by Murray Lewis
reviewed on PC
Everything old is new again
When I was young, I once found a chocolate raisin under the sofa. My mum told me not to eat it; she said it had probably been there for weeks – maybe even months. It had gone rock hard, and it had fluff stuck all over it, but I ate it anyway. Chocolate raisins are delicious, went my reasoning, and therefore this would be delicious. Naturally, my mother was right and I was horribly ill. Just because something is old, doesn't mean it's still good.
Steel & Steam is a distinctly Japanese-style retro RPG, developed by the distinctly-not-Japanese Red Meat Games. Seeking to recapture the glory days of the JRPG, it features a top-down perspective, an extensive world, and an obsession with menu screens. But can it satisfy beyond the misty-eyed nostalgia for games with epic stories and even more epic hairstyles?
Let me tell you the tale of my people
Being an RPG, Steel & Steam relies heavily on the strength of its story to draw the player in and keep them coming back for more. The tale being woven here is one of impending doom; a desert plague is sweeping in to consume mankind, terrible monsters are preying on the innocent, and the recipe for a good cup of tea has been forever lost (probably). The future looks bleak, and of course only our heroes have the power to save the world, even if they don't know it yet.
It's an epic start to a story, so it would've been nice if it had been told through a polished cutscene (as later sections are), rather than through several dull text boxes. Considering the beginning is the part that really needs to capture the player's imagination, it feels rushed – a backstory breathlessly whisked past your eyes as if the Red Meat team just wanted to get it out of the way.
It's clear that Red Meat's intent with Steel & Steam was to make a game world filled to bursting with large towns, minor characters, and side-quests. Amongst all the variety, though, the primary quest-line sometimes seems to get lost in the noise, both figuratively and literally, as there's no way of telling which is your 'primary' mission in the oft-crowded quest log. Will you care, though? The game is positively brimming with side-quests to complete, so you'll never find yourself searching for something to do. The quests are also varied in nature, and how you complete them will often affect how other NPCs react to you. This feature never feels particularly deep, but it's a nice addition nonetheless.
My main gripe with the quests is the erratic difficulty level. Steel & Steam has no qualms with giving you quests that you are simply not ready to take on, and generally does so with little to no warning. There's an attempt at graphically representing difficulty in the quest log, but I never found this to reflect what I actually encountered, so frequent saving is a must. As is common in JRPGs, the only way to progress is by grinding your way up the character levels. Unless you're a genre-veteran, you'll likely tire of this quickly, but at least the variety of side-quests means there's probably something else you can be doing.
Huge world. Classic, fun JRPG gameplay. Excellent soundtrack.
Clunky, confusing user-interface. Too easy to get lost. Unfocused.