by Murray Lewis
reviewed on PC
Lost in time and space
As you play Steel & Steam, prepare to get lost. A lot. When Red Meat say the game world is huge, they mean it, and the towns can feel like mazes. If you're a completionist, you could easily spend hours exploring, and still feel like you might have missed something. There are even a couple of minigames to be found, including one that evoked fond memories of Sega Bass Fishing. All this is both a blessing and a curse. The expansiveness is great, but it can also feel overwhelming, and the game sometimes feels unfocused as a result.
Steel & Steam boldly claims to feature an 'immersive fantasy world […] full of people and buildings to engage with,' but sadly much of the content is only skin-deep. The world is certainly full of buildings, but most are empty! As for the NPCs, anyone not involved in a quest has no real purpose besides standing around, waiting to repeat a single line of dialogue. With the grandiose claims made about immersion, I was expecting a lot more variety from these interactions.
Fortunately, the dialogue that is in the game is, broadly, very good. Characters have plenty of personality, and there are frequent injections of genuinely funny humour. Steel & Steam is certainly not afraid to admit that it is a video game, and regularly pokes fun at the same genre-clichés that it relies on. Playing on though, I did find a disheartening number of typographical errors.
The biggest flaw though, is the user interface – you may find yourself getting lost in the menus almost as much as you do in Steel & Steam's enormous civic centres. At no point is any aspect of the UI explained or demonstrated to the player – you're simply left to figure things out yourself. The menu structure is standard for games of this genre, but if you're a JRPG newbie you will find it clunky and confusing, with un-explained icons, menu options that lead to nowhere, and baffling navigation. I'd hate to see a new player being put off by the UI before the game has even had a chance to get into the swing of things, but it's a very real possibility here.
A fighting chance
Combat in Steel & Steam will be pleasingly familiar to genre fans, being a turn-based affair. This is all accompanied by some excellent animations and effects, which give the fights a beefy, engaging feel. Newbies beware, however, as the UI once again rears its ugly head. In combat, status icons (indicating poison or stun effects, for example) are never explained, and the combat log scrolls far too quickly to be able to read what's going on. Messages about important combat effects disappear off-screen within half a second of appearing, with the end result that it can be very hard to work out what just happened and why your hero is now face-down on the ground.
Graphically, it all looks great. The sprites are of high quality, and are much improved over those seen in pre-release builds of the game. I only wish I was able to select a custom screen resolution, as the only graphical option available is a fullscreen toggle. The audio, too, is excellent. The soundtrack is varied and pleasing to the ear, with plenty of unusual instrumentation. The music for the mines, in particular, features an evocative, clanking beat of metal-on-stone.
Hopefully you won’t find yourself put off by the sheer, intimidating size of the world and the frankly awful interface. That would be a shame, because Steel & Steam is a good game for the most part. It's a love-letter to the classic RPGs of the past, but it's just not as good as the games it aspires to. With a little more time in development, and more of a focus on a functional game rather than a nostalgic trip back to the 1990s, it could've been so much more.
Huge world. Classic, fun JRPG gameplay. Excellent soundtrack.
Clunky, confusing user-interface. Too easy to get lost. Unfocused.