Ironcast has a very cool concept. Victorian England is at war with France and the conflict has given rise to new technology that inspired a private group of supremely wealthy businessmen and women, collectively known as the Consortium of Merit, to develop 7 metre tall walking mechs to finally bring an end to the war. You are one of the few surviving English commanders of these mechs and must repel an imminent attack from the French and then counter and invade Paris.
It’s a terrific alternative history with elements of steampunk that builds a intriguing world that’s a delight to play within. And although story sequences are largely restricted to combat encounters, it still becomes immersive enough to pull you in to it’s fascinating fiction, thanks to some beautifully hand painted visuals and an appropriate score.
This immersion is especially impressive considering the mechanics at work. Operating your mech is determined by resources you collect during three phases on a match-three grid. Your mech has a limited capacity it can hold of ammo, repair energy, defence energy and coolant, and these are gathering during the match-three phases to power weapons and defences, repairing specific systems, and keeping everything cool so you don’t damage yourself. Firing your weapons depletes your collected ammo; meanwhile, activating your mech’s drives gets it walking, adding a evasion buff; energy shields can be activated, reducing overall damage; damaged system can be repaired; and finally the coolant is spent when any action is performed, which, without sufficient coolant, damages all systems.
Match-three is seldom so tactical. Choosing which resources to gather and spend in order to attack and counter your opponent is strategically vast. Meanwhile, understanding how your weapons work against your opponent’s defences and vice versa, plays into your tactical thinking. You can even target specific systems on your opponent.
You can spend your collected resources in between the match-three phases, offering you more tactical freedom and versatility so you can adapt to any changing circumstances. For example: if you damage your opponent’s drives significantly enough they will be unable to walk, making them an easier target. There shield generator as well as their primary and secondary weapons can also be targeted, allowing you to disable what you need to in order to gain the upper hand.
Of course your opponent can do the same to you and the AI shows aggressive and smart decision making, offering a stiff challenge. This is further exacerbated by the random nature of the match-three aspect, which often leads to bad luck resulting in unfair deaths. Fortunately you earn commendations that carry over once you perish, which can be used to unlock additional characters, mechs, permanent enhancements to your mechs and new abilities to potentially purchase during the campaign.
The campaign itself is procedurally generated, offering a fixed timeline for the story but different kinds of encounters along the way. You’ll have the choice of engaging in one of three missions on each mission phase, often giving you a choice between two medium difficulty Battle, Collection, Salvage, Trade and Survival missions, and one hard one. Battles play out as you’d expect, as a ’til the death’ fight; meanwhile, Collections challenge you to collect boxes from the match-three phases; Salvage has you fight an opponent but with the added challenge to not damage a specific system so you can retrieve it; Survival asks you to survival a certain number of rounds against multiple opponents, and Trade simply has you negotiate for resources such as experience or salvage.
In between missions you’ll tend to you mech, repairing damage from battle and buying new parts all for the cost of salvage. Meanwhile, experience earns you levels, which in turn allow you to unlock new abilities, passive and otherwise to help give you the edge in battle. However, once again luck comes into play with what abilities and parts become available to purchase, sometimes leaving you without any viable options.
With the luck involved in the match-three phases of battle and the unlockable abilities and parts, making progress is tough, and even using commendations can’t save you from a particularly bad spell. However, fighting other mechs and steam powered tanks is thoroughly entertaining and tactically varied, making good use of the match-three mechanic, encouraging you to dive back in and try your luck again and again in hopes of finally beating the French invaders.
It’s extremely difficult and luck is as big an enemy as the French Ironcast mechs, but its tactically satisfying and varied battles in a fascinating alternative 1880s make it a title that’s hard to put down.