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Ironclad Tactics

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By JcDent15-10-2013
Toast (editor)
StuntmanLT (editor)
Ironclad Tactics

The Defence

Developer:
Zachtronics
Publisher:
Zachtronics
Genre:
Indie, Strategy
Release Date:
13-09-2013

The Prosecution

CPU:
Intel Pentium 4 2.0 GHz
AMD equivalent
VGA:
Nvidia GeForce 8600
AMD equivalent
RAM:
2 GB
HDD:
750 MB
DirectX:
OpenGL

The Case

American Civil War is one of those fun modern wars where we had new technology (machineguns!) but didn't really know how to counter them (mass rushes?). And where more soldiers died from infection and disease than from being blown to bits, shot, stabbed or, you know, any other deadly means you'd expect... like being stepped on by a giant steam automaton. Wait, what? Yep, this is what troops in Ironclad Tactics have to deal with.

The Trial

Ironclad Tactics has a plot filled with characters that are really hard to care about. It's the American Civil War and two young apprentices of genius engineer Zabulon, the inventor of the eponymous ironclads, are tracking down whoever is giving the steam robots to the South. This is so exciting that we somehow forget that ironclads are a new thing and nobody bats an eyelash when natives, bandits and whoever else turn out not only to have, but have them in droves. A very strange American Civil War, that one.

Robots - also come in Dixie.

Robots - also come in Dixie.

And the gameplay is stranger yet. You have a deck of 20 cards that represents units, upgrades, maneuvers and so on. You arrange them in decks of no more than two factions. In the field, you're given random five that you can play if you have the action points. One card per turn changes. And units are placed into a five lane battlefield, where their main task is to march to the other end, secondary being preventing the enemy from doing the same. Sometimes, there are obstructions and special locations along the way. And that's how you play till somebody wins.

Campaign map likes throwing you curveballs and special conditions. Some maps have, for example, locations that infantry can occupy and which can be used to gain either action or victory points. Then you have to defend said infantry since they are squishy, or have an upgraded American mech (“Can a robot be a patriot”) but those aren't immortal either. And that's not even accounting for boss mechs... or the enemy being suspiciously good at getting cards.

How low have we fallen since Max Payne...

How low have we fallen since Max Payne...

Luck plays a lot into it - getting the right ironclad and the right upgrade can be vital for victory. You can only influence it so much in card selection. The more of that one needed card you have, the bigger the chances of getting it, but that leaves you with less space for other cards, which means missing out on necessary units and upgrades. Fortunately, the limitation of having cards of only two factions in your decks means you don't go crazy by trying to build the Ultimate Munchkin Deck of Cheese and OP.

New cards are gained in various ways. The easiest and most profitable method is during the main campaign. Every story mission has some other modes that may give additional cards – most of these are aimed at cooperative or versus play, so you better have some friends who own the game. There's also a very helpful puzzle mode, which is usually quite easy and teaches some of the more “advanced” tactics of play (for example, switching head upgrades). You also gain cards through winning online skirmish matches and by “upgrading” cards (infantry do that by dying. Grim, ain't it?). All in all, a decent and varied way to get yourself an arsenal.

‘Artillery kills all’. Yep, I'm taking that card.

‘Artillery kills all’. Yep, I'm taking that card.

The game isn’t graphics intensive (that with 2D and all) and not “burdened” by artistic merit either. On the other hand, it’s not ugly or distractingly horrible, a common problem with indies, and runs just about on anything short of a hairdryer. The art style in comics, though... is not good enough. Drawn by someone who tried imitating Penny Arcade after sniffing the contents of a printer ink cartridge, it comes off very weird. As for sound...well, what little voice acting (infantry) is to be found is passable and ironclads to clunk about merrily. The best sound is an enemy bullet ricocheting off an armored ironclad with nary a scratch. Take that, “Damage 1” weaponry!

Another thing of note is the game's insistence on multiplayer, which isn't exactly fine, for it takes time to find skirmish games. And for campaign battles, hopefully you have friends who like alternate history and robots. Because that's the only way you're inviting people into matches.

Verdict

In conclusion, Ironclad Tactics is an interesting indie game. It doesn't have the usual and sometimes uninteresting steampunk settings. The lane battlefield is a simple idea at a glance, but quickly becomes more complicated. All in all, probably the best indie steam robot game out there.

Case Review

  • Novel: Both in setting and concept.
  • Humble: Doesn't require a strong machine.
  • Robots: More strategy games need robots.
  • Better with a Friend: It's insistence that you play with a friend sometimes serves as a detriment.
  • What Plot?: The comics aren't drawn that good and you'll be hard pressed to care about the characters or the plot.
4
Score: 4/5
One of the upgrades is putting a cat at the robot controls. Beat that, Mechwarrior!

Appeal

I have little experience with card-building games but there was something about the visual aesthetic of Ironclad Tactics that captivates in a way that really makes you do a double-take, especially if you’re tired of seeing the samey, grimdark approach to art that still persists. The beautiful art direction, the comic-book style cutscenes and the fact that it somehow ties the American Civil War with musket-wielding, steam-powered robots all combined to push my buttons in the best possible way.

On paper, a turn-based strategy game with a card-building twist is an ingenious idea and Ironclad Tactics makes good on the premise on most counts. But it drops the ball in some key areas especially when it comes to the game’s UI, which almost never highlights what needs to be highlighted during the game’s tutorial/singleplayer campaign and its general sense of messiness. On the field however, the game’s ticking tension has a way of eating away at you even before a turn is completed making some of the later battles get a sweat or two (and more than a few curse words) out of you in the process.

Despite the often tense battles the game can often feel quite meandering in its pace, a nonsensical claim, but will make sense when you’re down actually playing the game yourself. The card-building element brings a wonderfully chaotic feeling into the battles. On more than one occasion I cursed at myself for spending my last action points on two ‘Prototype Ironclad’ cards instead of a badly needed ‘Maneuver’ card. Ironclad Tactics feels a bit undercooked in its design but also complicated-to-figure-out at the same time.

3
Score: 3/5

Appeal

Ironclad is a bit of a mixed bag. On the other hand, it has an interesting gameplay mechanic that effectively merges real time strategy with deck building. Although, it has a somewhat clunky gameplay mechanic that...you can see where this is going. It's not a bad system, not at all, just...just clunky. It basically brings together two diametrically opposed elements and keeps the worst aspects of both, rather than the best.

Overall, it's trying to move at a brisk pace. Something which follows through in the inter mission story sections, which take place as a series of mini-comics. But whilst the gameplay itself is constantly in motion, with new turns ticking over every few seconds, there's no real sense of urgency to. Instead, it just ends up reflecting half a bajillion 'turns' in the mission report at the end. Whilst the mission itself felt like it went by fairly quickly, seeing it listed as having taken 40+ turns is rather disconcerting. The story moves along a little too quickly for its own good, so that it ends up feeling rushed and incomplete. A shame, because it feels like it could have been rather interesting if it was slowed down just a little more for exposition.

All in all, not a bad game. It's actually quite a lot of fun. It just feels like it's missing something. Like the dev team were worried about putting in too much, and then overcompensated by cutting out just a tiny bit too much. There are some interesting ideas that were just a tad underdeveloped. It seems the idea was to make the game lengthy enough to give a good return for your investment, whilst being fast paced enough to fit in a couple rounds during your lunch break. But instead falls just outside of both.

3.5
Score: 3.5/5
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