March 25, 2015 8:05 AM | Lena LeRay
Dreadbit's Ironcast is a match-3/strategy RPG hybrid along the lines of Puzzle Quest, but with greater depth to its gameplay and the addition of permadeath. Framed as duels between steampunk mechs and set during a French-British war, the player gets to balance the gathering and spending of resources to defeat their enemies and emerge victorious for the glory of Britain.
The player's mech has four subsystems in the form of two weapon systems, a drive system for movement, and a defense system that raises shields. Weapons damage enemies, of course. The drive system keeps the mech moving and reduces chances that enemy fire will hit while the defense system raises shields that block a set amount of damage from every shot that hits its mark. Using these systems requires ammo or energy and incurs an overheating cost as well. Each system has its own hit points, separate from the hit point value of the hull, and becomes non-functional if its hit points drop to zero. The subsystems can be repaired, though the hull cannot, and if the hull hit points are reduced to zero, the game is over.
Combat is turn based, and on the player's turn they can use their subsystems as many times as their resources allow. In order to do anything with the various subsystems, however, the player needs to gather those resources. This is where the match-3 portion of the game comes in. Ammo is needed to fire weapons, energy is needed to activate and sustain shields and movement, coolant is used to prevent overheating, and repairs can't be made without the necessary repair points. And although subsystems can be used until resources run dry, the player can only make three resource-gathering matches per turn.
Matched gems do not need to be lined up in a row; any group of three or more gems of the same type that can be connected via horizontal, vertical, or diagonal movement is fair game. There are also overdrive orbs which can be attached to any group of gems and will increase the efficacy of the next subsystem used, as well as linking gems which can be used to get more than one kind of resource in a single match. Tool tips tell the player exactly what they're getting out of the match in terms of resources gathered, experience, and any special things that apply.
I feel like it would be doing the game a disservice to say that the match-3 portion is the core of the game. It's certainly an important part of the game, but since the goal of every mission is either defeating enemies or surviving for a given number of turns, the gathering of resources by making matches is just one aspect of the player's overall strategy. Enemy mechs work exactly like the player's mech and there are plenty of visual cues that can inform a player's decision. Should the player press the attack even without enough coolant, taking damage to the hull and all systems, to try and eliminate the enemy before they can make repairs and get their shields up? Which enemy subsystem should they target? Is it worth it to create a chain that will gather more resources than the maximum the player can hold just to open up slots on the board in the hope that another desperately needed resource drops in?
This balancing act extends beyond individual battles, too. The player can choose one of 2-3 randomly selected missions at any given time on the world map. Each mission offers a base amount of manpower, scrap, and experience. Experience earned can get the player new hero or mech abilities and scrap is used to create new modules for the mech subsystems and to repair the mech between battles, so it's easy to think that prioritizing the missions that grant more of those is the way to go. Manpower, however, contributes to the boss fights by directly reducing the boss's hit points.
All in all, Ironcast is a very engaging game. I would say that the story is its weakest point, but it's clear that the story is just a thematic wrapper for a game that easily stands on its gameplay alone. The gameplay is very accessible, too, easy to pick up and colorblind friendly. Once you get into the game, though, there is a lot of depth and flexibility to how the game plays. It's made for replayability, with new mech chassis and characters to unlock and all the randomly selected missions and upgrade options.
Ironcast will be available for Windows, Mac, and Linux via Steam on March 26th.