At E3 this year, this writer got the chance to demo an intriguing game called Ironcast, which initially sounded like it was trying to do a bit too much all at once. A match three puzzler that’s also a roguelike, that’s also a strategy RPG with permadeath? Even so, we came away feeling that it just might have what it takes to successfully balance several disparate parts in a fun and satisfying way. After spending a lot more time with it we can comfortably say that it not only does just that, but it somehow proves itself to be something more than simply the sum of its parts. Ironcast is certainly a dense game to get into, but we’ve never played anything else like it, and it does a fantastic job of boldly grafting in-depth elements to a simple game type.

The story take place in Victorian England, in an alternate timeline where the French discovered a powerful new energy source called Voltite. This eventually led to the development of mech-like tanks called Ironcasts, and it didn’t take all that long until a war broke out between Great Britain and France over the previous energy source. In terms of narrative, Ironcast isn’t all that strong; the story is primarily just about repelling a French invasion and takes a non-linear approach to its storytelling. Still, well written character vignettes and a fleshed out and consistent setting lend the game a thrilling amount of atmosphere. You may not care about individual characters (or even whether or not old England wins), but details abound when it comes to character backstories and the broader world in which the conflict is taking place.

After booting up the game you’ll be able to pick for yourself a pilot and an Ironcast, all with various abilities and strengths. The basic game flow sees you preparing for the French to arrive by completing a series of nine missions, but for each mission you’re allowed to pick from a group of three, each of which offer different rewards and have varying objectives. One might see you battling an endless wave of enemies for a set number of turns as you wait for reinforcements to arrive, while another will see you trying to collect a certain number of specific nodes in order to defuse a bomb. Although the basic gameplay never changes, the game finds creative ways of doing new things through the objectives, and this goes a long way in helping Ironcast avoid feeling repetitive.

The majority of your time spent with the game will consist of staring at a colorful 6x6 grid with a menagerie of different nodes to try and match up; orange is energy, blue is coolant, purple is ammo, and green is repair. On each turn you can make two matches, and each node in a match will replenish one point in its respective gauge. These points will be depleted each time you make an action, but you can make as many actions as you want so long as you have the resources to pull them off. The real fun, of course, comes in the depth of strategy given to you.

It’s truly astounding how many options are made available to you in combat. You have two weapons, a shield, and a “drive” system that makes your Ironcast walk, making it harder to hit. On top of this, you have abilities that are specific to your pilot, and abilities that are specific to your Ironcast, some of which have a cooldown and can be activated at any time, such as replacing all repair nodes on the map with coolant ones. Though every Ironcast has a general health bar, its four individual systems — weapons, shields, etc. — also have their own health bars, and can be targeted individually in order to take them out of commission. Want to cripple your enemy’s ability to fight back? Raise your shields and target their main weapon. Want to ensure that all your attacks are doing the most damage they can? Knock out their drives or shields. When considering all this, you also have to take the aforementioned abilities and augmentations into account, too. For example, you might have a passive ability set to an energy lance that allows it to mostly ignore enemy shields. Or perhaps you can press a button that steals away enemy coolant and adds it to your own reserves.

Every battle will net you scrap metal which you can then take into the workshop to buy new weapons and systems for your Ironcast, which are usually taken from your fallen opponents. You can also cash in on your level up benefits here, too; each level up will allow to pick one of three abilities, drawn from a randomized pool. As ever, resource management extends to this part of the game, too. After a battle, you might have enough scrap to afford one new upgrade for your Ironcast, but which one do you spring for? Moreover, you also have to spend scrap on repairing your hull — which you can’t otherwise heal outwith occasional items — and this will further diminish your already paltry reserves. Every time you level up, you’ll just have to hope that the game gives you some good abilities to pick from. Sometimes you’re given a bad lot and have to pick the shiniest of three turds. Sometimes all of them are critical to your success, and you have to pick which you could most easily live without.

The point being, at every point of this game you will be making dozens of micro-decisions to take down the enemy in the most efficient means possible. One thing that the game is keen to hammer home is that you never have enough resources for anything and your choices will have consequences. Do you double down on ammo and try to put the enemy on the back foot, while leaving yourself wide open to counterattack? Do you gather that string of repair nodes to bolster your failing weapon systems or grab more coolant so you can raise your shields further? Ironcast excels at making every decision feel important (and rather stressful), as one bad judgment call can quite literally be your death sentence.

And if you make a devastatingly bad call, the game will punish you for it by wiping you out for good. It’ll kick you back to the menu screen, and you have to start the game over again from scratch. Of course, this wouldn’t be a roguelike if there wasn’t some element of arduous progress being made, so you’re awarded one “Commendation Mark” for every 5,000 XP gained in your previous run. This currency can then be spent in a shop where you can buy new Ironcasts, pilots, augmentations and other upgrades, which can then be utilized in all future runs.

Naturally, this is the point which will likely make or break the game for those interested. After all, one tends to be a bit miffed to see a two-hour run go up in smoke because of a bad board or a poor decision. Even so, the commendation marks shop makes each successive run that much easier, but more importantly the game feels particularly tailored to this kind of erasure. While it is disappointing to have to start all over again, it never feels like one is retreading the same ground on successive runs. Even if you’re using the same pilot and Ironcast, and choose the exact same missions, the boards are randomized each time, and the ability loadout that you accrue will almost certainly be different than the last. Basically, the game manages to stay exciting each time because you’re too focused on just surviving the current round to be worried about the end goal. While it remains on your mind, Ironcast is at its strongest in the moment, and that’s something that no amount of permadeath can undo. You’ll still have a blast building another character and pursuing another campaign because the gameplay is just that fun and mentally demanding.

On the presentation front, Ironcast does a decent job with its steampunk aesthetic, although it’s perhaps a bit reliant on retreading old tropes. Brass and steam and leather abound, and the art does a good job of imagining what Metal Gear-like machines would look like if conceived in the 19th century. There’s not a whole lot of colour to speak of — outside of the gameplay grid, that is — but the dreariness is suited to the steampunk war theme. Each stage will have backdrops depicting smoky, war-torn streets, and while they are a bit lacking in detail, they help add to that grim atmosphere. The music does a decent job of this, too — going for a marching, industrial vibe — but it mostly just exists so that you’re not playing in silence; there’s nothing here that’s particularly memorable or adds to the experience in any notable way.

It's also worth noting the control options here. You can play with two Joy-Con or a Pro Controller, but in handheld mode the touch screen is also in play, and in theory you can complete every action with the touchscreen. Those that want to pretend their Switch is a dedicated tablet can play with the Joy-Con controllers removed, or you can keep them attached and use a mix of buttons and touch controls. It's a small thing, but a nice touch.

Conclusion

All told, Ironcast is one of the most in-depth and engaging match three puzzlers that we’ve seen. The game’s pitch is a bit of a tough sell — it’s clearly trying to juggle a lot of different genre elements — but Ironcast somehow manages to pull it all off in a way that is uniquely innovative and frustratingly addicting. The various elements being fused here make for a game that is endlessly replayable, but not at the cost of becoming repetitive or boring. We would strongly recommend that you pick up Ironcast if you’re looking for a game that can be a good time sink, but can also be comfortably played in short bursts. Do yourself a favour and try this one out.