Ironcast is a very pleasant game considering its subject matter, its upper-class Victorian characters maintaining their polite demeanour in the direst of situations. Due to a dispute over a very valuable substance called Voltite, the British Empire is at war with its old enemy from across the channel, and it'll take nine days for the forces from France to reach London. Time is of the essence, then, yet every turn-based battle can be as slow and relaxed as you want it to be.
This game can best be described as a steampunk Puzzle Quest – though that wouldn't do it justice, of course. In the middle of the screen is a grid full of different nodes that can be matched. Match at least three nodes of the same type and you'll earn resources (as well as XP) that can be used to help your mech take down your foe: energy nodes power your defensive systems, ammo nodes fuel your weapons, repair nodes allow you to replenish your mech's systems, and coolant nodes prevent your war machine from overheating. Run out of coolant, and you'll take damage for every action that you make.
There are also link nodes that allow you to link two types of nodes, overdrive nodes that bolster one of your Ironcast's systems, and scrap nodes that can be matched to gain extra scrap after the battle. There's quite a lot to take in, then, and once you get to grips with the systems, you'll learn of the intricacies under the hood. Do you, for example, link many nodes for maximum XP gains – or merely take as much as you need? The fact that you're only allowed three matches per turn adds some urgency to each fight – especially when all of your resources are in short supply.
What really exudes strategy and quick-thinking, though, are the battles themselves. On the offensive side, you're given a primary weapon that fires more shots but does less damage, and a secondary weapon that does more damage but only shoots once. Meanwhile, in defence, you've got a shield which absorbs damage, and the ability to walk, which increases the chance of your opponent missing. The two defensive options deplete every turn, so you'll have to strategies the best time to activate these systems when they're at their most effective.
Depending on how good or bad your gear is, it'll consume different amounts of energy/ammo and coolant, and holding the corresponding button allows you to check on their respective stats, allowing you to work within your resource limits and plan which nodes to collect next. The four systems that your Ironcast possesses all take different amounts of damage, so you'll also have to decide which system to repair with your limited amount of repair nodes. As the battle goes on and your resources wane, every move that you make feels like it really affects the outcome of the fight, and it's up to you whether you want to take a risk or play it safe.
As your opponents are allowed to choose which of your systems they aim for, so do you unto theirs. Aiming for either of their weapons means that they won't be able to deal as much damage, while firing on their defensive systems means that they're more open to attack. Once again, this is where the strategy elements of Ironcast shine through, and it's glorious: no fight feels unwinnable, yet none are cakewalks either – and we've engaged in some excellent skirmishes in which we've won right at the death.
If you're really in a pickle, though, then each Ironcast can have up to four abilities – powerful moves that can twist the battle in your favour, but require quite a few turns to recharge. These can range from a barrage of missiles to the ability to steal your opponent's repair nodes, and each have their own uses. They're best used at the end of a fight, when the stakes are high and the iron is hot, and feel really satisfying when they're pulled off properly. When they're not, though, the defeat can be crushing, because – with Ironcast being a roguelike – one lost battle and your campaign's over.
You see, the actual game is rather short: the French will get to London in nine days, meaning that for every mission you play, a day advances. What's nice is that you get to choose what mission you'd like to embark on, and all the information is there for you to make the decision: the mission type, the rewards, and the difficulty. The idea is to spend these nine days earning resources and upgrading your Ironcast in order for the final battle in London, but if you're a bit of a sadist you can take on the French war machine on the first day and inevitably get slaughtered. At least it's an option.
Between each mission, you'll head back to the Workshop, in which you can spend scrap on repairs for your Ironcast, and buy new parts for your battle bot from blueprints that are earned after every battle. The XP that you receive goes towards your level, and each time that you level up you're given a ton of upgrades and gear. There's plenty of customisation, though you do have to get a bit of luck in Ironcast if you want to finish the campaign, crossing everything in the hope that you get a rare blueprint after a fight.
Every playthrough in the campaign is different, as every location and mission is randomized for your pleasure – which is a good thing, as you'll be restarting it a lot thanks to the difficulty of the game. Still, while a few defeats can leave you with a sour taste in your stiff upper-lipped mouth, most of the time you'll realise where you went wrong and be all the more determined to get it right.
There is an endgame to Ironcast, too: for every thousand XP you earn, you're given one Commendation Mark. These can be spent outside of every campaign on new Ironcasts or pilots, each one having their own signature ability and augmentation respectively that can give you an advantage, as well as their own excessively wordy backstory that you'll inevitably never read. It's good that developer Dreadbit has thought about the long-term, as the title offers plenty of replayability for the price.
The art direction for Ironcast is quite nice too, although a little average in places. Depending on where you're playing, each background will be different; battling in the streets of Brighton or Southampton will give glimpses of the cold, unforgiving British Channel, while brawling in foggy London town projects harsh greys and browns onto the screen, with little hints of steampunk dotted around, glimpsing into the two-faced society of Victorian London before it was brought to its knees by the French war machine.
Ironcast is a surprisingly strategic and complex game which will hold your interest for quite a while. There's enough randomisation for the title to feel fresh for a long time, and every battle is one of tension and risky moves, with each action really meaning something. Winning a skirmish feels very satisfying, with the rewards after feeling even better, and though the difficulty may put people off, those who can grin and bear the painful defeats will be treated like un prince.