Ironcast (Switch eShop) Review
If you look at the eShop page for Ironcast, you might be led to believe it’s nothing more than a glorified match-3 game. I thought the same when I first looked at it. I was dreadfully wrong.
Ironcast is (and this is a bit of a mouthful) a turn-based strategy RPG puzzle game with roguelike elements. This means you’re going to have to think carefully about each move you make, and it also means you’re going to fail quite a bit. When you do fail, you’ll have the opportunity to start a new campaign with some improvements, and the better you perform during your campaign, the more improvements you’re likely to have in the next campaign. I’ll expand more on this a bit later, but it’s elements like these that will have you coming back again and again.
But first, let’s talk about the story. Ironcast takes place in 19th century steampunk England, during the fictional Anglo-French war that started in 1875. For a decade, the French and the British have been engaged in vicious warfare, fought by thousands of troops and aided by Steamtanks, a kind of off-rail locomotive with heavy artillery. The war has reached a stalemate, with each side hit hard by the costs of war. Advances by both sides resulted in the loss of thousands of men, and often the destruction of costly Steamtanks. Without a way to turn the tide, both the British and the French would have been driven to destruction. Enter the Consortium of Merit.
The Consortium of Merit are a secretive organisation comprised of wealthy private business people, brought together by their disdain for the duration and bitterness of the war. They hold no alliance, and their only goal is to bring the war to an end, no matter who wins. In 1882, the Consortium introduced a new war machine to the world — the Ironcast. Ironcasts are an all new class of weapon, 20ft tall walking mech suits with guns galore and the ability to deploy energy shields to protect from damage. They’re faster, more powerful, and less resource-intensive than Steamtanks, and in-game, the difference between the two is night and day. Taking on a Steamtank feels like a walk in the park compared to fighting an Ironcast, especially when it comes to some of the more menacing Ironcasts.
At the start of Ironcast, you, the player, take control of Aeres Powell, a world class Ironcast pilot and CEO of Powell Energy Co., a major weapons research and development company in Britain. The start of the game has a nice little backstory about Aeres, mentioning that she and her Ironcast have just been involved in a large bomb blast in London. Her commanding officer talks her through the process of starting her Ironcast back up and getting it combat-ready. It’s a nice framing device for the tutorial, if a little tired. I’ve no doubt that a bomb blast would be disorienting, but after building Aeres up to be the strong and powerful woman that she most definitely is, it was a little disappointing to see the game immediately have a man explain how to do her job. It’s a little issue, and hardly worth mentioning, but it is a small stain on an otherwise spotless opening.
After getting your Ironcast combat ready and finishing the tutorial, you’re thrown into the hangar screen. This is a main menu of sorts; from here you’ll repair, manage, and upgrade your Ironcast between missions. It costs 100 Scrap (the de facto currency for Ironcast pilots) to repair 100 points of damage to your mech (I’m just going to call them mechs from now on, Ironcast is too cumbersome), and you’ll want to make sure your mech is fully repaired before starting any mission. Upgrades are also purchased through Scrap, ranging from 500 all the way up into the thousands, but you’ll have to earn the best upgrades in combat by salvaging parts from fallen enemies. Thankfully this process is automatic, but there’s no telling what you’ll get from defeating any given enemy.
After exploring the menu, it’s time to take on a mission. There’s a surprisingly wide range of missions to take on, and some are riskier than others. You can choose to take on a Steamtank, which are probably the easiest of the combat missions, or take a huge risk and take on a powerful enemy Ironcast. The game will reward you for making risky moves, either with powerful mech upgrades, a tonne of Scrap, or a sizeable amount of manpower (more on that later), and believe me, you’ll want to take on as many hard missions as you think you can handle.
There are also more interesting missions that don’t involve defeating enemies (though combat is still involved in many of them); survival missions give you a set number of turns in which to survive an onslaught of enemy attacks, cargo missions have you collecting supplies while keeping yourself alive, and negotiation missions require no combat at all.
Negotiations are probably my favourite of the missions, but they can be challenging at times. You’re tasked with convincing powerful magnates to contribute resources to Britain’s war efforts, though none of the magnates are particularly interested in helping you out at first. In order to gain the precious resources, you’ll have to navigate your way through tricky conversations, listening to what each person wants and needs and trying to offer something worthwhile in return for their help. Some of these magnates have endless riches but no power, some of them have all the manpower in the world but no funds, and some of them just want to be more powerful. You’ll have to figure out what each person needs and make a reasonable offer if you want to reap the benefits, but if you fail, you’ve essentially wasted a day. And that is not something you can afford to do. You can complete one mission per day, and it’s in your best interest to make each and every day count.
No matter what missions you take on, one thing is constant: you have 9 days to gather as many resources as possible before a powerful Gargantuan-class Ironcast lays waste upon London. The Gargantuan is no joke, it has way more health than a player Ironcast could ever hope to have, deals tonnes of damage, and is just generally a pain in the ass to deal with. It’s not impossible though, and you do get a helping hand at the start of the fight. See, all that manpower you’ve been collecting throughout the past 9 days, this is where it comes into play. At the start of the Gargantuan fight, your men will deal damage to the giant mech, and the more men you have, the more damage they’ll deal. This is your primary way of damaging the Gargantuan, so you’ll want to make sure you have as much manpower as possible going into the fight.
Unfortunately, the game isn’t too great at telling you this. The first time I got to the Gargantuan, I did barely any damage, because the turn prior I had traded away the bulk of my manpower for cash so I could get a sweet weapon for the final battle. Turns out that sweet weapon did sweet F.A. compared to the damage the manpower would have done. And so, I was defeated.
But defeat isn’t the end of the game, in fact it’s often the beginning. This is where the roguelike elements come in to play; at the end of each playthrough, you’ll be awarded commendation marks. The more experience you get during the campaign, the more commendation marks you’ll receive. You can also occasionally pick them up on the grid in battle. Commendation marks can be spent at the Commendation Exchange, where you can use them to unlock new commanders to pilot your mechs, new mechs, powerful abilities and upgrades, and permanent boosts to resources. There are dozens of upgrades to unlock here, so falling in battle never feels like a bad thing, just a way to start again with a new set of skills and equipment.
I’ve spent so much time talking about the results of battles that I almost forgot to talk about how combat itself works. It’s a weird mashup of genres, part match-3 puzzle game, part turn-based combat, but all fun as heck. At the focal point of combat is the grid, which is where the match-3 element comes into play. There are four different types of resource nodes that appear in the grid — coolant, ammo, energy and repair — and you’ll need to draw a line through 2 or more of the same type of node to collect those resources. You can match horizontally and vertically, as well as diagonally as you please. There are a few other types of nodes too, like link nodes, which allow you to continue your line from one type of node to another, and overdrive orbs, which puts your weapons into Overdrive mode, where they’ll deal more damage. You have two matches per turn (and a third when you defeat an enemy in a multi-enemy battle), so managing your resources and picking your matches carefully is crucially important.
Ammo nodes are pretty straightforward, they allow you to fire your guns, and different guns require different amounts of ammo. Energy nodes give you energy as a resource, which is used to raise the shields up to three times, or to set your mech in motion, which increases your evasiveness and causes enemy attacks to miss more often. Most actions, such as raising shields or firing certain weapons, will cause your mech to heat up, and gathering coolant prevents your mech from overheating, which causes damage to your systems. There are four systems that can be damaged, either through overheating or by enemies targeting particular systems, two for your weapon slots and one each for your shields and walking drive. If the health of these systems hits zero, you won’t be able to use them until you repair them, which is where repair nodes come into play. The good news is that you can also target particular systems on enemies, though they can repair those too. It’s all very strategic and very fun, and there’s really no feeling quite like pulling off a perfect set of matches to take your enemy down without taking a single point of damage.
On the point of weapons, there are two main types of weapons that you can use in battle, and two “classes” to them as well. The two main types are energy and projectile, and there’s little difference between the two that I’ve found, except that energy weapons tend to generate more heat when firing. Beyond that, weapons can generally be divided up to classes: low damage, multiple shot weapons, and high damage, single shot weapons. They each have their uses; the multi-shot weapons deal slightly more damage overall, but are largely ineffective when the enemy has its shields up, while the single shot weapons have good penetrating power when faced with a shielded or heavily armoured enemy. Once you’ve used up your turns, raised your shields, and fired your shots off, it’s your enemies turn, and you have to hope to god you’ve done enough to survive the volley of bullets headed your way.
Without wanting to draw too much of a similarity to a certain series of robot fighting movies, there is so much more to Ironcast than meets the eye. The strategy elements are surprisingly robust, and while the combat focuses on what might look to be your standard match-3 affair, its deep integration with the turn-based RPG mechanics makes for an experience I won’t soon forget (or stop playing) anytime soon. The world is beautifully crafted and rich with history and intrigue, the gameplay is extremely engaging and fun, and the game itself runs beautifully in both docked and handheld mode (where you can play entirely using the touch screen, too), though some of the loading times are a touch on the long side. There’s nothing outstandingly bad about this game, it’s just a really solidly built mashup of genres, and that’s what the Switch needs right now: games that look good, play well, and leave a good impression.
Ironcast launches on the Nintendo Switch on the 10th of August, at a price of $21.99 AUD.
Review copy provided by publisher.
Extremely robust gameplay mechanics
Beautiful world and aesthetics
Near-endless replay value
Loading times can be a bit dicey
Some elements aren't explained particularly well
The interface can be a little overwhelming at first