Steam Tactics is a competent little strategy game. Light on the in-combat mechanics but deep in the rock-paper-scissors matchups. Slightly puzzly because of how the weapons fire but not to an annoying degree. Very impressive presentation level for a tiny indie team. It feels like a “real” company decided to make a bite-sized game for fun. Hampered by fiddly inventory management and a cheerfully told story that’s somewhat disjointed.
Should you Buy It?
Yes if you’re in the mood for a handsome, cheerful, predictable little turn based strategy game. There’s quite a bit of gameplay if you’re a completionist who likes to redo missions to gain more stars. If you just plough through you’ll get 8-10 hours for $10.
The game’s depth comes from tactically matching your various weapons against your foes’ vulnerabilities. Most games have an aspect of this but here it’s the primary strategy and how much you like that process will probably determine how much you enjoy the game.
The setting is great. You’re a tiny crew of anthropomorphic animals piloting steampunk planes against meaner animals. The campaign has you going from mission to mission with no branching or campaign mechanics (survival, time, interactions, etc). Fight, upgrade your weapons, ships and stats and fight again. It’s simple and clean and focused. I’ve noticed that about the last bunch of indie games I played. They used to be more experimental and aimless, with some good bits and some not. I’m seeing a lot more games focused on one or two mechanics, streamlined and efficient.
The combat itself is simple and satisfyingly fun. The engagements are small, topping out at 4 on 4 on cramped square grids littered with a few obstacles and special tiles (that increase firepower or reduce armor). The most original aspect is how weapons fire. Each weapon can only fire at a single square in each direction. A flamethrower might hit only the squares next to you on the compass directions. Long range missiles can only hit targets exactly 3 squares away on a diagonal. If you’re armed with more than one weapon that resolved to the same spot then they all fire. Units return fire if fired upon from a square they can hit.
Because the maps are small and planes only move 1-4 squares, fights become little intertwined dances as each plane moves to its ideal range followed by the opponent doing the same. It you squint it almost looks like planes dogfighting but the actual tactical decisions (move or fire) are too shallow for the illusion to hold.
When you combine the firing mechanism, with the 6 damage types, 6 corresponding resistances and 3 skills you end up with a fairly complex meta game. The way the game handles weapon upgrading is also more substantial than usual.
Inventory & Upgrades
Each plane has 3 weapon slots. Weapons have weight and too many can decrease movement speed. It’s simple but it lets you outfit nimble fighters or lumbering missile boats. Both weapons and planes upgrade through 20 levels as well as 3 star levels (copper to gold). Despite there being so many levels each one is not just a tiny incremental bump. They’re meaty increases. And your enemies resistances can be quite pronounced reaching near immunity for certain damage types.
All this means (and I suspect the developer intended for you to do this) that if you fail a mission or just get a new weapon you might do a lot of rearranging. You never have enough weapons for everyone to be perfectly outfitted and the weird firing mechanic means it’s hard to find 3 weapons that resolve onto the same square and use the same skill. I was actually too pre-occupied with matching skills to weapons. Weapons in unskilled hands shoot fine, there’s just less chance for a critical.
I really liked this part. Refining loadouts is one of the things I enjoy about strategy games and this requires it of you. The difficulty curve expects it. The one letdown is that viewing weapons and your teams stats so you can make informed decisions is a pain in the ass. No sorting, no filters and the list gets longer and longer because you never sell weapons (combining two identical weapons levels up the weapon’s star rating). Sometimes I failed a mission and knew which weapon changes I could make to easily beat it but stubbornly repeated as is because I didn’t feel like dealing with all the clicking. It’s not game breaking by any means, just frustrating in an area the game means for you to spend a lot of time in.
The designer made some interesting decisions regarding difficulty. You do each mission on its lowest “bronze” difficulty and then move on to the next bronze mission. At any time you can go back and replay a previous mission but the difficulty (and rewards) move to silver, then gold. You can’t replay the bronze version or skip ahead to gold.
Weapons, ships and characters have 20 levels to progress through and you upgrade often. Each bump brings significant increases and each mission is noticeably harder than the last. Moving from bronze to silver spikes the difficulty and you never have enough of a number of resources needed to upgrade everything.
You’ll race through a few missions, then hit a brick wall as your opponent’s durability and damage output jumps. If you’re careful to properly match up your weapons with vulnerable foes you’ll go for longer runs, but eventually you will lose. There are no death penalties so you can retry as often as you like. That’s what I normally do in these games.
After a while I realized it’s faster to just do a silver version of a previous mission, gain more resources and gold, do a few upgrades and try again. Because the upgrades are so substantial I usually breezed by the mission on the second try. It makes the difficulty go up and down instead of gradually increase. And you have a lot of easy fights, a handful of fights you get your ass kicked and maybe not enough close, thrilling fights. I don’t want to overstate this point, the game was fun and got more engaging as it went. Durability increases faster than weapon damage so later fights last longer and have more potential for drama.
I ended up replaying fully half the missions in order to gain more resources to beat particularly difficult enemy teams. At first this annoyed me, it felt like grinding, but once I gave into it I didn’t mind so much. Sometimes you’re so overpowered that it takes less than 30 seconds to destroy the other team and collect some substantial upgrades.
I should point out that I suck at an aspect of these types of games – I’m not a particularly natural chess players. A bunch of times the AI (which is both clever and dumb) arranged their own planes in a way that prevented me from getting a firing position. To do that effectively you have to know each of my planes’ range and weapons. The data is available, the AI is not cheating, but I’m not great at holding it all together. I tend to instead focus on the most efficient possible offense which is effective here as it is in most games. If you like that sort of mental challenge there’s a whole other layer of tactics available to you that I didn’t use.
I give this game bonus marks for overall presentation and quality of life improvements. Once you leave the annoying inventory screens and get into combat this game has a perfect interface. It couldn’t be clearer where you can move to, fire on, the weapons used and the resistances they’ll match against. Everything is bright and cheerful and attractive. The little weapons fire and explosions are vivid and fitting. It’s extremely polished for an indie game and I appreciate the obvious care that went into making the combat not a chore to play.
Situational awareness is so important in games that depend on matching stats more than specific formations and tactics. It’s frustrating how opaque some strategy games are and a pleasure to play one that isn’t. I’m honestly not sure why someone who designed such a sleek combat interface didn’t do a better job with the inventory.
The art is static but great. Your bullfrog mentor conveys nice gravitas and character. In a slight letdown you never get attached to your characters or invested in any meaningful way. They switch ships so often and aren’t visible, I never thought of the ships in combat as my actual humanoid characters. They were just fun little units. But that’s fine too, it’s not story game. There’s no branching or dialogue options, just a slightly silly story told briskly enough to not annoy.
It’s a solid but light strategy game with very nice loot mechanics and interesting item vs. armor match-ups. The map feels crowded, some parts like the inventory are fiddly, it’s presented nicely and gives decent value even without replaying. It’s very polished (for what it is) and was perfectly stable at all resolutions, full screen or windowed. I enjoyed the jaunty little guy. 71.
<Update: I was just looking at the Steam achievements for this game – I like seeing how many people actually play a game all the way through. I see that levels actually go to 30 – not 20 as I assumed. Looks like quite a bit of room for progress after the campaign is done if you’re still having fun.>