SteamWorld Heist II Already Feels Better Than The Original In Its First Few Hours

The second time might be the charm.

screenshot from SteamWorld Heist II
Thunderful Development

SteamWorld Heist, a 2015 2D tactics game on Nintendo 3DS, always felt like it should have been a bigger deal. The unconventional game was universally praised by critics and has fully achieved cult hit status, but I’m still met with blank stares more often than not when I mention it as one of my favorite strategy games. Now, developer Thunderful is taking another swing at the underappreciated gem, and based on the first few hours with SteamWorld Heist II, the sequel seems ready to make waves in a way that the original always deserved to.

The heart of SteamWorld Heist II remains close to the first game. Both are turn-based strategy games played on 2D levels that would look at home in a platformer. Both feature a wide variety of weapons and abilities, and make ricocheting bullets off walls a core part of their strategy. And both follow a crew of jolly steam-powered robots on a quest to blast their foes into oblivion in the search for clean water.

SteamWorld Heist II builds on the foundation of its excellent 2015 predecessor.

Direct sequels are rare in the SteamWorld series, which usually shifts to totally new genres for each installment, from deckbuilding card games to Metroidvanias.

“The SteamWorld universe has always been our comfort zone for experimentation and the vehicle for us to share our passion for different kinds of games and genres,” SteamWorld Heist II producer Petter Magnusson tells Inverse. “If enough of us feel strongly about an idea for a game or a way to expand on a previous game, that's usually enough for us to give it a go!”

SteamWorld Heist II’s combat is easy to pick up even if you’re new to the series. A tutorial level sends you into a heist to recover your stolen submarine with two robots at your command. Every turn, you move both characters in whatever order you choose, each with two Action Points to spend on movement, attacks or special abilities. Rinse and repeat until you’re done.

But that description of the basics doesn’t get at the quirks that make SteamWorld Heist II so special. Bouncing bullets off walls is a major part of combat, as is using convenient exploding barrels to take out your enemies. If you line up a shot just right, you can knock the hat off your opponent’s head and wear it yourself.

Thunderful has added a lot more mechanical diversity to the sequel, too. This time around, each characters has their own class, determined by which weapon they’re holding. Every class has unique skills, like the Reaper’s ability to attack again if they take out an enemy and the Engineer’s ability to build cover. Later in the game, you’ll also be able to mix and match class abilities to build beefy, explosive-wielding tanks, shotgunners with pinpoint accuracy, or even stranger combinations. While I didn’t get the chance to dive too deeply into class-building in the game’s first hours, the default skills available were enough to make each character feel truly unique and offer a viable strategy for anything the game threw at me.

Ship-based exploration adds a risk-and-reward element to SteamWorld Heist II, but its naval combat is a bit thin.


“The way each crew member had their own set of abilities in the first game felt a bit too constrained after a while,” Magnusson says. “So we explored ways to give you the opportunity to mix and match to find new powerful combinations.”

Outside of combat, SteamWorld Heist II sets itself apart from the original game even more. Rather than a static map to choose levels from, you’re given a ship of your own to explore the high seas. That gives you more freedom to choose which mission you’ll tackle next and introduces complexities of its own. As you sail the watery world, you’ll be accosted by enemy ships and have to either destroy them or make a hasty retreat. Your ship’s weapons fire automatically as long as you’re in range, so the real strategy here is which equipment you sail with and which fights you choose to engage with.

“Open-world exploration was one of the big features of Heist II that we had intended to do for the original,” Magnusson says. “But it turned out to be a tough feature to get right so back then we had to settle for something more straightforward. This time around, it was one of our main goals from day one.”

At the outset of SteamWorld Heist II, sea exploration seems to exist more to gate your progress than as a challenge of its own. But thanks to the game’s bounty system, that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Each time you complete a mission, you’ll earn a number of bounty points based on how well you did at completing its objectives, which can be traded in at the end of a day for some excellent rewards. There’s a hard limit to a day’s length as well, since every crew member you send on a mission becomes exhausted until they get a good night’s rest.

Sea combat throws a wrench into the works, because if your ship is destroyed, you forfeit all the bounty points you’ve earned that day. That turns exploration into a balance of risk and reward — do you run one more mission with a damaged ship and risk getting blown up on the way, or head to bed with crew members still ready to fight and give up the chance at greater rewards?

SteamWorld Heist II expands the original game’s great combat even in its early hours.


Where SteamWorld Heist II feels largely unchanged is in its tone. Every SteamWorld game shares a charming, lowkey sense of humor, and SteamWorld Heist II is no different. But this time, it’s paired with a story that’s a bit more engaging.

The game’s protagonist is Captain Leeway, who doesn’t participate in combat but handles the work of going to shore to gather crew, buy upgrades, and meet with chatty locals. As the son of the legendary sailor Krakenbane, he has a lot to live up to — and the game’s NPCs never miss a chance to remind him of how he’s not doing that. Battle is the real draw of SteamWorld Heist II, but Leeway’s journey to make a name for himself makes him a likable star of the lighthearted adventure and helps cut down on the combat fatigue that could set in without a fun story to break things up.

All told, SteamWorld Heist II is so far pretty much just what I expected. While that might not always be a good thing, it’s extremely promising considering how high my expectations were going in. I’m still not convinced that the addition of naval combat will add anything exceptional to the game, but the move toward a more open-ended mission structure is refreshing all the same. SteamWorld Heist II is shaping up to be more of an incremental improvement than a revolution, but with foundations this solid, it’s hard to argue with that.

SteamWorld Heist II is set to release on Nintendo Switch, PlayStation, Xbox, and PC on August 8.

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