Sunday 9 December 2007

Review: Steamband

Type: Freeware
System Requirements: Win 98+/ OS X / RISC OS
Developer: VALIS
Official Site & Downloads:

Many games wear the badge of steampunk riveted onto the bow-spirit of their zeppelins as a statement of artistic complexity - a signifier to alt gamer geeks that the game is moving down the road less traveled - and then proceed to deliver an experience not dissimilar, in fact often identical, to the well-trodden path of their mainstream fantasy brethren.

Not so with Steamband.

Under the brim of a stiffened top hat and the tweed of a well-tailored waistcoat stirs the mind and beats the heart of a true Victorian gentleman. The only artistic complexity that such a gentleman would concern himself with is the diagrammatic dissection of the latest Lepidoptera, and as for alt geek gamers, why the description of such a man could only fit the widely lauded and well-established figures of Edison, Wells and Twain. And so this game prizes literary flair over graphical pomp, and tactical thinking over cheap penny arcade thrills.

Your quest begins in the Centre of the Earth and you must ascend 50 levels of the dungeon and defeat the inscrutable Fu Manchu, who resides on the surface of this dangerous world. Standing between you and your ultimate enemy are a challenging and carefully crafted army of Martians, Morlocks, dinosaurs, Freemasons, steam-powered automatons, mechanical chickens and a plethora of other beasties as well as the well-researched and fantastically rendered figures of literary and pulp traditions. This game follows in the footsteps of Rogue, Nethack and Angband and while it could be described as an Angband variant, it is best to think of it as a total conversion as no trace of that game's setting still exists.

You can play as a stiff-upper-lipped British Officer, a brash American Engineer or a fine-dining Russian Aesthete, or stranger figures such as an Automaton, a Steam-Mecha or an Unseelie Fae and your choices extend to a fine selection of guns, tonics and mechanisms, headwear and trousers, as well as a deep and rewarding skill system. You may find the selection of races and impact they have on game-play somewhat controversial but it is very much in the spirit of a pro-abolitionist-but-still-paternalistic Victorian world-view. If you are offended by this, blame the game's fidelity to it's source material rather than any malicious intent on the part of the developers.

The game design addresses many of the criticisms that could be directed towards it's Angband ancestry, such as overly long game-play and a profligacy of unnecessary treasure types, and replaces it with a delightfully paced romp through a Vernian journey, while still maintaining the ASCII user interface of these types of games. But I strongly urge you to look beyond the typeface and into the steely-eyed monocle of a game that wears it's fictional inspirations pinned to the arm of it's satin smoking jacket, while reaching for a derringer and brushing the tendrils of an alien weed from it's sleeve.

(Sketch by Finish Steamband fan ponpoko. You can see more character art here).


Mikolaj said...

I've not yet played Steam, but your text really compellingly introduces me into the mood. A really good (and short!) piece aimed mostly at non-Angband people, I guess. The drawing is probably one of the worst of the excellent drawings in that directory, IMHO.

Andrew Doull said...

The other drawings were great, but had a bit too much of an 'anime' feel (except the American Medium). Since I was arguing against 'anime steampunk-lite' of the likes of Final Fantasy series, it would have felt a little counter-productive putting one of those sketches up. And I really like the way the Aesthete is clutching the vase he's holding.

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