Indie Wonderland: Ironcast

A few hours in

It turns out that ‘gargantuan’, as a descriptor for the French commander’s Ironcast, sadly was not just an hilarious misnomer.

I was hoping for a Little John or Tiny Tim-style situation here.

And that was the first time I was actually able to get to him, too! Commander Adhira Dhankhar met her end at the hands of a surprisingly tough pair of ‘light’ French Ironcast, and commander William Beechwood and his luxurious mustache were taken out of commission while scrabbling around for crates of tea. It wasn’t until commander Halisi Adoyo took to the field that I even got a shot at victory.

This game honestly has some impressive racial and gender diversity.

In my week with Ironcast, I made something like a dozen attempts at beating it. Of that dozen, maybe three runs ended up at René Durant, French Cool Guy Supreme. And only the last of those runs I recall actually being something of a threat to him. Which means that, hey, it does look like I’m progressing! That’s something. But simultaneously, whether or not I’ll actually ever be able to beat him…

Ironcast is an interesting little game. If I had to describe it in terms of inspirations and predecessors, I’d call it the love child of Puzzle Quest and FTL. With maybe a little Rogue Legacy (or similar) thrown in in the role of nanny. It combines Puzzle Quest’s engaging resource-based node-matching moment-to-moment gameplay and RPG-style leveling with FTL’s semi-structured campaign and long-term equipment and upgrade systems. Which, on paper, leads to a game that has both great potential as a quick time-waster and the short-but-intense campaign hook required to engage players and to engender replayability.

Unfortunately, Ironcast also inherits the poor randomization aspects of both of its parents. But we’ll get to that in a moment.

For now, have this robot.

As you’ve probably picked up on at this point, Ironcast’s gameplay is based around two interconnected sets of mechanics. During mech-on-mech battles, which form like three quarters of the meat of the gameplay, Ironcast is a resource-based node-matcher themed and patterned upon giant robots (and the occasional tank) shooting the shit out of each other. You take turns drawing lines of nodes to gather resources, using those resources to activate weapons and systems, and applying special active and passive abilities when needed. All that stuff I described on the last page, really.

By and large, this gameplay system works fairly well. While Ironcast’s line-drawing system of matching nodes doesn’t have the same time-limit-driven visceral thrill of match-3 games like Bejeweled, figuring out optimal node matches and planning your strategy around your board is fun regardless. I dunno, there’s just something about drawing a twenty-node-long line and watching a whole bunch of replacement blocks clatter in. Call it hunter-gatherer instinct.

Of course, the node matching is only the backdrop for the — impressively detailed and animated — giant robot battles going on in the side-ground. And while comprised of relatively simple mechanics, these battles manage to hit a good level of engagement most of the time: challenging without being frustrating, risky without being overwhelming, and comprehensible, but still capable of surprising you. Not every battle is a winner, obviously, but that’s the nature of Gaussian distribution.

The core of the battles is the interplay between weapons, drives, and shields. Each Ironcast carries two weapons into battle, and weapons differ in the areas of damage type, individual shot power, number of shots, and ‘splash damage’. Because different Ironcast defenses prevent damage in different ways — drives add a miss chance, shields reduce damage by a flat amount, and the relatively rare armor reduces damage by a percentage — each battle is a puzzle dance of figuring out the best way to avoid and destroy the enemy’s defenses, while effectively defending against their attacks.

Shields reduce damage, so a rapid-fire weapon with weak individual shots is no good. Drives reduce accuracy, which has the potential to be more impacting for powerful single-shot weapons than it does for rapid-fire weapons. But what if an enemy has both shields and drives up? Do you use the powerful weapon that penetrates the shield, at the risk of missing entirely? Or do you use the weaker weapon that will probably hit at least a few times, but at vastly reduced damage? And while we’re at it, what subsystem do you target? The shield, so that when that’s destroyed, the rapid-fire weapon regains effectiveness? The drive, so that the single-shot weapon can fire with impunity? Or maybe one of the enemy’s weapons, so that on their next turn they won’t vaporize you? Decisions, decisions…

Which is the path to victory?

Practically speaking, most battles do settle into a rhythm of sorts fairly quickly. Taking out enemy weapons often feels less than useful, because — like you — enemies can just repair their weapons to full effectiveness with Repair nodes. Taking out shields and drives has the added benefit that all the activation levels of that system are gone; while the enemy can repair the system itself easily, it’ll take them another dozen points of Energy and Coolant to get it back up. All the while remaining under fire from you, if you’ve played your cards nodes right.

On a pure node-matching level, the player and their enemies fight in the same way. While you can’t see the enemy’s node-matching board, it seems very plausible that they at least have one. The enemy AI plays cleverly overall, using the right weapons for the right defenses to inflict maximum damage, but it will often be as hobbled by its node board as you are. It doesn’t activate the right defenses? No Energy. It doesn’t attack, even though you’re completely defenseless? No Ammo. It does nothing but repair its own systems? I can almost see the AI player cursing at a board that only has repair nodes. “I just needed one more Ammo to kill that guy! Just one more!”

Of course, it goes without saying that this goes for the player as well.

“Gonna need some more Coolant here, *game*.

While most fights feel at least somewhat fair, the player does have a significant leg up over the opposition in the way of their active and passive abilities. These abilities, tied into the leveling system, can change the dynamic of the node matching board and the battle in interesting ways. Not all of them do: maybe your shield just boosts your weapon damage by 5%, or maybe your drive gets you extra Coolant every turn. But for every straight effectiveness boost, there’s an ability that really shakes things up. Like the one that clears all Scrap nodes off the board, or one that turns all nodes of one colour into another. Or the ability that adds an extra shot to your next weapon, or that allows your next attack to bypass shields entirely. Or the ability that immobilizes the enemy entirely for the next two turns. Or the ability that… but you get the idea.

And to use that paragraph as a segue: while Ironcast’s moment-to-moment gameplay is fun enough, it’s the metagame that ties the battles together that really provides it with structure. Not only are leveling, equipment, and narrative and characterization tied into the metagame, but thanks to it, the outcomes of individual battles start mattering beyond more pass/fail: damage that you take in battles has to be repaired in-between missions at the cost of Scrap, your upgrade currency. And, inversely, it can be worth it to extend a battle you’ve already practically won to nick some more Scrap, Experience, or Manpower from an enemy you’ve already practically defeated. If you’re sure they won’t suddenly bounce back…

Pictured: a fight I should have retreated from earlier.

The space between missions is usually good for three things. One, you can level up here. Each level presents you with a choice of three randomized upgrades, like so:

Okay, so you can access the upgrade menu right after the mission too.

Your Ironcast has room for three passive augmentations, three active abilities, and one system-specific augmentation for each system. You can swap augmentations and abilities at will, though it does seem to be so that you have to use augmentations if you have the space for them. Which can lead to some unintended negativity with augmentations that don’t really do what you’d like… but overall, it works.

Two, you can use scrap to upgrade your Ironcast’s stats and equipment. Stat upgrades are very limited: 500 Scrap gets you more health, and 1000 Scrap expands one of your resource storage tanks a little. But the equipment system…

Basically, how it works is that after every fight, you have a chance to loot blueprints or (rarely) complete systems from your enemies. Ironcast at current has seven different weapons systems, two shield systems, two drive systems, and one kind of armor, all at five level of effectiveness. And rarely, blueprints and systems are… well, rare, making them even more effective over their base type.

Example:

Blueprints are turned into systems through the expenditure of Scrap. And like abilities and augmentations, systems can be swapped between missions at-will. Just remember to actually click the ‘Save And Close’ button instead of the back arrow.

And three, obviously, the mission hub is where you select your new mission. The way Ironcast’s narrative works is that you have a set number of days to prepare for the arrival of the French commander. Every ‘day’, you’re presented with a set of two or three semi-random missions, with different goals, rewards, and difficulty levels. Winning the mission advances the time one day. Losing the mission… well, losing the mission generally kills you, but losing missions in non-fatal ways — this can happen! — advances the day timer as well. Just with less rewards and prestige on your end.

Most Ironcast missions are a variation on the theme of ‘go to this place and kill this dude/these dudes’. And, you know, fair enough. It’s a battlin’ game, this Ironcast is. ‘Amusingly’, it’s actually the missions where Ironcast tries to shake things up that manage to work out the least: in trying to provide some variation on its main theme, Ironcast inadvertently shows that it can’t really vary.

See, it’s like… every mission is framed as a battle between two Ironcast. And usually, that works, because that’s what the mission is all about. Mission to go somewhere and kill a dude? Sure, that’ll involve combat. Mission to find a specific Ironcast and defeat it without damaging a certain system, thereby allowing me to grab that system for myself? Cool, I can do that, just let me drop the splash damage weapons at home. Mission where I have to hold off a wave of enemy attackers for a set number of turns? Yeah, of course there’d be enemies. But to put armed enemy resistance in a mission where my objective is to loot crates of tea?

You think I’m joking, but I’m really not.

Ironcast’s mission structure falls apart a little in any mission where the goal isn’t ‘kill one particular dude’. The way this game works is that you always have to have an opponent, see. So if you’re holding the line, or doing that awful crate-collection game, and you kill your current opponent… the game just shoves a brand-new, undamaged and fully battle-ready opponent right in your face. Your tired, battle-damaged, possibly-exhausted face. And then it gives you one additional node-match — not an additional turn, an additional match — before allowing that enemy free reign.

In a game where battles are usually as close as they are, you can probably imagine what usually happens if you’re hit with a new enemy without any chance to repair. It leads to these counterintuitive situations where it’s often better not to kill your current enemy, because at least their systems are as wrecked and on fire as yours are. And you only need one more crate of tea. Come on, just one more.

But, all in all, these kinds of missions are a) in the minority, and b) usually easily avoided. They’re not Ironcast’s weakest point by any stretch, and if you’re already powerful or lucky enough, they’re only a little dissonant to the tone of the rest of it.

No, what is Ironcast’s weakest point by any stretch is…

This asshole!

Ironcast has too many levels of randomization.

Earlier, I mentioned that Ironcast inherits the randomization elements of both of its spiritual parents. As a node-matching game in the vein of Puzzle Quest, it is obviously beholden to the random nature of the node board. And as a running upgrade campaign a la FTL, it randomizes missions, enemies, upgrades, and equipment.

Either of these systems alone aren’t necessarily experience-damaging, depending on your personal preference for these things. But taken together, I feel that they remove so much control over the eventual outcome from the player that your final success or failure can no longer be said to really be in your hands.

On the micro level, particularly at the beginning, whether or not you do well in battles can be a bit of a crapshoot. Board full of Scrap and Repair nodes? You get to waste a turn clearing it. Enemy has defenses that counter your attacks effectively? There’s no way to bail and come back later, you’ll just have to grin and bear it. No Coolant nodes spawn? Better look forward to damaging yourself as you damage the enemy. And so on, and so forth. To Ironcast’s credit, I’ve never seen any situation where the board has no suitable matches whatsoever… but, simultaneously, plenty of situations where the difference between clean victory and messy why-is-everything-on-fire victory was in whether or not the board would deign to give me the nodes I need.

Doing poorly in battle means repair costs. Repair costs means you have less Scrap available for equipment upgrades. Having poor equipment, in the medium- and late-game, means battles that take longer, meaning more enemy opportunities to damage you. Damage in battle means repair costs… you get the idea.

Of course, all this is entirely dependent on whether or not you get equipment. Equipment drops are entirely randomized, and there is no way to get even subpar equipment reliably. I’ve done several runs where I didn’t get a decent shield upgrade until, like, eight battles in. And given that enemy Ironcast do consistently get better…

Battle prowess is semi-random, equipment is random. Abilities and upgrades are random as well, as I’ve mentioned, so that’s another layer of combat influencer that you have no control over. And given that missions are random as well, and that some equipment and ability combinations are important to have or avoid for certain missions… if you only have splash damage-dealing weapons, missions that tell you to ‘avoid damaging this and that subsystem’ aren’t going to be a lot of fun to get. And if you only get three of those missions on a single day — I’ve seen it happen — you best prepare for anger and a wasted battle day. And, inversely, certain missions provide you with almost free stat upgrades and meta-game resources… provided you actually get these missions.

Instead of two Hard missions, which are quite likely to kill you dead.

I know randomization is the name of the game in games like these, I do. Who here who plays FTL hasn’t had a run where you don’t get any good weapons until three sectors in? And the ‘death spiral’ of using upgrade resources to stay alive is endemic to this genre too. Consequently, I’m not saying these design decisions make or break Ironcast for everyone. I don’t like it: I feel this kind of game design removes so much active control from the player that the success or failure of any given run is only marginally related to my skill and my actions. But your mileage may vary.

For me, my complaints regarding Ironcast all find themselves condensing into a final two-part example highlight: ‘drives and bosses’.

I don’t like Ironcast’s drive system. The way the drive works, as I’ve mentioned, is that activating it adds a certain miss chance to every enemy shot. For weak rapid-fire weapons, this is often a percentage damage reduction; for strong single-shot weapons, it adds a straight hit-or-miss chance.

I’m not a fan of gameplay like this. I hate hit-or-miss chances: I consider them to be un-fun, anti-gameplay. If I’m relying on my drive to keep me safe, I’m not actually doing anything: I’m not enacting a clever plan and calculating my protection ratio like I do with shields. I just roll the dice and hope enemy shots miss me. It doesn’t feel very good if it works, and if it doesn’t work, I get extra angry, for having taken the ‘correct’ sequence of actions and losing regardless. And, inversely, if an attack of mine fails to kill an enemy because their 10% miss chance saves them, I get furious like you wouldn’t believe.

(And note that I’m not the only one who thinks mechanics like these aren’t fun: League of Legends actually removed their Dodge mechanic entirely over time.)

But you can’t very well ignore drive evasion in Ironcast: it seems almost necessary to defeat the hideously powerful final boss.

Remember this dude?

Where normal Ironcast-on-Ironcast fights are usually mostly fair with a mild slant towards favouring the player, René Durant plays on a whole different level. His shields are incredible, his weapons pack enough punch to destroy an undefended Ironcast outright, and he has more hit points than every other enemy I’ve beaten put together. I think he plays according to the same rules I do, but I can’t be sure: every time I destroy one of his super weapons, he repair it to near-full the very next turn. He’s stronger than me, faster than me, better than me, and the only time I even got close to beating him was when I lucked out with random shot avoidance rolls.

Nothing about this moment reflects on *my skill*.

I don’t know how to beat this guy. Or rather, I don’t know if there’s anything I can reasonably do to defeat this guy. I can keep playing? Over, and over, and over, until I finally stumble over the right combination of equipment and upgrades and easy-to-beat missions to get me that far?

Or maybe, just maybe, I’m supposed to grind global progression upgrades instead. While most global unlocks are new Ironcast, new commanders, and new potential abilities — all strictly lateral moves — several upgrades so far have been of the ‘you now start with more health’ variety. Which is where nanny Rogue Legacy peeks its ugly head around the corner: am I supposed to simply grind my way to success to defeat Durand?

Because, you know, I enjoy this game quite a bit. It’s interesting, and aesthetically well-designed, and well-written, and I genuinely appreciate the character diversity. But if you’re asking me to grind in this, the busiest Kickstarter month in recorded history? I may have some bad news for you.

Final thoughts

Okay, so I went up against Durand one final time. And I won!

CATHARSIS

I won, in no small part due to my rare level III Hardened Drive, which boosted my evasion by up to 42%. Yay, victory.

And… show of hands: who among you remember Half Life: Full Life Consequences? Remember what happens right after John Freeman (who was Gordon Freeman’s brother) defeats the ‘final boss’? Yeah. That’s what Ironcast does, too.

This is as spoiler-free as I can be with regard to this.

I didn’t manage to beat the second boss. I got my evasion up to 48% in the last fight, but it didn’t matter: half of its shots hitting were still more than a match for my shields, which hadn’t gotten a similar upgrade in the six fights separating the two bosses. The random rolls were not on my side, it would seem. And so, I died; my last foreseeable run of Ironcast, cut ‘short’ by cruel fate.

Don’t make the mistake of thinking I’m saying Ironcast isn’t good. It is: it’s a nice combination of node-matching and long-form campaigning, combining cool aesthetics and an interesting alternate history with a potentially engaging system of equipment choices, abilities, and missions. I dislike the incredible influence of randomization on individual run success, but if that doesn’t bother you — if, unlike me, you can actually see game success as an accumulation of many imperfect runs instead of as the necessary outcome of an individual playthrough — I would heartily recommend considering checking Ironcast out. For only fifteen dollars or equivalent, it’s not that much of a gamble.

And hey: in a certain sense, isn’t gambling on whether or not you’ll enjoy Ironcast entirely within its own spirit? Say what you will about this game, but it’s internally consistent all the way to the bank.

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Jarenth enjoyed all the bits of Ironcast where he shot enemy robots with lightning, or missiles, or lightning missiles. If you know of any other good games where that’s an option, tell him about it on Twitter or hang out with him on Steam. And if you dig Indie Wonderland and Ninja Blues in general, why not consider supporting our Patreon campaign?

One comment

  1. Seems like the kind of game I’d buy because it’s a cool idea, then never play. Too much randomness frustrates me, which is why I’ve still not played FTL. I’m going to try a radical new strategy, and just refrain from purchasing it.

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