The next time you dismiss a puzzle game as a yet another match-3, Bejeweled clone puzzle game, you might not want to do it around Ironcast.
Ironcast joins the list of games making the jump from PC to Nintendo Switch. Developed by Dreadbit and published by Ripstone Games, Ironcast is a roguelike, mission-based, puzzle strategy game with permadeath. If that sounds like a mouthful cocktail of game types to you, then you would be correct.
In this game, players take on the role of any commander they choose (though the game starts with Aeres Powell by default). France is invading the United Kingdom for reasons initially unknown, bringing along with them a slew of steam tanks and mechanized weapons called “Ironcast.” It is now up to you and your strategies to turn the tides of battle and win the war for the Queen.
Ironcast is, first and foremost, a puzzle game. Smack dab in the middle of the screen is a 6×6 grid filled with objects of different colors and shapes called nodes. The primary goal is to connect as many adjacent nodes of the same color as possible to gain enough ammo, energy, coolant, or repair points. These connections are possible either by using the touchscreen (handheld mode only) or by using the right stick. Extra pieces called scraps are also available for either repairs or upgrades. Every once in a while some unique pieces will appear to help the player in some fashion.
Part of the allure of Ironcast is the possibility of making long and ridiculous node chains to fill up a reservoir and gain experience points. While not a novel idea, it feels very satisfying to twist connections around to maximize the number of connected nodes. The game quickly evolves from a simple matching game to a game of match optimization, planning out the best way to get as many nodes as possible. And when a particular piece appears that allows you to connect another node color with your current one, it gets even easier to wipe the board clean.
Strategizing also comes hand in hand with the puzzle gameplay, and not just in terms of deciding which node to connect first. Each match made fills up four different reservoirs depending on their color: purple for ammo, orange for energy, blue for coolant, and green for repairs. Yellow pieces net you some scrap for use in the workshop, but they don’t fill any reservoirs for battle. Each turn gives you two chances to make matches, so you always have to weigh the difference between clearing the board of all the scraps and gathering enough ammo to finish off an enemy.
Remember the “mission-based” part of the description? Ironcast operates through a series of missions with differing requirements. Some missions require you to survive a certain number of turns, while some only need you to eliminate enemies. Regardless of whichever one you choose, you must always keep your Ironcast alive. Be savvy with your node matching and stick to either an aggressive or defensive playstyle. Lose all of your Ironcast’s hull points, and you will quickly meet the game’s permadeath face. Play well and you might just meet the game’s villains.
And even though permadeath is a thing in this game, campaign closures are indeed a blessing rather than a curse. At the end of your run, all of the experience points you gained are tallied up and turned into commendation marks. These marks unlock various things such as more commanders, different Ironcasts, various abilities, augmentations, and boosters. Gain enough experience and you’ll be slightly buffed up for more challenges pretty soon.
If the idea of constantly restarting a run to farm experience points and abilities sounds rather cheap to you, you wouldn’t be wrong. Play the game long enough and you’ll have all skills and augmentations unlocked, along with other useful permanent boosts, commanders, and Ironcasts. The game, with its constant threat of simply annihilating your run and making you restart from the beginning, suddenly becomes an easy cakewalk that gets easier the more you do it. The thrill of almost losing wanes down. Ironcast after Ironcast lay wasted right in front of you, and before you know it you have the boss down on its knees.
On the other hand, these unlocks also serve as your progress meter. It does a great job of making a seemingly mundane puzzle game have a purpose. Each commendation mark earned is a step closer towards completion, reachable only through hard work. Miscalculate and you’ll have to start over again.
Even though Ironcast doesn’t have much of a story – it exists mainly to give you more chances to play the puzzle part and present you with different challenges – it has more than enough replay value to keep even casual players coming back again and again. The allure of slowly building up your might to go against the strongest villains meets an interesting gameplay that’s accessible to everyone. If you factor in the Switch’s hybrid nature, Ironcast suddenly becomes the game you never knew you needed.
Note: Ripstone Games provided a copy for review purposes.