It's always nice to have your preconceptions shattered—especially in an industry where the safest choices seem to reign supreme.
This happened to me just recently, all thanks Dreadbit's in-the-works strategy RPG, Ironcast. I chose to cover it without knowing much outside of the "turn-based mech combat" elevator pitch, so when I sat down to play the pre-alpha, what I saw took me by surprise: a color-matching puzzle game, that, upon first glance, didn't look much different than Puzzle Quest and its progeny. My heart sank—after all, could anyone possibly write anything new about an experience most of us played the hell out of in one form or another?
After about twenty minutes with Ironcast, I quietly retracted these kneejerk impressions. The game's match-three format may seem all-too familiar, but this basic means of input feeds into a complex RPG system where every choice carries a significant risk. Squaring off against an opponent throws you into one-on-one combat, where you're given three attempts per turn to build reserves of four different resources by matching adjacent nodes of the same color. Purple powers your mech's two weapons, orange fuels your shield and movement (for when you'd rather evade than block), blue adds to your coolant (of which a little is typically consumed with every action), and green allows you to repair broken or damaged parts. Oh, and yellow nodes don't do anything in combat, but if you don't mind wasting a phase, they'll let you bring home more money at the end of a mission.
The puzzle gameplay admittedly doesn't go beyond basic matching—you won't being watching chains of combos blast colored blocks out of existence a la Puzzle Fighter—but it adds a sense of randomness akin to the best board or card games. On every turn, you have to work with the resources you're given, and figure out the most effective way to connect the nodes in front you. And, like in any good RPG, each action requires the consideration of many different factors. Should you build up on your stock of green nodes early so you can heal later in battle, or concentrate on attacking first in the hopes of damaging the most dangerous parts of the enemy mech? Whatever the case, planning in advance can only get you so far, since you're at the mercy of Ironcast's choice of which nodes to dump into the playfield next. If you're in desperate need of green nodes to heal, but can't possibly connect any in the current turn, you really have to think on your feet to improvise your way out of the situation—and that's Ironcast's greatest strength.
To learn more about Ironcast's central mechanic, I reached out to Dreadbit's Daniel Leaver, who kindly provided a playable (and incredibly early) version of the game. Leaver spent much of his time in the gaming industry at Media Molecule, working on the LittleBigPlanet series and Tearaway before founding his new studio in February of this year. When asked about Ironcast's match-three action, Leaver explained how this familiar style of Candy Crushing improved the pacing of his game.
"We initially tried a resource generation mechanic which required a further layer of planning and strategy," said Leaver, "but it was just too much to keep track of, and ended up slowing the game to a crawl! Instead, I wanted to find a resource generation mechanic that would give the player a chance to show some skill and keep their mental focus solely on the best tactics required to defeat their enemy. Match 3 was a perfect fit.
"There's just something deeply compelling and satisfying about spotting patterns and long chains that will allow you to extract the maximum resources from your grid each turn. It's just the right amount of skill injected into an otherwise purely tactical experience."
Outside of combat, Ironcast resembles XCOM—though a bit dialed back in terms of complexity. After choosing your playable character and mech, the game drops you into a headquarters of sorts, which offers missions, as well as the opportunity to repair your machine, build new parts for it, change your loadout, and add active and passive bonuses to both vehicle and driver (respectively). The amount of customization in this pre-alpha version has its limits, but the end of each mission presents some tough choices to make, especially because repairing your mech can be costly. It's possible to hold off on healing to invest in improved weaponry and defensive equipment, but this comes at the cost of starting the next mission at a disadvantage. Again, customization isn't incredibly complicated, but, even in this early version, these between-mission breaks divide the action nicely, and provide just enough options without being completely overwhelming.
Even in its current, incredibly basic form, Ironcast feels great, and definitely belies its appearance as a simple match-three experience. Currently, the game has nearly reached its Kickstarter goal, but could use the extra push in these final days. If you demand more information about this work-in-progress, head on over to their project page and decide if it's worth your donation. This is by no means an advertisement, but the few hours I spent with Ironclad convinced me the final version could turn out to be something great.