It’s pretty safe to say that Puzzle Quest was one of the most revolutionary games in the “match-3” puzzle genre. The unique blend of match-3 gameplay with RPG-style progression eventually spun off into its own subgenre full of imitators and copy cats. I’ve still yet to find a Match-3 RPG that has consumed as much of my life as the original Puzzle Quest (Not even the official follow-ups could accomplish that), but there are still plenty of truly worthwhile examples of the genre like Hero Emblems, Puzzle Forge 2, Might & Magic: Clash of Heroes, and now Ironcast.
Ironcast is a Match-3 Puzzle RPG with some roguelite elements thrown in for good measure, most notably the fact that dying ends your game. To further prove that the game was after my heart with laser-guided precision, it also features steampunk mechs in an alternate history. Set in the late 19th century, France and the British Empire have been locked in a stalemate for over a decade because of a new fuel source called Voltite that has allowed for the invention of all manner of advanced wonder-weapons like steam tanks and towering mechs called Ironcasts. In a daring move, France has launched the largest invasion of Britain to date, and as an elite Ironcast pilot it is your patriotic duty to repel the invaders.
As this is a Match-3 RPG, combat involves collecting nodes from a board to power your various abilities. Instead of the usual “swapping” mechanic to match your gems, Ironcast has you draw a line connecting nodes of the same color like in Puzzle Craft. A turn consists of three moves to gather nodes to fill up your four systems: Ammo, Power, Coolant, and Repair. Power is required to raise your shields to reduce incoming damage or walking to increase your evasion chance, while ammo is obviously used to fire your guns. Repair allows you to fix damage done to your shield, weapons, and drive systems and keep your mech running at full efficiency. Coolant is used when you do anything from firing a gun to raising your shields, and if you run out of coolant when you try to take an action then your systems will overheat and take damage.
While you only get three moves a turn, you can activate your systems as many times as you want so long as you have enough resources. This gives the game a much greater focus on resource management and thinking about your actions several turns ahead than your average puzzle RPG. Starting a turn with a full ammo bar can allow you to deal out massive burst damage by expending it all and then using a move or two to gather more. On the other hand, you need to make sure you have enough coolant to allow you to fire off all those guns without overheating. You also lose a level of shields and walking speed at the beginning of your turn, so it might be more beneficial to gather more power and increase your defenses if you don’t think you have the damage output to take down the enemy this turn. One minor annoyance is that the UI lacks any indicators to remind you of your Ironcast’s max resource capacity, which varies depending on the Ironcast you are piloting and can be upgraded at the hanger between missions. Luckily, the developer has acknowledged this problem and is promising a patch at some point, but at the time of writing it’s still an issue, albeit a fairly minor one overall.
Your Ironcast can be outfitted with up to four special abilities that can be activated for free. You always start with one depending on what Ironcast you choose at the beginning of a game, while the others can be acquired via leveling up. They can do anything from increasing the damage of your next shot to stealing resources from the enemy. These abilities often have a fairly lengthy cooldown between uses, so making sure you use them at the right moment is just as important as making sure you have enough resources each turn to accomplish your strategy.
Ironcast‘s progression between missions is very reminiscent of FTL. Your overall goal is to prepare yourself for a boss fight at the end of each chapter. The first chapter, for example, gives you nine days to complete missions, level up your pilot, upgrade your mech, and so on before you must face an ace pilot driving a giant prototype Ironcast. The mission select screen will always give you three random missions to choose from. Most are straightforward battles against enemy Ironcasts or tanks, but some require you to gather X number of crates before the turn limit, survive X number of turns, or even kill the enemy while leaving a specific system undamaged so it can be looted for your own personal use. Some missions will appear with higher difficulty ratings, usually offering a significant amount of resources or rare items for a much greater challenge.
There is a hanger screen between missions where you can buy and equip new parts and swap out active and passive abilities. Most enemies will drop blueprints for parts they are carrying, allowing you to buy said part at the hanger. As I mentioned before, your pilot gains experience and levels up, with each level up increasing your stats and offering you one of three random rewards. These could be generic stat boosts or special abilities to equip on your pilot or Ironcast.
My complaints about Ironcast are few and relatively minor. While I’m still hooked on the game right now, I do worry a bit about its long term replay value. I’ve only been playing around eight hours so far and have already managed to unlock all the playable pilots and Ironcasts. Weapon variety could be a bit better too, and you’ll see the same backgrounds over and over again. The presentation is solid though, with aesthetically pleasing menus full of elaborate steampunk decor and interesting mech designs with decent if relatively simple animations. There are always those frustrating moments where you end up screwed because there aren’t any decent moves on the board, but such problems are inherent to the genre and not an issue exclusive to Ironcast.
The game’s campaign progress screen is fantastic. It tells you exactly what you are going to unlock next for future runs and gives you a genuine feeling of accomplishment, even when you die. Other roguelites would do well to copy this feature. It encourages you to take more risks, knowing that you at least made some progress in unlocking new goodies to play with. Other games have done similar things to track your overall meta game progression, but not as cleanly and clearly as Ironcast.
Ironcast is a worthy new entry into the Match-3 RPG subgenre, even if it isn’t quite up there with the original Puzzle Quest. On the other hand, it does offer a much more strategic take on the genre with its emphasis on resource management and build optimization. Even with some reservations about how long it’ll keep me hooked, Ironcast still offers enough content to justify its modest price to fans of the genre, and I would be happy to see additional mechs, pilots, and weapon types in the future. You can currently find Ironcast on Steam. You still have time to get the game while its $10.49 during the launch week discount, after which it will increase to $15. Even at $15, Ironcast still comes highly recommended.
Frank is an aspiring game designer that currently writes for Indie Game Source and Bell of Lost Souls. You can follow him on Twitter @Frank_Gaming for updates on future articles.