Tuesday, August 8, 2017

Review: Ironcast


The Nintendo Switch has absolutely been blessed with an embarrassment of riches when it comes to quality roguelikes on the console. While they all may have elements in common they also tend to be quite distinct from one another and Ironcast is absolutely no exception. Created through what may seem like an unholy alliance of a gem matching puzzler, a resource management simulation, and a turn-based strategy game I can honestly say I’ve never played anythinglike it. The developer, Dreadbit, has absolutely thrown down the gauntlet for strategy genre fans, with a game that will force people to learn, plan, improvise, and execute in order to survive through its challenging campaign.

Set in an alternate history version of Victorian England, complete with lumbering mechanized war machines called Ironcast, you’ll take control of your choice of a Commander and a mech. Far from these choices being cosmetic the combination of these two options will build the foundation of the strategy you’ll be looking to implement. Whether you favor aggressive offense, locked-down defense, or specialization in a particular type of firepower both your Commander and your Ironcast of choice have attributes you’ll need to leverage to their utmost in order to be successful. You’ll do this over a number of missions, and these come in a variety of forms as well.


The conflicts you choose to get involved in, how you perform in them, and a heaping helping of luck will shape your progress as you try to level up, gain new abilities, and equip your mech with more powerful weaponry and defensive measures. In order to survive the extended boss battles you’ll absolutely need to make the best use of your time and opportunities. The behemoths you’ll face in these two major battles are formidable in their defense but more critically in their firepower, and they’ll shred through you like your armor is made of paper if you haven’t prepared adequately up to the point of their arrival.

Once you get into battles your primary focus will be on the gem matching aspect of things. As always you’ll want to focus on matching as many gems as possible per string (if nothing else just for the experience gain) but when you throw in elements like overcharge spots, commendation medals, link nodes, and sometimes things like supply crates you’ll need to incorporate some planning and anticipation into the mix as well. A weak move now, if you can take the short-term hit waiting for the next turn, could yield much better results and like all roguelikes there’s a very heavy unpredictability to Ironcast and it will force you to constantly measure the risk/reward benefits of every action, down to even the order you activate your systems in. Especially if you have an overcharge available do you put that into your shields so you can survive a bigger hit or do you use it with your weapons in the hopes it will pack an additional punch. In particular, if you use it with your weapons you’ll have to consider what type of weapon it is, what defenses they have up, and even then whether or not your shot may miss entirely. The RNG gods are strong in this game and, as always, they can be very fickle.


Getting past the basics of working your gem matching skills, planning is the far more crucial element of managing your resources and making the best use of them to both protect your Ironcast and to damage your opponent’s. If you want to bring up your shields or get your mech moving you’ll need to expend both energy and coolant. Firing your weapons will consume both ammo and coolant. If you need to make repairs to your systems that have been damaged or disabled by enemy fire you’ll need resources for that as well. The careful management of these resources, and the decisions you’ll be forced to make on a turn-by-turn basis dictated by the board, what your enemy is doing, and potentially the objectives of your mission will be the difference between success and failure. The bad news is, from experience, that your worst enemy isn’t often something to do with the game but your own lapses in judgement if you’re not keeping everything in mind. Of most critical consequence would be failing to manage your coolant reserves and trying to fire your weapons or use your defenses since you’ll be able to do so but the cost will be often significant damage to your mech and its systems from overheating.

While you’re trying to manage all of this consider that your enemy will be actively firing on you as well, potentially damaging your key systems, and forcing you to rethink your strategy. Do you try to compromise their shields, making them vulnerable to a wider variety of attacks, or do you focus on simply trying to disable that gun they’re hammering you with in the hopes it can buy you time? If you forego keeping your Ironcast moving for a turn will an extra attack or two that buys you turn the tide? Adding to your strategic layer will be special abilities tied to your Ironcast and that you’ve managed to get through leveling up. The right ability used at the right time can absolutely turn the battle around but things often don’t go as planned so you’ll often likely need to float a turn or two if you want to properly set the stage for using one and you may well not survive that long.


While I can try to express, in words, the undertaking you’ll face in the game unfortunately it really takes experiencing it for yourself to get the full idea. Your initial batch of runs will likely be incredibly bumpy as you try to get used to the systems, identify what Commander and Ironcast suits your style of play, and work to understand and refine your strategies in the wide variety of scenarios you’ll face. While each failure will return you to square 1 in true roguelike style fortunately you’ll accumulate Commendation Points that you’ll be able to use to unlock new Commanders, Ironcast, special abilities, and even boosts that will start you out with more base hit points, enhance your rate of getting experience, and more. At least with this little by little you’re able to put yourself into a progressively better position for fighting effectively.

Taking all of this into account we’ll get to whether or not it is all worth it. If you enjoy being challenged and engaging in highly strategic gameplay my answer would be it is absolutely worth your time and effort to learn. With that in mind I’ll also say that I was among the people who greatly enjoyed Has-Been Heroes while a great number of people chose to throw their hands up in frustration instead. Of all of the games I’ve played on the Switch in many ways I consider Ironcast to have a similar spirit as HBH as a game that won’t apologize or compromise just because you’re struggling. It sets the bar high and expects you to get there or die trying. That said, if you take the time and put in the effort you absolutely can beat the game and I’ll say accomplishing that feat was among the most rewarding experiences I’ve had in quite some time. Ironcast is the kind of game that only indie studios would likely be daring enough to attempt, defying all traditional expectations and making people invest some blood, sweat, and tears to cross the finish line. If you’re up to the challenge your mech is waiting for its Commander, and the good people of England are depending on you!

Score: 8.5

Pros:
  • An inspired mix of genres, blending gem-matching and strategy in an unexpected way
  • While it is incredibly challenging the Commendation point system provides an excellent user-controlled pressure release valve
  • A very satisfying game to master and beat


Cons:
  • The level of challenge won’t be for everyone
  • The story, though somewhat interesting, is also nothing terribly new
  • The RNG Gods can be incredibly fickle, though your own concentration is most often your biggest enemy


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