If you’re a developer, one of the coolest ways you can jazz up your game is by melding different elements from different genres into it (provided you know what you’re doing developing in said genres in the first place). Seeing experimentation always makes gamers curious, and we almost can’t help ourselves when it comes to trying projects that blend appealing parts of our favorite titles. Ironcast, from UK indie studio Dreadbit, did just this when it wooed Kickstarter backers with its mix of puzzle, RPG and roguelike elements, earning £10,183 towards its initial versions on PC. After seeing success there, the game’s made its way to PS4, where owners of Sony’s console can now get a taste of the steampunk-inspired mech-fighting strategy game. But despite sporting a number of color-matching puzzle trappings that might be misconstrued as casual, make no mistake: this is a brutal and unforgiving affair that leaves little room for error.
Match Three, Blow Stuff Up
Ironcast wastes no time sending you on your way; after a brief tutorial, which explains all of the battle system’s fiddly bits, you’re pretty much left to your own devices. But wow, are there a lot of fiddly bits — so many that it’d be almost comical trying to explain them all in the context of a review. Suffice it to say that the game’s main mechanics blend turn-based RPG combat with a color-matching puzzle game, not unlike the way such a combo worked in Puzzle Quest: Challenge of the Warlords. You match gems of the same color to build up your mech’s power in four different areas: ammo (to fire your primary and secondary weapons), energy (to use your shielding and evasion powers), coolant (to keep your system from overheating and damaging itself) and repair (which allows you to fix parts of your mech). The catch is, you can only match gems three times per turn, and you have to match at least three of the same color to gain any sort of benefit.
This might sound like a lot to track by itself, but there’s plenty more to keep your eye on: each individual part of your ship, from the weapons to the drives that allow you to move and evade, can be destroyed if not kept in good shape, and you’ve got to keep a watchful eye on your enemy’s stats and parts as well. This can seem overwhelming at first, and indeed, your first few battles may go less-than-perfect as you juggle all the controls, HUD elements and numbers — but once you’ve got your first few battles under your belt, everything becomes second nature and you’re able to focus entirely on the challenges at hand. And that’s good, because this game does not mess around with challenges. How hard is it, exactly? Well, let’s put it this way: the challenge mostly comes from the roguelike elements, which themselves boil down to two major issues, permadeath and the cruelty of the RNG.
Kiss Your Mechanical Butt Goodbye
Yes, that’s right; lose even one battle, and you’ll find yourself back at the beginning. That’s not to say there’s no record of your hard work, of course — special items called “Commendation Marks” earned during the campaign can be carried over and used to purchase permanent upgrades like commanders, mechs and abilities — but even with this system, progress is going to come at a crawl for all but the most-skilled players. That’s part of the roguelike’s charm, for sure, but this game really doesn’t offer enough for your endurance; for every minute spent tasting the sweetness of carrot, it seems like you’ll spend another wheezing and out-of-breath from failing to catch the vegetable the game dangles in front of you. This is made even more frustrating by the RNG element, which essentially determines just how difficult your time will be. You can see a sweeping success in one playthrough, getting all the best boons upon leveling up, only to get crushed early on in the next playthrough thanks to a bit of lousy luck. The best strategists will surely be able to make the most of these bad situations, but I am not in that category, and as such, I must admit I had a miserable time.
Not Much to Look At
I also found myself at odds with the visual presentation, which did as little to draw me in as the unforgiving gameplay. To be sure, the eponymous mechs are wonderfully designed, each utilizing the steampunk style in a creative way, and the train-like mechs you eventually have to go up against are even better. But I was totally unmoved by the washed-out, muted color schemes and surprisingly dry Victorian aesthetic, which fails to set itself apart in any distinctive way from other versions of the steampunk approach. The music and sound design fare better, however; I rather enjoyed the tense, dramatic orchestral selections on the score, and the Ironcast satisfyingly creak and hiss with all the proper sounds.
Ironcast has a fascinatingly complex base game, filled with myriad details to keep track of and a brilliant sense of strategy. Unfortunately, while serious tacticians will find themselves enjoying the nightmarish difficulty, anyone looking for a lighter challenge will be left in the dust, as permadeath and a merciless RNG slow progress to an unsatisfying crawl. That may seem like a personal problem rather than a serious criticism, but there is so much richness here that a lot of players will probably never get to see — repeating the same missions over and over again is only fun for so long, and “so long” is exactly what I said to Dreadbit’s fiendish genre-blend.
Ironcast review code provided by publisher. Reviewed on PlayStation 4. For more information on scoring please see our Review Policy here.