Genre: Match 3/Strategy
Release Date: TBC
Matching games are a dime a dozen these days and the genre mash-ups have seen a meteoric surge thanks to the popularity of Puzzle Quest. If you’ve stumbled onto a mobile device’s app store recently then chances are you’ve seen a dozen or so examples in just the last week. Even the supposed last bastion of “hardcore” gaming that is PC has been infiltrated by an impressive brigade of match 3s, chain-linkers and gem puzzlers. So with Ironcast adding to those numbers on Steam, should we really care?
Oh Hell yes.
Puzzle Quest sparked imaginations due to its blending RPG features into a familiar formula. Ironcast does something similar by taking the core aspects of multitasking strategy titles like FTL and distilling them into components that suit a more casual, yet still complex model. You’re not going to be making split-second decisions that decide the fate of the lives depending on you a la XCOM but that’s not to say that the depth afforded by these elements isn’t going to challenge you at every turn. Ironcast is more than tough, at times it can feel downright unfair. You’re a one woman army with the odds against you from the very beginning and each encounter is finely tuned to make that apparent.
You are Aeres Powell, an Ironcast pilot fighting for the British Empire in an alternate Steampunk timeline where France has declared war and battles are fought with enormous mechanised monstrosities. The traditional stiff upper lip manner of speech and premise that France hasn’t yet surrendered may suggest a comedic tone but the story is a well-written and convincing account of war-torn Victorian England. Those seeking lore to flavour the gameplay will find a moderately gritty tale that will make you care when you hear the consequences of a bad decision or mission failure.
You might think I’ve left discussing the gameplay this late due to its simplicity when the truth is that I’m unsure how to simplify it enough to fit this review. You can make three matches in a turn, collecting one of four different matters; ammo, coolant, energy and repair nodes. Each adds to a stockpile that can be used for a variety of actions that do not consume a turn. So far, so simple you might think. This is when the aforementioned strategy elements kick in. Each material can be used to power certain parts of your mech: your two weapons, your shields and your locomotive drives. Charging each system requires a combination of two resources so while you can potentially make an unlimited number of maneuvers in a turn, you’ll quickly deplete your reserves leaving you entirely defenceless if you’re reckless.
With that previous paragraph covering roughly a third of what you need to know to succeed, it’s safe to say there’s a wealth of tactics and knowledge to be gleaned from the competent tutorials and trials by fire. Balancing the demands of your mech with the need to manipulate the play-field is stressful enough without considering the advanced factors like evasion, over-heating, link nodes, overdrive and targeting specific body parts. On top of all of this, you have a total of twelve slots for augmentations and a wealth of equipment so customisation is key to winning the toughest missions. I’ve finished battles to find myself reclining into my seat physically exhausted, not realising how tense I’d become over the course of particularly tough battles. Becoming so involved and immersed is something I’d never thought possible in a game of this genre.
It is unrelentingly tough at times and you’re not expected to be able to win first time round. Like Majora’s Mask’s looming moon, there’s an enormous boss approaching headquarters that marks the deadline of each playthrough. All missions cost one day and with only 9 to spare you must choose the most rewarding path through the offerings. Certain missions will see you engaged in out and out combat whilst others require surviving a set number of turns, recovering cargo, or disabling enemies without killing them. Gathering scrap, war assets, blueprints, experience, and augmentations is vital to success but even though death is permanent, it is not a setback. Your score is added to a Global Unlock tally that rewards you with many permanent perks, pilots, and vehicles which not only boost your chances but make replaying an absolute pleasure.
Visually, both sides of this genre combination are often underwhelming. The art style involved here is really quite appealing with the character portraits and general tone evoking a convincing steampunk era. The animations of the mechs, from the arcs of energy weapons to flames billowing out of weakened components are a cool touch but it’s understated throughout. The simplicity does get a little repetitive after extended playtime but your focus will rarely linger on the imagery for long periods.
I’ve said it before and it’s worth reiterating, Ironcast is unforgiving. It’s also inventive, smart, rewarding, and satisfying to the degree that all other games have fallen to the wayside since I started. This review was ready for writing at the 6 hour mark so all extra hours since have been pure indulgence and addiction. In a genre so devoid of even attempting to innovate, Ironcast is a masterpiece and quite easily one of my favourites games of this year.