Ironcast is an odd beast. After a successful Kickstarter campaign by its developers Dreadbit, the game was released on PC back in May 2015. The conversion to console is now here, and we can see what all the fuss has been about. At its heart, Ironcast is a simple colour-matching puzzle game, but the strategy and forward planning required to keep the game going ramps up to almost unbearable levels. And therein lies the attraction of the game: it is almost unbearable, but you are convinced that if the nodes just fell that little bit more kindly, you'd succeed at last. So you have one game, and then one more game, and then its three in the morning and you're wondering where the evening went. At least, that was our experience...
Playing through the tutorial, you are introduced to the setting, which is a richly-detailed steampunk re-imagining of the world in Victorian times. History has taken a bit of an odd turn, with the invention of massive, seven-metre tall bipedal tanks known as Ironcast. Drawing inspiration from Victorian science fiction and with a fantastic hand-drawn art style, the world that Ironcast creates is engaging and really draws you into the game. The various characters look great as well, and with fully fleshed-out back stories you really do begin to look at the world through their eyes. Plus we really think that all warfare in the future should be waged in top hats and bonnets!
In terms of the game's mechanics, as we mentioned above, at its heart this is a game where you match various colours of nodes to load your Ironcast up with various resources. These are, in no particular order:
- Orange nodes (Energy). These nodes provide the energy to start your Ironcast walking, or raise its shields.
- Purple nodes (Ammo). These nodes load your primary and secondary weapon systems, to bring the hurt to your dastardly enemies!
- Blue nodes (Coolant). This keeps your systems running smoothly. Each action you ask your Ironcast to undertake generates heat and depletes coolant. If you have no coolant and engage a system, it will still work, but your Ironcast will be damaged. This can be the difference between success and failure.
- Green nodes (Repair). Green nodes allow you to repair any damaged systems. It takes five repair nodes to mend a system, so its usually worthwhile keeping five in reserve, just in case. Hull damage to the Ironcast cannot be repaired.
- Yellow nodes (Scrap). Scrap is the currency of the game. It is used to make new armaments and systems for your Ironcast, usually from blueprints that are found after defeating enemy Ironcast. This has no effect on the course of the current battle, but may turn the tide in the next one if you get that new shield, or upgraded cannon.
In addition, there nodes that link two different chains of nodes together, so you could pick up ammo and coolant in the same turn, for instance. There are also Overdrive nodes that power up the next system that you engage, giving more powerful or greater numbers of shots, increased shields and so on. The systems on your Ironcast have a 5% chance of achieving overdrive status on their own, but having up to three overdrives stored makes it a sure thing.
The gameplay revolves around making matches on the grid and trying to anticipate what your enemy is going to do. If you suspect they are going to bring out the big guns and lay into your Ironcast, then it makes sense to try to match energy nodes and then raise the shields and increase the speed of your unit, as this increases its evasiveness. If, however, you think they will spend the next turn either repairing or raising their own shields, then matching ammo to enable you bring the thunder could be beneficial. All the while keeping an eye on your coolant, of course! In addition, another layer of complexity is added by being able to target specific systems on the enemy Ironcast or Steamtank. Should you target the guns to stop them firing, the shields to reduce the damage absorbed, or their drive systems to limit their evasiveness? At the same time, the enemy will be doing the same to you, so then you have to repair critical systems that they damage...and so on and so forth. You get three matches at the start of every turn, and there is no limit to what you can achieve in a turn, as long as you have the nodes to power your choices. Annoyingly, in the first turn of any battle round, your weapons spend their time "charging", while the enemy is under no such limitation and can lay into you as soon as the whistle goes, so our advice is to concentrate on shields/movement in the first turn.
In between rounds, you are returned to The Hangar, which is where you can get your Ironcast mended and change the loadout of weapons that you are carrying. As mentioned, if you have sufficient scrap after fixing the hull of your steed, new weapons, drives and shields can be built from blueprints, and then applied to the Ironcast to suit the next mission. The missions are selected from a map of Southeastern England, with pins representing the various tasks you can undertake. They are rated according to difficulty, so you can take a mission that you feel your current level will allow you to succeed at. There are also boss levels, but you probably want a top-rated Ironcast to even think about taking those guys on.
Its not all battling, however. In some missions you are required to obtain resources, so it is possible to match the requisite number of crates without even firing a shot, if the nodes fall kindly for you. Its almost an anti-climax when that happens, as the enemy is drawn up on the other side of the screen ready to engage, but you are able to make the matches and extract before battle is joined. The other type of mission is a Salvage mission, where you are sent to battle an enemy and given the task of not damaging a certain system so it can be studied. The loadout of your Ironcast becomes crucial at this point, as the cannons and the missile launchers all damage all enemy systems. You need pinpoint accuracy for these missions, so something like an energy lance is ideal. Be warned, if the system in question is even scratched, the mission is a failure.
Failing a mission is not too much of a concern compared to what happens if your Ironcast is destroyed, however. Ironcast the game operates on a roguelike basis, where death is the end of your game, but any enhancements that have been unlocked for your Ironcast using the Commendation Marks you earn will carry over to the next playthrough. You earn one Commendation Mark for every 5000 XP, and these Marks can be spent in the main menu to unlock new commanders, new Ironcasts, and also new abilities for those Ironcasts, ranging from stealing the enemy's ammo through to having a higher starting HP when launching a new playthrough. So after failing the missions more times than we care to count, the starting Ironcast we have now is a walking machine of shiny death and stomps through the early missions in double quick time. When we get to the later missions, or the boss rounds, that's a whole other story, but we'll leave that to you find out!
Not everything in Victorian London is rosy, however. We have suffered quite a few game freezes and drops to the dashboard, which is very upsetting at the end of a long battle when the enemy was on the ropes. In addition, and we accept this more a moan than an actual fault, there is no voice acting in the game, with all the dialogue being presented on screen. We feel that having these monocled upper crust chaps and ladies speaking to each other would have added another level of charm to proceedings. As it is, we have to supply the "Tally Ho!" ourselves.
Ironcast is the very definition of the saying "easy to pick up, difficult to master". The world, the characters and the art style are all top notch and really serve to draw you in, and once you are in, the compulsion to just have one more go is almost irresistible. The gameplay is balanced very nicely and we can't not recommend it, with only the freezes and crashes to really report as drawbacks. If you are looking for a puzzle game for your Xbox One, look no further than this. Picking it up would be a capital idea, what what?