The odds never seem to be in my favor with tactical combat games. Or rather, I do not perceive the odds to be in my favor. Going all the way back to Final Fantasy Tactics on the PlayStation, if there was ever a five-percent chance for my well-positioned killing blow to miss, then my target would no doubt raise their shield and block the strike. I would laugh at my opponent's ten-percent chance to shatter my armor, then be left silent and slack-jawed as they shattered my armor.
Saiyuki: Journey West, Vandal Hearts, Valkyrie Profile: Covenant of the Plume, and Fire Emblem: Awakening are all games that, in some fashion, seemed to share this trait. No matter the amount of plotting or planning, all it took was that slim chance to cut nothing but air for my best-laid plan to crumble before me. While I never played X-COM: Enemy Unknown, I did watch friends line up the perfect shots with a 95% chance of success, only to witness as their bullet whiffed high over the alien invader's head.
"The game cheats!" It seems that our enjoyment in such titles is always paired with a bitter glass of irritation, aged in barrels of suspicion that the game is rolling loaded dice. Can you blame us as players? Racing games with rubber-banding AI, shooting games where one enemy spots you and the rest across the room suddenly know precisely where to toss that grenade, strategy AI that seems unaffected by fog of war: Years of experience teach us not to trust that the developer will truly fight fair.
Take chess, as an example: Imagine fooling your opponent into a trap. They overzealously place their Knight in a position where they can easily snag your Queen. What they failed to notice is that your Bishop is now ready to claim their Knight. Now imagine that, despite your superior planning and their foolish move, your Bishop is repelled away by mysterious forces and you lose your Queen anyway. Would you not be frustrated? Would the game not seem unfair?
Which brings me to SteamWorld Heist. SteamWorld Heist is more like chess as intended. Yes, it certainly has more bells and steam-powered whistles than chess. At its rusty, mechanical heart, however, it's a tactical game that's about careful thinking, observation, and awareness.
I received a review code for this game, and sadly was unable to pull together a suitable first impression worthy of the title or GWJ's Front Page by time the embargo ended. I was enjoying myself, but I couldn't quite put together why. Now that I have finished it, the answer seems clear as fresh water.
Like any other tactical combat game, the key to SteamWorld Heist is planning and positioning. You'll want to place your characters behind cover, on higher ground, and preferably away from any explosive materials. As the game progresses, more and more of the cover becomes volatile and enemies are more carefully protected by varying sorts of portable shields. The player will need to think much more carefully about their surroundings, their position, and their aim.
In that aim lies the key difference. Instead of relying on the computer to feed some percentage chance of success, the player themselves must line up the shot to add a new peephole through their foe. Only some weapons have a laser sight to paint the bullet's trajectory – the player will need to rely on their own eyes for the rest. It's not enough to have line-of-sight when behind cover. Hide behind a steel box across the room, and have that much more trouble determining the odds of a successful headshot on your own. This is nothing to say of the recoil on assault rifles or spread from a shotgun's shells.
Very little is left to chance. Or at least, any element of chance is slim enough or well enough hidden to be imperceptible. It all comes down to the player's ability to line-up a shot, account for their robot's unsteady aim (Why don't machines have steady aim? Why does it look like they're breathing?!), and fire. If the shot misses, then it was likely due to failure on the player's part. They aimed just a bit too high, or were just a bit too impatient with pulling the trigger to account for the cowbot's wavering hand.
It seems an unorthodox choice to leave the aiming to a player in such a tactical game, but it ensures multiple swells of proud excitement. To watch a shot from across the room sunder a machine's metal head, to witness a bullet ricochet off of five different surfaces before bursting through a scrapbot's torso from behind, each of these moments are in the player's control, and any failure is a result of the player's actions, be it positioning, impatience, or a poor judgement about the spot you move to, nothing is left to chance.
SteamWorld Heist owes most of my enjoyment to this seemingly simple design decision. I may only chip away at it one or two missions at a time – a play style that suits the 3DS, though the game will come to just about every other platform next year, including mobile – but I'm always eager to use a free moment and board the next junker.
I won't be so presumptuous as to say this freedom in aiming is the core of the fun to SteamWorld Heist, but it is certainly a major contributor. Success is most satisfying when earned, and failure is most easily tolerated when the player can trace back their steps and say "Okay, this is where I made my mistake". It's the same non-magical magic that hooks us in the Souls series and other beloved, punishing games.
There's no need to pray to the Gaming Gods that the 95% chance to strike will succeed, or to curse them when it fails. Your successes and failures are your own.