minor spelling and grammar errors that occasionally require a second look at the text to render things in a manner that makes sense.

What a horrible job, to officially put everyone What a horrible job, to officially put everyone's devices into chargers all the time- let alone to be called a grunt on top.

   Steel & Steam sports random, turn-based battles in keeping with its inspiration. The twist here stems from characters having special moves that are activated via TP, something that is generated when characters land and receive blows. These techniques are not magic and can be dodged by the enemies, but their main annoyance is the game's imprecise means of keeping TP straight between battles. Trying to hoard it for a major encounter is impossible when the quantity shrinks according to invisible rules between each fight, which is not the ideal way of increasing tension.

   Otherwise combat is nothing unfamiliar to RPG veterans, though Steel & Steam's enemies are not to be taken lightly. Healing during regular enemy encounters is usually necessary, and players will be thankful that running away works without problems the vast majority of the time. Things are never completely unmanageable, as the first huge dungeon sports a replenishment spot and it is the only time players are completely unable to access a shop, but adversaries are a source of constant anxiety. Leveling helps somewhat by granting new abilities and increased stats, but spending significant time grinding in a game that can be completed in less than six hours feels like padding.

   At least there are plenty of incentives to poke around the game world, though two big points of no return are present to make this an option that cannot constantly be exercised. The dungeons themselves have plentiful things to find while exploring and feel distinct instead of generic, but the towns also benefit from a careful eye. The large populace will often bequeath side missions to investigate, and carelessly lost items make scouring city streets quite interesting. Not all the side material is equally appealing, but its presence is a welcome impetus for exploration.

I wouldn I wouldn't use a glass coffee table for pool or billiards, but I don't own a house like this either.

   Episode 1 sports nice character art for its leads, but in most other respects looks like an RPGMaker title, though a very quick and heavily pixelated summon animation stands out. Its music is a mixed bag, with a couple of themes being quite catchy, in particular the final dungeon's. Its battle theme unfortunately is not one of these, and entering combat is usually aggravating because the opening notes of combat are much louder than whatever background music was being heard.

   Steel & Steam has considerable potential for however many future installments it sees, but this first one didn't make me happy very often. While I appreciate the intent, certain aspects of early 16-bit RPGs are tough to go back to. At least saving anywhere reduces the amount of time an unlucky Game Over can take away, but I find it easier to anticipate what can be improved in an Episode 2 than to think kindly about Episode 1

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