Iron Danger places players in control of Kipuna – a young girl who mysteriously acquires magical abilities during an attack on her village – and various companions who accompany her on the adventure she finds herself thrust into. This is quite unlike any other game that I’ve played before. While on first look you may think it to be an RPG or aRPG, simply based on its art style and control-scheme, and while there are elements from those genres in it, Iron Danger adds something unique to the mix: the ability to manipulate time.
This isn’t the first time a game has included the ability to manipulate time. But where other games treat it a either a limited use get-out-of-gaol-free card allowing you to rewind time and get out of a sticky situation, or occasionally as an offensive weapon, for example freezing all foes in place or hitting them with a ‘time-blast’ or similar, in this game the ability is absolutely central.
In fact, I’d say the game would be impossible to complete without it. Time is measured in ‘heartbeats’, and whenever the player wishes, they can enter ‘trance mode’ which freezes the action, and allows the player to rewind up to the last 14 heartbeats of time. While players can do this as often as they like, it’s important to note that anything occurring earlier than those 14 heartbeats is set in stone and cannot be changed. This is something that has massive implications for combat.
And combat is where the ability to manipulate time is primarily used, as it essentially allows players to glimpse at the immediate future, to try something, see how it unfolds, and then decide whether to stick with it or try another course of action. While this can let you line up the perfect dodge, block or spell, it can also result in the AI choosing different actions, which in turn force you to adapt again. This turns what may have been a fairly straightforward action game, into one of the most interesting, ever-changing ‘combat puzzle’ games I’ve played.
And combat is terrific, an ever changing landscape of tactical decisions leading either to victory, or an extremely swift and painful demise. This is thanks to several elements all coming together. Firstly: the fact the players often get to control two characters per mission. Secondly: the vast array of tactical abilities and choices open to each character, including melee and ranged attacks, dodges, blocks, stuns, special abilities, not to mention a list of extremely useful spells which have grown quite extensive by the end of the game. Thirdly: that each of these actions take so long to execute, and have a cool-down period before which they can be used again. Fourthly: the intelligent enemy AI which will quite happily exploit any opening you’ve created via your actions. Fifthly: getting hit hurts a lot – and often all it takes is one solid blow to take Kipuna out of action. And, finally: the fact that in nearly every encounter the player is hopelessly outmatched in either numbers of foes, or foe type - such as the giant steam-driven war machines used by evil Queen Lowhee or the aggressive and super-fast trolls which can flatten your party with one blow. These last points make it even more fun on those rare occasions where you get to take control of a towering automaton, and dish-out some of the punishment you’ve been doing your best to avoid.
Really, with combat as intense as it is, the only thing which make success even possible is the ability to rewind time, pick another course of action and see if it plays out the way you intended. This could be as simple as holding one character in place for a set amount of time to avoid an attack or lure an enemy into a trap, or controlling the timing and direction of a dodge to avoid a lethal ballista bolt, to casting a protective spell to negate some damage which, despite your best efforts, you simply can’t avoid. Yes, even with the ability to rewind time, you can still find that the sequence of events you’ve locked in make avoiding a hit all but impossible, and it is possible to mismanage things so badly that you get defeated.
This is a good thing, however. Failure is not random, nor is it unfair: there’s a distinct and obvious causal chain stemming from the player’s decisions. I found it to be intense, engaging, and causing my emotions to swing between satisfaction in having choreographed the perfect fight, to wild panic as I tried to get out of the situation I’d landed myself in. Really, the only thing missing from this is the ability to watch your finished encounter – the perfect fight you’ve painstakingly choreographed – play out in real-time. Indeed, thanks to the end-of-mission screen, you can see that some of the more challenging encounters took a whole 20 minutes of trance time to complete, but in ‘real time’ only took 2 minutes. In fact, the only criticism I can level at it is that sometimes it was a bit difficult to know which character I had selected.
As for the rest of the game, this either supports, or plays a secondary role to the excellent tactical combat. World locations are varied, ranging from snow-covered planes and autumnal fields, to dank forgotten temples, and otherworldly dream-like settings. The varied terrain provides more than differing backdrops to combat, and can afford tactical advantages and challenges. Regarding world-building, there is a wide variety of foes, each with different strengths and weaknesses, and right-clicking on them will bring up a bit of information, adding some character to what could otherwise be nameless, faceless soldiers and monstrosities.
While the voice acting can be a bit stilted at times, the story is very much setting the scene for a bigger adventure (think the first book of The Lord of the Rings), and the characters are not particularly deep. None of this detracts from the core of the game, which, as I’ve already said, is terrific. As an added bonus, the cartoon-like visual style and story also mean that this can be enjoyed by both older gamers looking for a stiff tactical challenge, as well as younger gamers whose parents may be reluctant to let them loose on more violent games.
All in all, if brain-stretching tactical combat is your thing, then Iron Danger is well worth playing. It’s fun, it’s engaging, and at no point during the 16 hours it took to complete did it feel stale or boring. Even if you’re not particularly sure or are new to the genre, it’s easy to recommend, and with a free demo available, there’s no excuse not to have a go. ■