Defining Iron Danger by genre is intentionally difficult, although a good starting point would be tactics-RPG. Players take control of two characters on fully 3D isometric fields in nail-biting real-time battles that have been given a Dungeons and Dragons-esque turn-based twist.
So far, so computer game—yet distinctive games are more than just a definition of their parts, and Iron Danger truly tries to think outside the box. I live to review games like Iron Danger, and almost any fan of tactics and RPGs should give it a try.
Firstly, one really only thinks two things when hearing the game has such a small number of player characters: either the game is overly simple, or the mechanic is complicated enough that two characters are plenty. The second is closer to the truth, but developer Action Squad Studios has actually crafted a very welcoming, action-adventure experience—closer to Diablo or Dungeon Siege—from the bones of a tactics game.
Rather than the hardcore crunch of XCOM and Darkest Dungeon, this is a title with very little friction, even lacking the roguelike elements of recent tactics games. Instead of relying upon repetition and mastery as a run-based game does, from the word go Iron Danger provides mission after mission of handcrafted encounters that mix aspects of the puzzle, turn-based, and real-time strategy genres.
The game begins as it means to go on: with a bang. Reluctant adventurer Kipuna is thrust into an international calamity when war grips her homeland and, through a serendipitous accident, she gains the ability to control time, known in game as Trance.
Trance can be activated by pressing the spacebar at any time, and allows players to view a timeline of ‘heartbeats’: units used when walking, attacking, or preparing more complex abilities. As enemy attacks and environmental effects also appear on the timeline, Trance is also a form of clairvoyance, and damage can be avoided simply by stepping back a heartbeat or two.
The true joy of the Trance system has to be experienced to be understood, but a close approximation would be the Frozen Synapse games, with a little bit of Toribash. Characters’ moves take a fixed number of heartbeats to carry out, and happen simultaneously with the enemy.
Rather than having to commit to any one choice, this offers the player the chance to probe multiple strategies and walk them back at any time. Though this might sound like an easy exploit—and I was indeed able to go for half the game without using healing magic once, avoiding damage at every single turn—exploring these various options is the core appeal of the game.
Unlike so many RPGs where one might develop a useful combat approach and rarely deviate, Iron Danger‘s incredibly flexible tactical design balances a riveting variety of encounters with always keeping the player on the razor’s edge. After all, in a world where Kipuna can see incoming danger, the only sensible ongoing threats are complex, impossible to deal with alone, and deadly quick.
As mentioned earlier, the game only has two playable characters at any time, and Iron Danger constantly switches Kipuna’s partner for the missions throughout the story. In this progression, however, the game lacks any of the tactical decision-making present in its battles. This is a linear, story-based adventure that further pushes its encounter creativity by limiting as much as possible outside of the missions.
The game has no level-up mechanics, no choice of where to go, no dialogue trees. Instead, the game does offer some upgrades at the end of each sub-mission—but even these upgrades do not really mean to limit decision-making, and to be honest, they cease to matter much a few chapters in.
This is all to say that, despite such linearity and lack of side-content, the game is well worth meeting on its own terms. Though Iron Danger presents a relatively conventional mix of Finnish folklore and standard fantasy tropes, what tropes it indulges are all there for the gratification of clever and evolving level design.
The game is not without fault; its visuals and audio are a mixed bag. Presentation-wise, a double-edged nostalgia is present in Iron Danger: the world is a 3D-isometric lover’s dream—it actually looks the way we remember the worlds of Warcraft III or, say, Dungeon Siege looked back in the transitional days of 3D.
From the stridently mouse-centric UI, to its familiar cartoon aesthetic, mixed with some over-the-top special effects, Iron Danger has a gentle charm; unfortunately, it is a gentle charm that fails to catch the eye in any particular way, and anybody without an emotional attachment to this style of presentation will probably think it looks like any other generic fantasy game.
The audio also has its positives and negatives. The music is fun and quite original in a way that the visual style is not, but does not elevate proceedings beyond conventional fantasy. But to make an isometric RPG like Iron Danger memorable, games usually need at least one: great writing, great music, or great voice acting (or just replace story sequences with pre-rendered cutscenes à la Blizzard).
Iron Danger‘s character development and dialogue are much like the game’s title: they get the job done without being particularly evocative, and the voice acting is similarly okay. Which is a shame, because, as stated above, the game aspires to develop as a franchise. Successful franchises tend to truck with more personality.
Ultimately, whether the story is memorable matters very little with such an excellently designed, action-packed series of levels for players to mince their way through. I think back—to creating wave upon wave of pincer attacks, or juggling way too many enemies back and forth between characters, or dodging in and out of the fray, flirting with death at every moment—and cannot help but feel giddy about playing even more.
Iron Danger feels like several different games smashed together, but also like no other game out there, and its tactical battles are a treat for any fan of, well, PC RPGs and tactics games. If we get another chance to explore its vast fantasy world, I will be in for that, too.
Reviewed on PC.