Wot I Think: Ironcast
You may remember the recent news that a lorry, aeroplane and cargo ship all carrying gaming genres crashed into each other off the coast of the M4 near Swindon. What you may not have heard is that emerging Terminator-like from the resulting carnage appeared Ironcast [official site]. A turn-based match-3 roguelite steampunk resource-management RPG. Here's wot I think:
Since the first appearance of Steve Fawkner's Puzzle Quest in 2007, there have been a great many copy-cats, and even more attempts to crowbar match-3 puzzling into ill-fitted suits. Few get it right. Some good news: Ironcast gets it right.
It mostly gets it right by doing it so very differently. Set in a completely barking steampunk revision of 19th century England, during a decade-long war with France, you are tasked with controlling giant mech-bots (the Ironcasts) in an effort to push back the invasion of our southerly neighbours. The first wave are going to get to London in nine days, and you jolly well need to stop them.
So, first of all, combat is not about frantically making matches. It's a far more refined affair, in which tile-types all have extremely distinct purposes, and gathering them efficiently and sufficiently is key to any success. Your stompy robot requires four main resources: Ammo, Energy, Coolant and Repair. Each is gathered by drawing connecting lines between matching tiles on the grid, the catch being, you only get to make three collections per turn. Using these resources, you can fire weapons, power up shields and get your bot walking (making it harder to hit), and repair damage received.
But what's so distinct here is that your actions aren't limited by a number of moves per turn - just by the resources available. So if you start a turn with lots of ammo, you can fire off a couple of shots at your foe, then gather more ammo tiles and repeat. Of course, your weapons (two equipped at a time, from an ever-growing selection) aren't much use if you're not repairing them, and you're definitely going to want your shields up before your next turn, and of course it's good to be in motion, but you can't do any of this without coolant in the tanks... The balancing of what you choose to gather, and then how you deploy it, makes this a far more thoughtful game than the Puzzle Quest-like screenshots might suggest.
It's also far more involved. During battles you can target specific parts of your enemy - a particular weapon, their mech's 'drive', or very usefully, their defences if they've a shield raised. Of course, if there is a shield raised, you're going to need to use the right kind of weapon to make a difference. And you'll likely want to take out a weapon to which you're especially vulnerable. While remembering to take advantage of both the General and System Augmentations you've collected and equipped, as well as the cooldown-based Active Abilities you've taken into this battle.
Finish a round, and it's back to the workshop, where levelling up involves picking new augmentations and abilities. Then scrap gathered (another tile) and won (each mission has specific rewards) can be used to repair damage from the last battle, as well as to unlock new weapons and drives from blueprints gathered as you fought. And to change the augmentations you've got equipped. Start a new game and you'll have a choice of mechs, later pilots to play as, and get a boost with permanent upgrades you've unlocked in previous turns... Hopefully you're getting the picture here: there's an awful lot more going on than in your typical puzzle-RPG.
The roguelite aspect comes from the permadeath. Lose in any battle and that's it, game over. There are permanent ("universal") upgrades, that mean there's a sense of progress as you restart, and more significantly, new stompbots become available, and then new characters to pilot them. But cor, it's a brutal blow to mess up one fight and be done. A really good brutal blow.
Missions appear randomly each play through, and there's variety to them. Certainly, most have you facing off against another giant metal steam machine, or maybe two, but the motivations change with the little narrative blurps at the start of each. Some require you to gather other items from the tile grid as you play. And there are negotiation missions too. Each you choose has specific rewards, which all add up to make a difference when you attempt the boss battle against the forces attempting to reach Londontown. The more troops you gather (generally as a reward from battles, but they can also be traded in negotiations) through the first eight missions you play before the big London encounter, the more weakened the enemy's hull will be. Win that, and there's a nugget of twisty story info, and the process starts over, this time with six days until another wave arrive.
Oh, and these battles all take place in the South East of England. Finally, a game remembers to include Guildford! (Although also Croydon. And Reading.)
The downsides? The presentation is a little flat. Literally. Both the backgrounds and the Ironcast mechs are very lacklustre, plain and dull. It's a very dreary game to look at. And while the permadeath is a strong feature here, the first round, at nine battles in length, is such a long one to go through over and over before reaching later stages. Mechanically, it's also a shame that when you attack or are attacked, there's no immediate recognition of damage to shields and movement - instead the cumulative deficit appears in one lump at the end. It'd be nice to see my shields tumbling away in the context of the missile hit, rather than just blipping away at the end of the turn.
From barely scraped through Kickstarter to finished game in a few months, however, Ironcast really holds up. Its permadeath is perhaps the sort where you'll need to walk away for a bit before starting over, but with my average playing time between calamities being a couple of hours themselves, that's no bad thing. It's far more involved than you'd think from looking at it, and much more tactically thoughtful than a match-3 RPG has been before. Much more. The story is a touch blandly presented, but hardly an important factor in the scheme of the game. It's completely novel, and that's a rare thing to say about any game, and even rarer to conclude it succeeds in its originality.