1st March 2016
Very few games stand out. That is the brutal truth from a games journalist and reviewer. Sure we can find positives and negatives, there is sometimes a strong plot to keep us tied into the game or more often than naught, once we are done reviewing the game, it will likely never get booted up again. It’s a sad truth, one that I’m not sure many of my colleagues would be too happy with me saying, but it is the truth. There is always another game to review and unless a game can grab us, entices us or obsess us, the chances of revisiting it once the review goes live are slim. It is a slightly cynical viewpoint that I and some of my fellow reviewers share. Sometimes we need a pallet cleanser, something to blow the cobwebs from our mind and remind us why we love doing what we do.
The most recent occurrence of this anomaly was Ironcast. I spoke with Daniel Leaver, the lead designer of Ironcast, last year at EGX and got to see the game in action. I will be honest and say I wasn’t totally enamoured with it when watching it on the show floor. I didn’t think there was anything wrong with it per say, it just wasn’t my kind of game. So when I got the review code through, I went into it with a very analytical mind. I booted up the game and played for what I though was a couple of hours. It turns out that I had lost an entire day playing Ironcast, a full eight hours without ever feeling fatigue or the stinging eyes of a prolonged session. It was only during this revelation that I realised I had been fully engrossed in a game I wrote off as “not my thing”. The lesson ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls: play the game before you make up your mind.
Ironcast is set in a steampunk Victorian England. England is at war with France over a resource called Volite. The game does a fantastic job at filling in the backstory making the conflict drawn out over many years instead of the usual “ahhhhhhhh we’re under attack” origin of conflict that so many developers use as a crutch. Even through the simplistic text boxes on screen, I felt there was a weight behind this world, this alternate reality, that the developers have obviously put a great deal of thought into. Playing as a commander of an Ironcast: a mechanised tank with advanced weapons, it is our duty to repel the French invaders and save the England: “for Queen and Country”.
Ironcast is as much of a hybrid as it is possible for a game to be, it has a whole mixing pot of roguelike aspects, tactical and strategy gameplay, upgrade elements that would be at home in an RPG and to top it all off, a big dollop of Bejewelled Blitz. It sounds like a game that tries to fit so many elements into the fundamental game play would have an identity crisis but Ironcast is firm in its footing.
The gameplay is simple but engrossing, every day the player will have a choice of three missions and after a week or so comes a boss battle. It is nothing we haven’t seen before in a legion of other games but Ironcast’s system is ideally geared at pushing you to the extreme limits of your ability before it slaps you on the forehead and asks why you’re hitting yourself. Missions can be punishing and success is often dictated by the luck of finding a good weapon rather than your own skill.
The main gameplay breaks down into three separate aspects. In combat you will have to engage enemy Steamtanks or Ironcast mechs by raising shields, moving to increase the chance of your enemy missing and of course, blowing seven shades of sh*t out of the enemy with your two weapons. Firing a weapon uses ammo (duh) and coolant so you don’t overheat and damage yourself. Setting the Ironcast in motion and raising the shields takes energy and coolant and repair points can be used to reactivate damaged subsystems. Managing these resources is the key to surviving but it is important to keep on top of things tactically as well as making sure you have enough coolant in the pipes. It sounds like a simple system, and it is, everything in Ironcast is simple once it has been explained (something the tutorial does an excellent job at doing) and it makes the experience all the more enjoyable. Enemies have the same restriction as you do as well as having the same or comparable abilities. The only real difference between the English and French Ironcasts are the tactics that the pilot will use.
During the combat special abilities can be used, these range from firing a cluster missile to do some extra damage, firing two shots instead of one, damage buffs, defence buffs and the ability to leech resources from the enemy. In conjunction with the solid combat controls, these abilities have the potential to win you the battle. The second aspect of combat is the act of gathering resources. Cue the Bejewelled Blitz portion of the game. In the center of the screen is a tile box that has all of the resources you can gather. During the turn-based combat, you will have three “moves” on this board to gain resources. If you can link a minimum of 3 of the same node then, you get the resource points. This is one of the few downfalls of Ironcast. I played a few games where I needed ammo, and for two turns of the battle, no more ammo nodes appeared for me to gather. This semi-random distribution of nodes isn’t too much of a problem in short games, but Ironcast will boot you back to the main menu if you are destroyed in a battle and you simply have to start the game again. That issue aside, the mechanics of resource gathering are a surprising boost to the already tactical gameplay: do you take all the energy nodes in the hope that more ammo will spawn and waste half of them or do you hold off and only take what you need? The mashup of elements meld together in the way we only see a few times a generation: Peanut butter and chocolate, strawberries and cream, Netflix and chill, and now Ironcast’s combat system.
The final aspect of Ironcast is the garage section. Here you can repair your Ironcast between levels, upgrade capacities, purchase and equip weapons as well as upgrading your abilities through XP earned in each level. Providing you have the parts you need you can tailor your mech to your fighting style. It is also from the garage that you can pick your next mission. There are a few mission types that vary in objectives: there are straight forward battles, missions where you have to destroy an enemy without damaging a specific subsystem, survival missions, missions where you have to collect a certain number of supplies and straight forward trade missions. Scrap is earned for missions and is used as currency to upgrade and repair while each mission will give you an allocation of fighting strength (like Mass Effect 3) which comes into play against the boss and will reduce its health before you engage.
It is a punishingly difficult game and requires a good number of playthroughs before you can start to upgrade your starting abilities to give you a fighting chance in the later stages of the game. To add to replay value, there are four different Ironcasts that can be used and 4 commanders that have their own unique abilities.
The art style of the game seems like it would be more at home on a mobile device than a console but it is pleasant enough to look at all the same. I do like the writing of the dialogue, it seems very old fashioned and civilised, like Sherlock Holmes and Moriarty facing off in a deadly game of implied innuendo over tea and biscuits. The audio is fantastic, dramatic music carried me through each level and a satisfying explosion was gratification for a successful hit.
Ironcast surprised me, something that is not easy to do. I went into it thinking the game mechanics would be solid but ultimately I would move on to the next game as soon as I finished typing my review, instead I have found a game that didn’t just hold my attention for an 8 hour stretch, but it is one I will be going back to on my own time.
Mashup of styles mould perfectly together.
Difficult gameplay is a true challenge.
The upgrading system adds an extra layer to the gameplay.
Variety of mission types.
4 different Ironcasts to choose from.
The lack of generation of nodes can lose battles.
One death and you have to restart.
No voice acting.