When you're knee-deep in the dead in Doom Eternal, or trying to catch a tarantula in Animal Crossing: New Horizons, you don't have the chance to fix your mistakes. Part of any game is eating those errors, and learning to overcome. Some games let you reload a save, or go back to a checkpoint, but you rarely get the chance to fix a momentary miscalculation.
Nearly 17 years ago, there was a game that gave players that option. Ubisoft's Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time saw the Prince dodging, jumping, and wall-running through a host of fiendish traps. If a trap claimed your life, you could simply rewind time and try again, or find a different way forward. It was a fantastic mechanic, and one inherent to gaming; you can't entirely replicate it in books or movies. I expected to see more games playing with time, but there's been very few ever since Prince Of Persia, which itself has been defunct since 2010.
There's been some hope though. Last year, I highlighted the upcoming Phantom Brigade, a mech-based strategy game that lets you look five seconds into the future to plan attacks. And now there's Iron Danger, another strategy game released on Steam last week that looks backward instead of forward.
The story is almost incidental, with young girl Kipuna gaining magical powers after "dying" in an invasion of her small hometown. With a shard of ancient magical power stuck in her chest, Kipuna is the only one that can collect the other shards and forge a defense for her kingdom. More importantly, when she's in danger, Kipuna can enter her Trance, which gives her a unique viewpoint on the battlefield before her.
Like Phantom Brigade, Iron Danger presents your moves on a timeline, similar to making a video in Adobe Premiere. Time is marked in heartbeats, half-second intervals shown on the timeline, and at any point, Kipuna can jump backward up to five seconds into her past. All of your moves, like dodging, blocking, basic attacks, and spells, use a certain amount of heartbeats, forcing you to commit to finishing the action before you can do anything else.
The trick is your foes don't necessarily stick to your internal timeline, and you'll take damage in the middle of a heartbeat or the middle of an action. Sometimes you'll take a hit that'll kill Kipuna or another current companion. When that happens, you need to rewind and change your tactics. Perhaps you originally dodged one attack, cast a Fireball to soften up the enemies closest to you, got yourself caught on fire as well, and then took an arrow to the chest. Okay, the Fireball wasn't the best idea, or you chose the wrong target. Scrub back in the timeline, dodge the first attack, wait a heartbeat, cast the Fireball on the archer instead, and step back out of range for the next melee attack. Good job, you didn't kill yourself.
Not only do you have Kipuna's attacks and spells, but you also have a second companion, depending on where you are in the story. Together, you can set up combo attacks based on timing and positioning. Take one battle with Kipuna and Topi, a tank-like man with a massive spiked hammer. With Kipuna, I cast Flaming Weapon on Topi, enchanting his hammer with fire. I had Topi move a step forward, blocking a ranged attack, and then pushing the melee attackers back with a cleave. At the same time, I rewound Kipuna back, threw out a barrel of oil about where I figured the enemies would land, and then lit that barrel on fire with Kipuna's Spark spell. The end result of my house of cards? Both enemies fell back, only to get launched again when the oil barrel exploded.
You also need to grasp the unique timing on enemy attacks. While Kipuna and her companions are tied to heartbeats, enemies can (and will) hit you mid-heartbeat. I've taken back-to-back hit where the first hit was late in one heartbeat, and the second early in the next; you can't just block, because that action is tied to one heartbeat and has a cooldown. Once you get the timing of an enemy's attacks down, you start to feel like a fantasy John Wick. Perhaps you need to retreat slightly, and use a smaller attack like Kick to send an enemy off balance, which then allows you to safely use block.
Figuring out this path forward is where difficulty in Iron Danger presents itself. It isn't like many strategy games, where you're hoping hit chances fall in your favor. Instead, Iron Danger tells you how many deaths you suffered in each chapter and how long it took you to complete, pushing you to do better on a replay. It's about execution. Every battle is actually a puzzle, forcing you to find the best solution. I've spent minutes trying and retrying plans, just aiming for the no-damage outcome to a fight. I might've taken a hit in the last heartbeat, but figuring out how to avoid that sparks an entirely new strategy that actually starts nine heartbeats ago. You feel smarter as you start to avoid damage entirely, instead of just taking it and rewinding. It's immensely rewarding.
In fact, I wish this time mechanic was a part of most real-time-with-pause RPG games. It fixes the problem of not necessarily having the best positioning or taking a free hit because you didn't know where an attack came from. It doesn't need to be as extensive as Iron Danger's system, but being able to step back even a second is useful.
Combined with a host of environmental hazards you can also use against foes—like flammable gases and fields, or hanging bundles of logs and crates—and you have a great deal of flexibility in how you respond to combat. In fact, it almost feels like Divinity: Original Sin 2's combat in terms of utilizing the environment to your advantage. Yet the biggest strike against Iron Danger is perhaps that comparison, as Kipuna and her cohort lack the wide variety of skill and spells available to you in Divinity: Original Sin 2. Her companions are grounded in terms of their attacks, and while Kipuna has a solid set of spells—you start with fire, gaining nature and ice later—they're gated by story progress and still fall short in terms of what I'd like.
There are also a host of other smaller issues. There's no direct save, with Iron Danger relying wholly on auto-saves. The camera also needs a bit of work, as you don't have the ability to pan freely across the battlefield to see the big picture. And the inventory system is completely on each character's hotbar instead of being a shared inventory, meaning Kipuna might need a healing item, but if Lemichen is the one holding it, he's the only one that can use it.
Developer Action Squad Studios did a good job on this debut title. The graphics are bright and colorful, using an art style similar to the Torchlight games, and the soundtrack is rousing and memorable. It feels like the foundation for something bigger. The time-bending combat is a win, but I'd personally like more tools and more flexibility in what I bring into combat. I love the sandbox, I just wish it was a bigger one. I want to see where Iron Danger 2 goes. It's a glimpse into a brighter future, one I hope has a place in the strategy and RPG genres, as opposed to being simply forgotten… like Prince of Persia.