I had grown to trust Ripstone. The small independent publisher had made a name for themselves with excellent virtual recreations of classic parlor games. Pure Chess gave the long-running Chessmaster series a run for its money, Pure Hold ‘Em was a very classy poker game, and Pure Pool is one of the best pool games I had ever played. Apparently Ripstone decided to try something new; so, instead of another parlor game, they put out a new entry in the growing puzzle/RPG hybrid market, a market monopolized by Infinite Interactive’s Puzzle Quest franchise. Ironcast is a solid step into that particular pool but only for those players who don’t mind being thrown into the deep end head first.
Ironcast: Xbox One, PlayStation 4 [Reviewed], PC
Release Date: 1 March 2016
Price: £9.99 [Disclosure: Game Copy Provided by Publisher]
Ironcast does a great job at building a setting. While steampunk settings are nothing new, no other game that I can think of had explained how the setting came to be. In this game, an alternate take on the late nineteenth century is built when the French discovering a new power source that, after a few decades, leads to building bipedal robots. Naturally such technology is too dangerous to be in the hands of just one nation. The British steal it and develop their own robots. By 1890, the French had invaded Britain, and open robot warfare had begun. The setting is quite believable. Even though it seems weird that two countries that are capable of building mechs by 1890 are still using morse code to communicate, I can still go with it.
The setting is helped with some of the best 2D graphics I had seen in an independent release. The character designs fit the time perfectly if you can buy characters with cybernetics dressed like they stepped out of a Sherlock Holmes story. The ironcasts are large, beautifully drawn, and smoothly animated. This game shows how wonderful 2D can look at 1080p. Even the borders and font choices are great, a perfect fit for the setting. The only gripe is that the backgrounds can get a little repetitive after awhile.
The sound doesn’t fare as well. While not bad, the score is not memorable, and it wears out its welcome faster than the backgrounds. The sound effects work well, but the number of sound samples is limited. There’s no speech in the game; all of the dialog with headquarters comes with telegraph beeping that gets annoying well before the first playthrough is over. I found myself listening to my iPod while playing after a short period of time.
The gameplay is quite unique for the genre. Yes, you are still matching colored gems (called “nodes” here) to power up attacks and defenses, but that’s where the similarities to Puzzle Quest end. Strategy plays very heavily into the game. You have three matches per turn, and the matches can run as long as the same colored nodes are next to each other. Along with making sure you have plenty of purple for your attacks and orange for movement and shields, you have to keep tabs on the green for repairing damaged systems and ESPECIALLY the blue coolant to keep your mech from self-destructing. Despite a lot going on in Ironcast, the tutorial does an excellent job at guiding new players. Getting into the game is quite easy all things considered.
Unfortunately, there are two huge problems with Ironcast. The first is that, while the game does a wonderful job at building the setting, it did a terrible job at writing a compelling story. Yes, the goal is clear, stopping the French invaders, but there is no narrative drive beyond that. Your playable characters have nothing distinct to offer the plot; they are completely interchangeable. Also, the boss Durant is completely uninteresting; you have absolutely no contact with him before the boss fight. Dreadbit needed to take some lessons from Borderlands 2 on how to make a compelling villain.
The lack of a decent story isn’t as much of a deal-breaker for new players as the other problem Ironcast has: the outright sadistic difficulty. Let me make this perfectly clear… you will die a LOT playing this game! While the first couple of battles don’t seem so bad, you will barely survive the third, and subsequent fights will feel like postponing the inevitable. On top of that, the game is initially very stingy with the experience points and scrap that it doles out. You will not have the resources to upgrade as much as you need to early on. When you die, the campaign ends, and you have to start all over.
Thankfully, when you die, all experience points racked up in the campaign get converted into commendation medals that can be cashed in before starting another playthrough. They can be used to unlock new pilots with different augmentations. They can unlock stronger mechs with more powerful weapons or tougher armor. Most importantly, they can unlock permanent boosters that carry into all subsequent playthroughs, allowing for higher hit point bonuses or larger experience point gains. Smart investing of your commendation medals makes the later playthroughs much more manageable. Even so, don’t plan on seeing the endgame until you’ve restarted the campaign at least a dozen times.
I’m very torn on Ironcast. On the one hand, it is an original take on merging gem-matching puzzles with RPG development that also provides heavy strategy and an expertly crafted setting. On the other, it can be an absolutely frustrating experience with no real narrative payoff. As such, I can only recommend this game to those who want a fresh puzzle game concept that aren’t prone to rage-quitting. There is a refreshing take on puzzle/RPG hybrids here for those with the patience to handle its extreme difficulty. For those that relish challenge, you’ll definitely find it here.