As the Nintendo Switch matures in the marketplace, there is an increasingly number of diverse titles coming to the system. While we were blessed to receive Puyo Puyo Tetris early on in the console’s lifecycle, a new puzzle game has arrived and it offers up plenty of intense strategy and exciting gameplay to keep you glued to your Switch screen for hours on end. It’s a game that’s set in the 1800s and features steampunk vehicle combat with color-matching puzzle mechanics that just happens to feature permadeath and somehow manages to pull it all off beautifully. That game is Ironcast.
In this revisionist history expedition you find yourself fighting to protect the England homeland from the French invaders. Instead of horses and swords you have huge steampunk tank-like mechanical beasts (called Ironcasts) to do battle in. These machines have complex systems that must be properly maintained in order to successfully win in battle. The story unfolds through communications between you, your commanders, and the enemy forces you go up against. The story is somewhat entertaining and although you’re tasked with stopping the French invasion, there’s much more to discover and maybe a twist or two that should keep most gamers invested in continuing through to the end.
At its core Ironcast is a turn-based strategy game that just happens to use puzzle mechanics to drive the gameplay forward. If you’ve ever played a puzzle game that has you matching colored items to clear them from the screen, then you’ll be right at home with the basic concepts. In this game you have four different resources to collect: Ammo (purple), Energy (orange), Coolant (blue), and Green (repair). In order to collect that resource you must connect at least 2 of the same colored nodes, and the ones you collect will fill up the respective energy bar by one point. Each has a maximum amount that can be held at any given moment, although that capacity can be increased if you’re willing to spend scrap metal on upgrades. This limited capacity can present some interesting challenges – do you clear the screen of 10 purples when you can only hold 8, thus wasting 2 of them, but allowing new nodes to appear? Or do you leave the extra 2 for later and get less new nodes? The choice is yours!
Each round you can make two attempts at matching the nodes to fill the bars you need. These resources are used for all of your actions. For example, say you want to fire your main gun at the enemy – that might take 3 Ammos and 2 Coolants. If you don’t have the proper reserves you won’t be able to take that action. Other things you can do are put up an energy shield to protect from incoming fire, activate your drive system to begin walking and increase evasion, and repair systems. The game gets even more complex when you discover that you can actually pinpoint a target on the enemy’s Ironcast. If you want to take down their defenses you can target their shield generator or drive shaft. If you want to cripple their offensive capabilities you can target either one of their weapons systems. The problem is the enemy can do precisely the same thing to you, so you’re going to need to keep vital systems functioning or you’ll be dead in the water.
Speaking of, if you do manage to lose all of your hull integrity your Ironcast will explode and the game will end. You will be whisked back to the title screen and have to begin your adventure from the beginning. At first this was a huge turn-off for me as I’m not a big fan of roguelike games. However, this game does something rather smart, it takes all of the experience points you’ve earned up to that point and converts them into Commendation Marks. These can then be spent prior to starting up a new quest to hire new drivers for the Ironcast (each has his or her own special power), buy new Ironcasts, and purchase new attributes. These special attributes are then added to the stock of augmentations that are handed out when you gain a level. In other words, the more of these you purchase and unlock, the better chances you’ll get these perks in future play sessions.
It’s also important to note that each time you play the game the encounters are randomized, so it’s not like you’re going to be stuck playing the same missions over and over again. There are several different types of battles that you can take on, each yielding different rewards, such as experience points, scrap metal, and armed forces. Some will have you try and destroy an enemy in a set number of turns. Others will task you with surviving for a number of rounds, and some even have you collecting special crates to gather supplies for your allies.
The experience points will level you up and each time you gain a new level a set of three perks will show up and you can pick one to add to your driver or Ironcast. Some of these automatically take effect (like when you match three or more Coolant you get an additional one in reserve) while others must be activated and have a cool down time to reactivate (like a special power to collect all of the repair nodes from the screen at once). The scrap, which you can find in the puzzle grid itself and also as rewards will let you visit the workshop in between battles to upgrade your Ironcast’s weapons and defenses. It also allows you to repair your hull from the previous battle’s damage. The more armed forces you earn from your battles will drain the boss of its energy when you eventually confront it at the end of the stage, making it easier to defeat.
Although it’s punishing and sometimes devastating to have to start the game over, the idea that you’re able to begin anew stronger than before helps ease the frustration. Also, because the missions are randomized and the game, at its core, is just as much a puzzle game as a strategy game, made restarting the game less of a chore. Still, I can totally understand how some would not like this design choice, and believe me it’s not one I typically enjoy in my games. However, I found myself coming back to the game over and over again over the past week having a blast each time I played. The game is perfect in short bursts, but I found myself getting sucked into the game and before I knew it a couple hours had passed. You can utilize a Pro Controller, Joy-Cons, or even use touch controls – take your pick.
Ironcast looks and sounds just fine for the type of game it is. The visuals aren’t going to really impress anyone, although I do enjoy the character portraits and the Ironcasts themselves look pretty detailed. The backgrounds are somewhat generic, but you’re not going to be staring at them for any length of time. Your focus will mostly be on the 6×6 grid of gems you have to match and the two mechs fighting it out. Musically the game is fine, with mostly upbeat marching songs. A few times the music had a sort of sci-fi or horror sound to it, which worked well for the setting.
Players who enjoy match-type puzzle games, strategy games, or just have an interest in steampunk should find enjoyment here. Ironcast provides hours and hours of enjoyment and is well suited to the Switch’s handheld and docked modes. The game can be challenging and the threat of permadeath really raised the stakes. On more than one occasion my palms were sweating as I barely managed to eke out a win. Don’t be surprised if you have to start over many times before you find yourself successfully beating the campaign. The randomized battles, puzzle mechanics, and progression system really helped ease any frustration I felt when having to restart the game from scratch. Ironcast somehow manages to combine several complex gameplay systems into one coherent and fun experience that is addicting and fun. At only $12.99 this one comes highly recommended!