"What is this? I don't even -- "
Gunslingers rappel from an adjacent rooftop and train their guns on our hapless prototypes. With neither pomp nor ceremony, Ironclad Tactics reveals that omnidirectional combat is a thing here. "What?" I can picture the game, dust-soaked and armed with a cigar, drawling smugly. "Did you really think I'd warn you first?"
Some games throw curve balls. Ironclad Tactics pitches razor-lined orbs of flaming, molten death. Zachtronics' 'real-time card-based tactics game' is like a honey badger. It just doesn't care. Not for you, not for your co-op partners (up to four players can engage the campaign mode together), not for any of your silly ideas about gentle learning curves. There is a viciousness to Ironclad Tactics that makes me wonder if the developers giggled themselves to sleep every night as they were making this, their last waking thought of the horrified looks every new level would surely inspire.
While as brutal as an ingrown wisdom tooth, Ironclad Tactics is neither unfair nor one of those games that demand you either have a PhD in Applied Sciences or re-read the tutorial thirty damn times. The core of Ironclad Tactics is built on familiar ideas: one-versus-one matches where players, each loaded with a deck of cards, attempt to be the first to accrue a certain amount of points. It's laid out rather like Plants vs Zombies. Once put atop the playing field, units will plod down their respective lanes, mindlessly attacking anything within range, until they've reached the other side or have been blown up.
Speaking of units, these can be broadly categorized as human infantry and big honkin' robots. The latter can be equipped with 'Parts', bits of weaponry and enhancements like armor or a velocity-loving cat, and will also turn the former into pustules of red if they walk over them. Human infantry, though ill-equipped to deal with the weight of an Ironclad on their spine, tend to cost less and, when provided with the right conditions, can shoot down even the biggest automaton. And on a more ethereal level, we have everything from non-discriminatory (white, black, your side, my side) aerial nukes to cards that will tell a plucky soldier to fire twice.
On the whole, the cards, which are sadly limited in number, are not static entities. Acquired by finishing story chapters or challenges, they can 'level up' once certain criteria are met - an occurrence that, curiously enough, tends to involve the corresponding unit dying a number of times.
An important thing to remember about Ironclad Tactics is that it isn't yet another attempt to ride on the coattails of the ineffable Magic the Gathering. Zachtronic's entry into the heavily saturated world of card games is faster and more vicious than most, as much a measure of wit as it is a test of reflexes. Here, turns are time-sensitive, resources increased by the passage of seconds or the procurement of a resource point. Your hand is not a passive repository of possibilities but an inconstant beast. Each round, the cards at the bottom of your screen will move one space to the right until they cease to exist, forcing you to be constantly to improvise with whatever you have available. Unlike Magic the Gathering, Ironclad Tactics all but demands you keep a varied panoply of decks at ready as there is no one solution to rule them all.
Ironclad Tactics is, in many ways, definitely more puzzle game than card game which shouldn't be surprising given that Zachtronics is the same company that gave us the brain-tweaking SpaceChem. The lush, comic book aesthetics, however, were an unexpected but not unpleasant divergence from the minimalist looks of their previous release. Almost all of its plot is told through interactive full-page, full-colored comic strips. Sadly, the actual battles are somewhat less attractive though Ironclad Tactics wins points for making sure that each and every attachment (Ever seen a monocle-sporting feline astride a steampunk robot? Well, you can now!) has a visual effect, uh, attached.
Similarly, both the controls and the interface make no attempt at undue complexity: Point at card. Click. Point at location on map where you wish to implement said card. Click. Much of the game consists of frantically deciding how to stall an incoming Ironclad even as you line your pieces for a counter-offense, ever aware that your human troops are but a square away from being ground meat.
By and large, Ironclad Tactics is a neat, well-constructed package that never lets up the pressure. Many of the concepts that it introduces are delightful, making it impossible not to grin at Ironclad Tactics' cleverness even as it pummels you into earth. Flame jets? Perambulating, volatile missiles? Mixed up with a boss-on-rails and repair machines galore? Smashing.
That said, one man's meat can be another's poison. Not everyone is going to relish the idea of repeating levels for no real reason. Personally, I liked the constant dread, the absence of overtly attached tutorial systems. But I can see this being an issue for those disinterested in the idea of being forced to restart again and again and again just because they had no clue how a new Ironclad operated. The problem is further compounded by the randomized nature of your hand. Occasionally, winning simply feels impossible. Coupled with the toothy difficulty curve and the limitations (only 20 cards, only two factions at any given time) imposed on deck building, Ironclad Tactics isn't going to be everyone's flavor.
But for those who may enjoy such an unforgiving adventure? It's lovely. Absolutely enchanting, even. Great as a solo experience but glorious in the company of friends, Ironclad Tactics' co-op aspect is arguably its best feature. The game doesn't restrict your approach. Want to go at it with separate decks? Fine. Want to build something collaborative? That works too. A bit of both? Your show, mate. I've wrestled with some of the puzzle challenges but have been unable to get some competitive action in just yet. Skirmish sounds rather straightforward but Nemesis seems like it might be an absolute blast.
Ironclad Tactics isn't quite SpaceChem Deux but it is, in its own right, rather brilliant. If you're willing to deal with the fact it's a wily, unpleasant bugger who will occasionally gimp you just because, it's more than worth the purchase.