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Platform(s): Nintendo Switch, PC, PlayStation 4, Xbox One
Genre: RPG/Strategy
Publisher: Ripstone Publishing
Developer: Dreadbit Games
Release Date: March 26, 2015

About Brian Dumlao

After spending several years doing QA for games, I took the next logical step: critiquing them. Even though the Xbox One is my preferred weapon of choice, I'll play and review just about any game from any genre on any system.


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PC Review - 'Ironcast'

by Brian Dumlao on May 5, 2015 @ 2:30 a.m. PDT

Ironcast is a turn-based steampunk mech combat game inspired by Victorian-era science fiction writers such as H.G. Wells and Jules Verne.

Puzzle Quest really helped the puzzle genre expand its boundaries. By adding RPG and adventuring elements to a standard match-three puzzle, the games gained some purpose and helped puzzle fanatics gain interest in other genres. The success of the Puzzle Quest series and its ilk shows that the genre mix isn't likely to slow down anytime soon. On the surface, Ironcast seems like a simple retread of the formula, but there are a few things that try to deepen the experience.

Unlike most puzzle games, this plot is quite interesting. It is the late 19th century, and a new material, Voltite, has been discovered.  Its origin country of France does not want to share the discovery and research with others, but the British stole a sample, and as a result, both countries went to war. After years of stalemate, the situation grew dimmer with the development of a new tank, the Ironcast. A bipedal weapon, it allowed the British an advantage in the war, but before things could end, France blanket-bombed the island nation. As one of the few surviving Ironcast commanders, it is up to you to save Britain and defeat the invading French forces.

The core of the game is similar to other puzzle adventure games in that you're given a grid of colored gems and asked to match at least three like-colored ones to obtain them. Those colors correspond to your abilities, which can only be activated once you obtain the necessary amount of a certain color. Those abilities are both defensive and offensive in nature, and you keep fighting until you run out of turns, fail the mission, or best the enemy. In between skirmishes, you can also outfit your character with new weapons and abilities to improve your battlefield performance.

That's where the similarities end, as Ironcast does a number of things differently from other puzzle adventure games. The most noticeable change are in the puzzle mechanics. Instead of taking on a Bejeweled style of match three, you're tasked with connecting three or more like-colored gems with a thread to make them disappear. As with most puzzle games, matching more gems at a time increases the amount you get. The gems can be connected in cardinal directions (up, left, down, right), but they can also be connected diagonally. There are never more than four gem colors used throughout the game, but you encounter other special gems on the field, such as one that lets you link two sets of differently colored gems and one that, when built up, lets you unleash an overdrive version of one of your abilities. You also encounter scrap gems that provide extra revenue to spend on upgrades.

The powers provided by the gems are also different in that they work in concert with your abilities as opposed to powering up a specific one. The gems you collect power up one of four categories, depending on the color: ammo, coolant, energy and repairs. Ammo is used in guns while coolant is the most used item, since you need it to power both offensive and defensive capabilities. You can still use your abilities without coolant, but you'll take damage. Energy powers up your Ironcast's walking speed and shields, and repairs fix up one of four components to your Ironcast (defense engine, mobility engine, and two guns).

Turn movement is also very different. Whereas other games have you exchanging turns with the enemy, in Ironcast, you get three chances to string together as many gems as possible before control is given to the enemy. You still have the chance to use your abilities at any time during your turn, so you can exhaust your current supply of ammo, take what you need to rebuild it, and spend your ammo again before relinquishing your turn. Also, instead of letting both players take control of the same board, the enemy pretty much leaves the board alone, giving you the chance to plan ahead for future moves without worrying about relinquishing that advantage to your opponent.

The missions vary quite a bit, though most have you duking it out against another Ironcast or heavily armored train. Some missions have you fighting multiple consecutive enemies while some give you the chance to choose which of the enemies you'll fight. While killing the enemy remains key, some missions have you target specific parts of the Ironcast before blowing it up. Other missions ask you to survive an onslaught of attacks for a specific number of turns while some missions task you with collecting goods instead of fighting the enemy. If you're lucky, you'll get a few missions where you trade scrap for personnel and vice versa, sparing you from a skirmish. Each stage gives you the chance to choose between one of three missions in preparation for a boss fight, where the personnel acquired in previous sorties can help provide a significant preliminary strike.

You can spend scrap between missions to upgrade abilities with blueprints that you've collected from battles. Missions and long gem strings also give you XP, and you can choose between one of three passive or active abilities when you level up. These choices range from the ability to siphon elements from the enemy to a percentage increase in things like attack effectiveness or shield power. Repairs to your Ironcast can also be done, which is very important since your overall health is carried from one fight to another.

When compared to similar titles, perhaps the biggest departure is the integration of roguelike elements. With the exception of the boss fights, all of the other missions are randomly generated. While this means that no two games are completely alike, it also means you could get randomly drawn into a very easy or very difficult pathway for your campaign. Permadeath is also part of the game, and while you can save your progress in the middle of a campaign, the save is overwritten once you die, and all of the perks, upgrades, and progress are lost for good. Upon death, however, your XP is transferred to a total pool with its own leveling system, where more permanent unlocks occur as you progress. Some of those include an increased health boost when leveling up in the campaign, different Ironcasts to pilot, and new pilots.

Depending on your stance, the inclusion of permadeath is either a boon or a curse. On one hand, the campaign is rather long, and the idea that you can go so far, lose it all through death, and restart at the beginning can seem rather cruel for those who aren't fans of roguelikes or gaming before save systems became commonplace. This is especially true if you happen upon a lucky sequence of easy missions and you accidentally mess it up. On the other hand, the slow building of abilities and new items means you'll find the campaign easier to deal with over time, and while you may run into a stroke of bad luck with mission choices, it won't be as brutal as when you started. It also means that every runthrough isn't wasted since it all counts as progress toward an overall goal. You just have to be patient to see it pay off.

Graphically, Ironcast is good, albeit subdued. The designs for the Ironcasts are an interesting blend of Victorian steampunk but with more functional sensibilities. They look fit to be precursors to the Japanese style of mechs and move quite well. Elsewhere, the backgrounds are functional, though there is a limited assortment to choose from. The color scheme also makes the whole thing look rather flat, with lots of dull colors and no hint of shadows to give the appearance of depth. It's functional enough but not exactly impressive.

The audio is a little better but not by much. The musical tracks are nice enough that you want to fight when it plays in the background, but it fails to be memorable enough that it spurs you into combat. The effects are spot-on, but like the music, it lacks the volume to be meaningful enough. It feels subdued, as if the battles should be quieter affairs instead of loud ones. With no voice work present, both of these elements should've had their volumes raised to deliver more of an impact.

In the end, Ironcast is an interesting puzzle game that rewards patient people. The idea of grinding away to get better stats and perks in the long run might put off players who aren't used to seeing their immediate progress get wiped away over and over again. The gameplay is engaging enough that players will want to press forward even after the umpteenth defeat because there's always the chance that they could stumble upon some luck. The presentation could be better, but the mechanics are so solid that most players won't mind the flat appearance and audio. For those looking for a punishing version of Puzzle Quest, Ironcast is it.

Score: 8.0/10

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