Steam Pirates has plenty of hallmarks of a great game: entertaining characters, a creative world, rollicking music, and top notch art. But an excellent RPG also requires a stand-out story and engaging combat. These areas are where Steam Pirates stumbles.
At the start of the game is a pictorial prologue that tells you the main character, a human named Kat, was adopted by feline parents in a world where animals can talk and hold jobs. As she grows up and it becomes apparent that she isn’t a cat, she starts wondering about her parents. Cut to present day: Kat is a kind-hearted pirate and, as the story begins, she sets off on an adventure to find out where she came from. Or so we’re told.
At this point, you’re plopped into a bar run by a dog and quickly sent on your first mission, which has nothing to do with looking for your parents. Instead, you’re searching through a cave for a rock band that has been captured by vicious mermaids. As you make your way through the level, you’ll get acquainted with the gameplay. This is a 2D side-scrolling game, and you navigate the levels by tapping where you want to go. Moving works pretty well, although jumping to and from moving platforms can occasionally get dicey.
This first cave, like many of the levels in the game, is pretty enormous. That would be a good thing, except that it has lots of branching pathways you need to explore, few identifiable landmarks, and no map. All of which is to say that it’s easy to get lost. Making matters worse, the enemies respawn, so backtracking becomes doubly aggravating.
Speaking of enemies, as soon as you get within range of one, it rushes toward you, initiating combat. There’s no way to avoid the fights, and no way to run away once you’re in them. On the plus side, the combat menu system is intuitive and easy to pick up, and you unlock new abilities as you play, giving you additional attack and magic options. On the other hand, enemies are everywhere, so there’s tons of fighting, and you’ll probably end up using just a couple of moves that deal massive damage (Kat’s sniper shot, for instance).
But the real problem here is that fighting even the most basic enemy takes a long time. For each attack, the name of the attack is displayed for a few seconds, then the attack’s animation happens, which often drags on longer than it should, and finally you have to wait a few seconds as the attacker settles back into his or her at-rest position. Viewed once, this isn’t a big deal. But when you consider all of the attacks that take place in all of the fights (which usually include multiple enemies), plus the backtracking and occasional grinding, it becomes apparent quickly that you’ll be spending much of this game wading through slow-moving combat.
Just your average mermaid spider fishbowl.
And if you get a phone call or die a half hour into one of the longer missions, you have to start back at the beginning of the level, supposing you remembered to save the game there. Like the RPGs of old, saving is a manual affair that you can only do at certain points in the game. That doesn’t mesh well with handheld gaming, which often takes place on the go.
Finally, there’s the story. After the excellent prologue, we were eager to help Kat find her parents, but the story veers off course immediately. With just a few lines of dialogue at the beginning of the game, you’re sent on your first mission with hardly a word from the characters you’re supposed to care about. The same thing happens for the second and third missions. You don’t get to any meaty dialogue until nearly halfway through the game.
When you do get into the more dialogue-heavy parts, however, it’s great. The conversations are goofy and fun, and the characters turn out to be surprisingly well-drawn. There’s even some meta humor, when one of the characters acknowledges being in a videogame. If more of this type of conversation was presented early in the game, players might be more forgiving of the slow-moving combat or, for that matter, make it to the game’s halfway point.
The developers have created a beautiful and interesting world in Steam Pirates, but issues with the combat and the pacing of the story keep the game from realizing its potential. It starts getting good about four hours in, but reaching that point is something that only the most patient of players will bother to do.