Hand of Gilgamech
Versatile developer Image & Form has covered tower defense, platformers, and tactical shooters, somehow connecting all of its games into one steampunk robot universe. Its latest project SteamWorld Quest: Hand of Gilgamech tackles the RPG genre, using a turn-based card battle system that keeps the adventure engaging.
Here’s my Video Review for your viewing pleasure!
The journey follows Armilly, an imaginative robot who wants to be like her hero – the legendary Gilgamech. Colorful mechanical characters like the alchemical mage Copernica and the strong, funny Galleo accompany Armilly on her quest to become a great heroine. As an RPG, SteamWorld Quest is inherently more focused on story and dialogue than its predecessors. Its lighthearted narrative hosts solid twists and character development, although it doesn’t pick up until the end. Nonetheless, the characters’ personalities carry the plot.
In SteamWorld games, the stellar art and gameplay stand out, and SteamWorld Quest is no exception. In each chapter, your party of three travels through a map of interconnected rooms, searching for key items or the boss. When you run into or initiate a pre-emptive strike with an enemy, battle begins.
Combat is where SteamWorld Quest stands apart from your typical RPG. The turn-based nature may be familiar, but the battle system revolves around cards. Each character has their own deck of eight cards, with each card corresponding to an action. For instance, if you play an attack card for Armilly, she will perform the specified move. The same applies for Copernica’s shield barrier or Galleo’s healing spell. During battle, your party’s cards are shuffled together, forming one large 24-card deck. Every turn, the game randomly deals you a hand of six cards, and you can play up to three of them. After your party and the enemy take turns, your hand is refilled, and you continue the cycle until one side wins. It shares a similar system to games like Mega Man Battle Network or the underappreciated Baten Kaitos series from the Xenoblade developers.
Card-based games can be hit-or-miss, but SteamWorld Quest rises above the junkpile with a consistent sense of balance. The Steam Pressure mechanic provides the best example. To activate stronger skill cards, you must first build up enough Steam Pressure points by playing basic attacks and upgrade cards. These weaker skills cost nothing and fill your steam gauge. In the midst of battle, it’s exciting to build up resources to unleash that special attack. The combo system runs on that same allure. If you play a set of three cards from the same character within a turn, you unlock a bonus fourth special move known as a Heroic Chain. As someone who enjoys pulling off combos in tabletop card games like Pokémon and Yu-Gi-Oh!, I was cheering after every Heroic Chain. Some cards also incorporate synergy between characters, but there’s such a low amount that it’s difficult to strategize around them.
Success rides on preliminary deck building, and fans of trading card games will appreciate the effort needed to create decks that balance strength and cost. Collecting new cards, upgrading their abilities, and equipping stronger weapons that switch your Heroic Chain skills fulfill similar highs to skill trees in other games or opening physical card booster packs. In an era where long-winded RPGs can grow stale, SteamWorld Quest’s skirmishes stay fresh thanks to the randomized card combat. Mixing and matching over 100 cards and experimenting with unique character fighting styles are cerebrally stimulating. Older cards remain relevant since their power is based on character stats, gained via leveling up with experience points.
The developers have made efforts to prevent gameplay from becoming overwhelming. Cards are marked and color-coded to help players grow accustomed. There is no time limit during battle so you can strategize at your own pace. If anything, the default game tempo was too slow, but the fast-forward option offered my ideal speed. I found the normal difficulty to be manageable, but players can also bump that up or down. Since dying simply brings you back to the last healing statue, grinding is a relatively safe endeavor, albeit a tedious, necessary evil. It’s annoying that the only ways to reliably heal between battles are by using items or finding a heal statue. The latter fully recovers your party but also respawns enemies, which I thought was a fair tradeoff.
Unfortunately, what happens outside of battle isn’t as compelling. The environment’s bare hallway mazes offer little aside from nice set design. Only a fraction of the chapters have some form of dungeon trial, which usually amounts to a fetch quest or light puzzle. There is no connected overworld or towns, which makes the adventure feel solitary.
Battle also has its negatives. Some enemies have immunities to certain elements or types of attacks. Sometimes your deck has no answer to an enemy’s resistances, and you might just have to take the loss and restart. It doesn’t help that your movepool is randomized every turn. Although you can discard and redraw up to two cards per turn, I would have liked to be able to switch out cards or characters during battle, or at least right before the fight once you’ve previewed your adversary. An option to build alternate backup decks would have been convenient, too. Status conditions don’t feel balanced either. If one of your heroes is inflicted with a debilitating status, they are essentially out of commission, and their cards will clog your hand. Due to the randomization, this is more frustrating than fun. Although bosses often provide the best challenges, some are spongy slogs, while others are repeated.
The campaign takes about 15 hours, which isn’t too long by RPG standards. As someone who thoroughly enjoyed the experience, I would have loved to see more postgame beyond a colosseum and replaying chapters to hunt for remaining treasures. Multiplayer might have been an interesting prospect as well, but that’s just my love of trading card games talking.
In trademark SteamWorld fashion, the characters’ steampunk designs are works of comic art. Even the punch-cards have neat details like unique binary codes. The animated action runs smoothly, whether the Nintendo Switch is docked or undocked. On that note, the light RPG mechanics are a great fit for portable mode, though I would have appreciated touch screen support for card management. There is little voice acting, but the robotic mumbling is charming. The fusion of medieval music and epic guitar riffs were quite catchy and never got old despite playing during every battle.
Even in a different genre, SteamWorld Quest: Hand of Gilgamech delivers the same, wonderful quality that all of Image & Form’s titles have thus far. The card battles’ luck-of-the-draw may pester some, but it also offers engaging turn-based combat. Exploration and postgame aren’t the best, and I would love if they improved in a future update or sequel. The journey may not appeal to everyone or even certain RPG fans, but anyone who enjoys card games, whether physical or digital, will find it worthwhile to embark on this SteamWorld Quest.
Note: A review copy was used for this article.