After a fairly stressful week I needed a bit of escapism, so went hunting through the (really rather awful) Switch eStore. One series of games that has popped up on several recommendation lists is the Steamworld series. I've seen them before, but was never really sure what they were about...and the artwork (in stills) looks a little forced. I did a bit of investigation, and it turns out that pretty much each game in the series is a different genre (hence why I'd never been able to narrow it down), however they carry over the aesthetic and design from game-to-game.
The one that grabbed my fancy was Steamworld Quest, in reviews touted as a blend of a JRPG and a deck-builder (it's often been compared to Slay the Spire, which at this point I have put entirely too many hours into), though having played it now, I'd actually say it's probably got more in common with a game like Dominion. I started it up on Saturday morning...and about 15 hours later beat the final boss in a nail-biting fight. It's really very good, and (with one or two issues) exceptionally well designed. The length of the core story is perfect, at 15-20 hours with no time-wasting filler. It's very linear, with no side-quests as such, and (very importantly for me) absolutely no grind, no back-tracking etc. You can reply levels in case you missed a room or area, but there is no requirement to do so.
The core of the game is around the combat. From a screenshot you'd assume it's a "normal" JRPG fare, with 3 characters facing off against a group of enemies, and each character takes an action in turn. What actually happens is that each of your characters (you have a pool of 5 to choose from) has a small deck of 8 cards you have assigned them from an ever-growing library. These 3 decks of 8 cards are shuffled together, and each turn you draw to a hand of 6. You can re-draw 2 cards, and play 3. The game then has some additional mechanics where if you play all 3 cards for the same character, they get a bonus card (based on the weapon they are equipped with), while some cards have a benefit if they are played after a card from another character. Some cards cost "Steam" to play...Steam is built up by playing basic attack or skill cards, and there is a shared pool for all your characters. Each character has a library of about 30 cards to select, so there are planty of options and ways to approach the game.
How this ends up in practice is that you'll build combos for each of your characters, and cycle the deck to get them in hand (for example, my Fighter had a good 3-card-combo where she'd buff her own strength, or a basic attack to build Steam, then a High-Power attack...she'd then get a bonus attack that also Healed her). As I went through the gamer and the enemy attacks evolved I'd find myself specialising each character to support the team...as with many RPG's, later on the primary enemy attack was debuff-based (poison, slow, paralyse etc), and so I had my "tank" evolve into a debuff remover, leaving my third character (a mage) free to hand out damage. What I found is that no fight was a "gimme" (often the case in RPG's and JRPG's)...even the most basic encounter required you to manage your deck, and sometimes take sub-optimal rounds to build up to a stronger one later. At the same time, the balance felt right...there was no fight where I felt I simply had no chance, or the game was cheating me.
The story is fairly simple and generic, though well told (good vs evil, young adventurers setting off to save the world, a couple of plot twists, self-discovery and the realistion that the real tresure is the friends we made along the way sort of thing), though told in a whimsical and slightly tongue-in-cheek way (the "Heroes Guild", for example, is clearly just a golf club), the game progresses in chapters (each taking just under an hour to complete...what I consider the "sweet spot" for game design for a session, and a time length that suits the Switch perfectly...giving you natural breaks), and the game world is divided into (non-procedurally generated) connected rooms. There are occasionally branches and optional fights, but you never get lost or don't know what to do next. There are a handful of puzzles (again fairly formulaic...a series of teleporter rooms that require you to follow a map, a forest with a hidden route, and a door that requires standing on buttons). None of them were over-complex, or felt like a way of dragging out the game length pointlessly. The artwork is really well done, and looks much better in motion than static screenshots give it credit for...each of the characters portrays a lot of personality, and it often captures the feel of a hand-drawn cartoon. The enemies tend to repeat a bit later on (re-palettes etc, with even some in-game jokes made with this regard), however the bosses all have a nice bit of back-story and variety.
The only real downside that I can say about it (and this holds true for JRPG's as a genre), is that there is little incentive to try different character combinations. You start with 3 characters (Armilly the Fighter, Copernica the Mage, and Gaello the Tank/Healer)...they gain experience, and you invest in their deck as you progress...so when other characters come along later (Orik the samurai and Tarah and Thayne the thieves) if you swap them into your party you effectively lose that investment in the characters. There are limited resources for upgrading the cards associated with characters, which encourages keeping a static group of characters, rather than swap them about and experiment (the exact same thing happens in JRPG's all the time, and out of cut-scenes and plot advancement you often never see half the characters). I'd love to see a game of this ilk where character advancement resources could be re-assigned to any character.
That, however, is a minor gripe to what is a really well-designed and enjoyable game. I've now got my eye on Steamworld Heist, another turn-based game, but this time a tactical side-scroller. I'm also doing a "New Game+", which should give me some opportunity to boost up some other characters card decks. There is a post-game fighting arena (again, standard fare in JRPG's) to get some over-powered builds working in as well.