SteamWorld Heist 2’s mix of strategy and sea combat is a fun, robot-filled romp

7.8.2024
By Jason Fanelli, Contributor

Back in 2015, an indie studio called Image & Form released SteamWorld Heist, a unique turn-based RPG adventure featuring a gang of space pirates. Fans and critics alike fell in love with the game, but requests for a follow-up went unanswered for nine long years. Fast forward to today, and SteamWorld Heist 2 is trading outer space for the high seas while keeping the core combat concept intact. I had a chance to go hands-on with SteamWorld Heist 2 at Summer Game Fest, and what I saw seems worth the wait for players eager to jump back in.

The story this time around follows Captain Leeway, the leader of a ragtag group of robotic seafarers who sail the Great Sea, a massive body of water that rests on a piece of a destroyed planet Earth. The water in the sea is turning corrosive, which is creating scarcity issues and, in turn, major conflicts between the Royal Navy and other factions. Leeway and crew must navigate these troubles and find the source of the malady plaguing the world’s water. 

The demo’s first main takeaway was the turn-based combat system, which makes up the majority of my missions throughout the game. Each member of the team gets two actions per turn, with potential actions including movement, attacking, or reloading a weapon as needed. This immediately puts my strategic mind to work as I approach the first enemy: Stay in place and take the first shot, or take cover first before shooting? Taking cover means I can’t reload until the next turn whereas shooting immediately lets me quickly deal damage and start preparing for the next attack while leaving the team open. 
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After all the enemies are defeated, the team can move to the next room, which comes with a new set of enemies along with platforms both above and below. This added verticality gives players more options for strategic attacks, but it also gives enemies more angles to take shots at us. It’s a neat extra layer to the already novel combat scheme, and it proves that the game has plenty of tricks up its cybernetic sleeves.

The new room layout also lets me play around with deflection mechanics in combat, as I have the ability to use angles for flashy trick shots. Daisy, the sniper of the team, has the ability to precisely aim thanks to a line of sight pointing from the muzzle of her gun. The line will also show trajectory after a deflection, and she can use that for a quick kill of an enemy who would otherwise be out of reach. I had a blast (pun definitely intended) with these trick shots; landing one as the final shot of a skirmish is immensely satisfying. 

All of this came to a head in the final room of the tutorial, which pitted me against a massive mech boss. The boss’s main offense came as a devastating missile attack—though the missiles did allow me one turn to move out of the way—and if I got too close, he had a few normal attacks as well. Just from looking at him, I could figure out the mech’s two major weaknesses: the glass on the cockpit, which looked breakable with a few quick shots, and a massive red fuel tank on the back that was basically begging me to shoot it. 

I first focused on the cockpit with each character chipping away at the glass until it finally shattered and exposed the pilot within. I then took aim at the fuel tank, and one shot at the tank was all I needed to finish off the boss. This was just one approach to the fight, however, as I could have reversed focus and used the tank to shatter the glass, or I could have ignored the tank altogether and focused fire on the pilot once the glass was broken. This versatility in combat options makes each victory feel earned, rewarding the choice of strategy, and that feels pretty good in the heat of battle. 
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From there, I moved into the overworld: a massive sea of blue water that I traveled through via a submarine. This map gives flashbacks to the overworld of Donkey Kong Country 3 on the Super Nintendo, as I could pilot the sub wherever I wanted and enter any points of interest. Once in a while, though, an enemy ship would appear, and I could take it on in naval combat.

Fighting with the sub is simple and straightforward. Multiple dotted lines extend out that represent the weapon’s trajectory and range. All I have to do is get the enemy ship within that line, and the guns fire immediately. After a few short bursts, the enemy is sunk, and I can collect easy rewards. While not as complicated as the main combat, these brief submarine skirmishes do give the world map a bit more life, which breaks up the monotony of traveling from one area to another. 

Though my time with it merely scratched the surface, I came out of the SteamWorld Heist 2 demo excited for more. This is a sequel nine years in the making, after all, and though the setting has changed from deep space to the deep blue sea, the turn-based combat still has its charms. Add in the open world and its submarine battles, and this could be a recipe for another success story in the SteamWorld universe when SteamWorld Heist 2 launches August 8 on the Epic Games Store.