"The year is 19XX. A power-hungry rogue nation has invaded its neighboring countries, placing the stability of the entire world in danger. In order to preserve the peace, a secret submarine fleet, chosen from the best and brightest of the world's navies, has been formed. They are known as the Steel Divers."
So begins the epic tale of the elite Steel Divers... well, alright, it's by no means 'epic', and in fact, the story is a bit irrelevant in this relatively straightforward game, but the gameplay is pretty solid and makes up for any narrative shortcomings (typical Nintendo game design!). At the heart of the game is Mission Mode, which is divided into the story Campaign and Time Trials. Think of the Campaign mode as the 'main adventure;' it's clearly the most developed portion of the game where you'll be spending most of your time playing. In Campaign mode, you navigate your submarine (visible on the 3-D screen) through a 2-D environment, beginning on the left side of the stage and heading to the goal on the right side, using nothing but touch screen controls:
Nintendo's trailer showcases how the game play works
The touch screen has levers for moving your sub horizontally, vertically, and rotating to an angle (but still limited to the 2D plane). Suffice it to say, controlling your sub is quite technical and is a challenge unto itself. Navigating your environments safely while avoiding landmasses and hazards is just as much a part of the challenge as are actual enemy confrontations. As the manual states quite correctly: "Keep in mind that submarines, weighing thousands of tons, take time to change course, so you'll need to input commands ahead of time." Indeed, I can really appreciate how the submarines have their own physics system as they move about in the ocean; there is truly a sense of weight and momentum as you travel through the ocean in all directions.
There is a bit of a learning curve in handling the submarines with great confidence and speed. It's possible this game play mechanic won't engage the 'average' player immediately and may discourage someone from investing some more time into learning the controls. However, I personally enjoyed navigating the environments and engaging with the different enemies (including a few well-designed epic boss battles that get pretty tense, challenging, and entertaining) once I got very comfortable with the handling.
Ultimately the challenge becomes manipulating all the different touch controls while keeping your eye on your submarine and environment on the top screen. It's a difficult endeavor, but one that seasoned DS players shouldn't struggle with too much.
There are some limitations to your maneuverability. You can't simply point the sub in any direction you want or turn your sub completely around. Perhaps these limitations are more grounded in reality than I first realized, though I can't say for sure given I know very little about how real submarines operate! These limitations make for some awkward positions when you have to back track a little bit, particularly on the bosses. However, it's not really a big deal considering that most of the time you are generally moving from left to right.
Getting into position for the fatal shot! On the right, the small sub can shoot vertical torpedoes for the win.
In addition, sometimes when you sustain damage, the bottom screen develops a water leak, and you momentarily lose all control of your sub until you 'plug the leak' with the stylus. This simple feature further adds another layer of challenge and will initially discourage you from rushing headlong through a level (well, that is until you familiarize with the level layout and all enemy and hazard placements).
Level design is fairly satisfying. Each stage gets progressively more difficult, with tighter corridors, new kinds of enemies and hazards, and new ways to interact with the natural environment (submerged icebergs, strong water currents throwing you off course, falling debris, and so forth). For example, some of the challenge comes from enemy craft like airplanes and other submarines that are tucked away in the background, safely firing away at you. You can't attack and are forced to simply evade.
At the end of each side-scrolling mission you have a small amount of time in 'Periscope Mode' where you're given the chance to earn a decal for every ship that you shoot down (earning enough decals of a certain type can boost specific attributes of your submarine, like attack, defense, etc, when you 'equip' them in subsequent missions). As the name of this mode implies, you control your periscope, looking out at sea for ships (or submarines) to destroy with your handy torpedoes. You can play this mode using either the 3DS gyroscope or the touch screen. The gyroscope handles wonderfully and makes this mode very fun to play (you can also play with the touch screen instead if you're somewhere you can't stand up and rotate about freely). As games like Face Raiders and Ocarina of Time 3D have shown, 3DS gyroscope allows for fast, intuitive, and natural control over where you want to aim. It really immerses you with a great sense of being out in rough waters, with the waves' movement naturally offsetting your aim. All the ships look great out in the ocean, are nicely detailed, and move and react realistically.
The hunt... is on!
Time Trial mode does offer a whole new set of levels, but these environments are so small and bland compared to the Mission levels that I didn't spend a whole lot of time here. These levels are also much shorter than the Mission levels. Still, it is an nice little feature that adds a bit of extended value to the game.
Periscope Strike is basically the periscope mission from Mission Mode but is a standalone game unto its own, now with extended time and more enemy ships. It's not much more than a mini-game, and is somewhat fun to play a couple of times, but nothing more.
There's also a separate game called Steel Commander, which is a turn-based strategy game that involves a lot of luck. You can play either against the AI or a human opponent (supports Download Play). Honestly, playing a luck-based game against the AI is fairly boring, and I did not have a friend to play against (and there's no online support).
The game is seemingly light on content when you first browse to the mission select screen... You will see slots for seven missions when you jump in, with each averaging roughly 10-20 minutes in length (or even less), giving the impression this is a short game, but the fact that you have three different submarines to play with extends the length of the game. In addition, there is an unlockable set of extra missions that have varying amounts of alterations to those seven levels. Still, the game can feel somewhat redundant when you replay the levels over and over. Personally, I had no remorse playing the missions multiple times since each sub truly has a distinct feel with different characteristics, thus making the experience more satisfying.
The decal system also extends replayability but is poorly designed in that the decals you earn are seemingly random; it's entirely possible you will continue to accumulate unneeded decals that you've already activated (you have to collect a certain number of a decal to unlock its special power for use in the missions). You will end up replaying missions over and over (ie 'grinding') just to get a chance to score a few decals each time, in the hopes of getting the really useful ones.
Your final score for each completed mission is only determined by how quickly you complete the level, not how many enemies are destroyed, so you may be tempted to simply clear out those enemies that are directly in your way or present a significant hazard. Sometimes it's easiest to just bypass enemies, especially when you've picked up speed and can simply outmaneuver their attacks.
The game's presentation does a great job immersing you. As simple as a 2-D sidescroller like this may seem, the missions' environments have a lot of excellent details throughout. You're able to see the ocean surface reflecting onto the top of your sub, and the ocean has a definite sense of immensity as you look into the background. 3-D is used quite well in conveying the scope of the underground volcano! Schools of fish swim around in the front 3-D layer. Lots of neat touches like popping your submarine up and seeing 'majestic' waterfalls crashing down into your pool of water (the view under the water surface where the waterfall hits looks fantastic), and to top it off is a beautiful rainbow.
The sound effects are very well done and immerse you in the role as captain of a submarine. If you listen carefully to your sonar ping, you will be aware of upcoming dangers and enemy craft. The sound of being completely surrounded by water, with every movement through it, whether it is your sub or a torpedo, has an astounding level of detail, down to every bubble gurgling. The little voice commands like "Fire" (shooting torpedoes), "All ahead, flank!" (going forward at max speed), "Surface," (when surfacing at max speed), and so on, sound good and surprisingly did not annoy me as I expected. They also serve as handy audio cues that you are controlling your sub as intended. The sound is all about ambience and being surrounded by ocean water in tense situations, which is why it makes sense you won't be hearing any music during the missions (except for a short intro as you begin each level).
To sum it up: Although the game may seem a bit short at first and without a whole lot variety in the main mission, the gameplay is engaging enough to keep you entertained, especially when playing the game in short bursts. It's increasingly rare for Nintendo to release a new IP nowadays, so this 3DS launch title is most welcome indeed.
TRIVIA: Steel Diver was developed by Vitei (located in Kyoto, Japan), founded by Giles Goddard in 2002. Having started in the industry at one of the UK's most innovative games companies, Argonaut Software in London, he went to Japan in 1990 to program Starfox for the SNES. One of the first console games to use 3D polygons, Starfox went on to become a fast selling video game at the time. During his tenure at Nintendo Co., Ltd., Giles worked on several hit titles including Stunt Race FX, Super Mario 64 and 1080 Snowboarding for the Nintendo 64. Vitei's other games are Rock N' Roll Climber (WiiWare) and the Japan-only Theta (DS).
@deathly_hallows Yeah, that's a common problem with several great 3DS games, they are simply overpriced.
(Pac-Man & Galaga Dimensions, I'm looking at you).
Steel Diver could have/should have been the flagship title for Nintendo's download service, not a full retail game.
Pac-Man & Galaga is another example of a game I'd love to own, if the priced more appropriately. For the 3DS (and the Vita) to survive in this economic climate, publishers need to get smarter about the way they price games.
Yes, Pac-Man and Galaga Dimensions is in my collection and I'm currently playing it (apparently I'm the only person here who has the game, for now)! I just got it for my birthday last week (thanks to my fiance!) and haven't spent a lot of time with it yet, but I will say Pac-Man Championship Edition is incredibly addicting (I've never played any of the previous versions on the HD consoles) and the 3-D effects are really cool.
I agree about the sales, there have been plenty since the 3DS launched. I picked up Steel Diver along with two other games during a "Buy 2 Get 1 Free" Deal (or was it B2 Get 1 Half Off? ah, can't remember).
Very nice review. It actually makes me want to play the game now. I really liked the part where you describe surfacing and seeing the rainbow. Like everyone else here though, I'll wait for the eventual price drop.
A very nice review, indeed. I was very excited about this game prior to its release, and was one of the very first I preordered. I was looking forward to plugging in some headphones and absorbing the ambiance. However, as the release date approached and the reviews poured in, I opted to pass. However, your review has sparked my interest once again. And like sirmastersephiroth, I too plan to snatch this one up once a lower price point is made to happen.
Nice review Mr. Koopa. I did try playing this game, but I was a little frustrated with the controls. It was hard for my brain and my hands to coordinate. I think it could have been better if there is an option to use the control pad instead of using the touchscreen by it self. Well any way because of poor judgement and coordination all I can hear while playing this game is "ship damaged". It almost sounds like it's cursing me repeatedly. Good thing about this game is the 3D and the art style.
I can understand the frustration, which is why I discussed the ways this game may not click with some people. But I think the touch screen controls make this game far more compelling and engaging than simply directly controlling your submarine would have.
Haha, yes, the "ship damaged" voice could easily be mistaken for that sh-- word that we mutter to ourselves when things aren't quite going the way we planned.