A videogame reviewer can experience no greater joy than bestowing upon a game the much-coveted mark of perfection. Corollary: a videogame reviewer can experience no greater anguish than having to withhold the adjective "perfect" on account of just a few flaws. See what they are inside, and if these issues don't dissuade you, prepare for one of the most thoroughly enjoyable iPhone RPGs to date!

Steam Pirates Review

Hardly a developer to play it safe by relying on well established steampunk or pirate cliches, Fried Green Apps goes out on one of the zaniest limbs this reviewer has ever witnessed by planting its protagonists in a world where anthropomorphic felines reign supreme. The player steps into the shoes of Kat – ironically one of the game world’s few human denizens – and follows her exploits as a gunslinging bounty hunter. Given that she receives most assignments from a giant talking pug, she naturally finds herself in conflict with the Cat Empire, and this cats-versus-dogs intrigue fuels Steam Pirates‘ plot. Along the way Kat assumes less-than-willing guardianship over swashbuckling rockstar Ziggy, whose incessant sexist commentary comically drives her to the edge of fuming misandry. All the cartoonish fur flinging might lead one to believe this is a kid friendly game at first glance, but its innuendo-filled humor is decidedly adult oriented.

This might all add up to excellent camp if not for uneven writing. Dialogue ranges from functionally humorous to gratingly half-baked – thankfully more often the former than the latter – with the writer’s wit often bogged down in sloppy grammar. Textual deficiencies crop up in certain item descriptions as well.

While Steam Pirates‘ plot is at times difficult to take seriously for the wrong reasons, generally excellent game design keeps this ship well afloat. Players who remember Tri-Ace’s Playstation classic Valkyrie Profile should feel right at home with Steam Pirates‘ mix of free roam platforming exploration and comparatively structured combat. To this reviewer’s great pleasure Fried Green Apps eschewed any kind of virtual button control scheme in favor of a “tap-and-go” system for handling movement and menu navigation.

Kat’s missions take her to locales that always feel cleverly designed.  I marveled at just how much depth a tap-and-go system could accomplish in sidescrolling gameplay: realistic physics require Kat to get a running start before jumping to reach certain platforms, and determining whether hidden treasures or alternate paths might exist outside the player’s range of vision is as simple as seeing whether Kat can hang off a seemingly dead-end ledge. Exits and objects the player can interact with are clearly labeled with visual cues. While the beaches and gangways Kat traverses allow room for slight lateral movement, they aren’t nearly wide enough to let her avoid enemies walking the same paths. Unless some overhead platform can be exploited to avoid an encounter, players should prepare to trigger a battle if an enemy stands in Kat’s way.

Combat in Steam Pirates boils down to typical menu-driven RPG fare, with player and enemy turns interspersed presumably in order of some intrinsic agility rating assigned to each character. It’s difficult to tell what mechanics underlie turn order and damage calculation exactly, because there are no stats or equipment to be seen inside or outside of battle other than the barest RPG essentials: hit points, skill points, experience, and cash. Die-hard RPG fans will miss some of the character micromanagement they’ve come to expect, but its absence doesn’t particularly get in the way here and I suspect Fried Green Apps made this design choice to expand the game’s appeal. Battles move at a suitably fast clip, though they could stand some further streamlining by doing away with description windows that accompany everything from mundane attacks to specials. Enemy antics remain consistently hilarious, and neither Kat nor her battle partner seem to fall into cliche roles; both protagonists are very well-rounded in terms of combat function.

Ironically the very lack of micromanagement that might have widened the game’s appeal beyond die-hard RPG fans exposes players of Steam Pirates to the most dastardly of all RPG mechanics: the level grind. Kat and Ziggy learn skills at regular intervals, but with the exception of a few very useful techniques the main advantage to leveling up are generous heapings of additional hit points. Fried Green Apps skillfully manages the enemies in early dungeons so that grinding isn’t necessary in the least throughout much of the game, but a curious leap in enemy strength in the last dungeon will certainly awaken the RPG veteran’s ancient level-up instinct. Gamers unaccustomed to the genre will find this process backward and boring when compelled to engage in it, but thankfully it’s a one-time chore if my own playthrough is representative of the average player experience.

Fried Green Apps envisioned an experience more akin to console games than something to be picked up or dropped on the spur of the moment, so be forewarned that Steam Pirates offers no instantaneous save feature — this isn’t an app you’ll want to fire up while you’re waiting for your subway stop. The friendly Top Hat Cat who follows Kat around does furnish an item shop and save point at well spaced intervals, so the lack of control over saving doesn’t become frustrating otherwise. With no equipment to manage, the player can feel free to splurge on crucial healing items.

Steam Pirates laudably tosses in ship battles and other minigames every so often, which keeps gameplay fresh and varied over the long haul. These sequences are well integrated into the game’s plot and, as expected, teem with cat-themed mischief. Player goals – which range from properly directing counterfire from Kat’s pirate ship to shooing away giant cats that threaten to roll into a house under siege – are all accomplished with simple taps on the touchscreen, and become a test of reflexes that provide welcome diversions from combat and exploration.

The game’s aesthetic presentation simply oozes excellent quality. Spell effects could have stood some embellishment but otherwise the hand-drawn sprites, character portraits, and environment art really shine with cartoonish beauty, and sepia-toned cutscenes embellish key story sequences. Even if Steam Pirates‘ cartoon atmosphere happens to rub some players the wrong way, they’ll almost certainly be won over by a knockout orchestral score that really drives home the fact that Fried Green Apps wants this game to be taken seriously. I felt repeatedly compelled to check the Steam Pirates credits and see if the development team hadn’t somehow scored contributions by James Horner or Klaus Badelt. That doesn’t appear to be the case, but Fried Green Apps’ music team can give themselves a well deserved pat on the back, and this reviewer holds out hope that some kind of standalone distribution of the soundtrack – perhaps with extended compositions – may be forthcoming.

iFanzine Verdict: Its text could use another round of polishing and a few design decisions might backfire on the developers’ efforts to make this appeal to a very wide audience, but otherwise Steam Piratesis a top-of-the-line App Store offering. If you’re not immediately deflected by its quirky atmosphere or the mention of turn based combat, give this one a go!

Enjoy the review? Get the game on iTunes.