Platforms: PC (reviewed)
Iron Danger is the sort of indie game you hope for but never really expect to come around. It’s a puzzle game masquerading as a strategy game in high fantasy drag. It’s colorful and charming with unique mechanics that feel both innovative and familiar, drawing on titles as diverse as XCOM, Baldur’s Gate, Superhot, and Prince of Persia. When we look to the indie space for innovation, we imagine a game like Iron Danger.
You play as Kipuna, a teenage girl from a peaceful (and thus, highly flammable) village in the Southlands. During an attack on her town, she suffers from a catastrophic injury wherein she’s impaled with a magical shard which allows her to control time itself. Which is good, because it’s up to her and her blacksmith friend Topi to gather all the other shards while everyone and their mom tries to kill them. The story centers around her efforts to reunite all the shards before an evil army gets their hands on them.
A time to kill
Iron Danger’s secret sauce is the way that it modifies traditional strategy gaming to fit the game’s time mechanics. Gameplay is oriented around isometric tactical melee combat. Kipuna and her companion (she gets a few throughout the game) square off against numerically superior groups in close range engagements on small maps.
In most turn-based strategy games, where there are no take-backsies, gameplay revolves around maximizing your chance to hit percentage. Everyone takes their turn swinging / shooting at each other, dealing damage in a war of attrition.
In Iron Danger, if your opponent takes a swing at you, and you are unlucky enough to be inside his threat area, you get hit, period. In Iron Danger, the AI is vicious and the odds impossible. Without time control, the game serves solely as a reminder that knife fights are a great way to get killed.
However, with time control (or “trance mode” as the game calls it), you can endlessly iterate on your actions until you find the perfect approach. Once combat starts, everything and everyone freezes. Time proceeds only when Kipuna or her companion take an action. Then, all her opponents can act as well. The AI is highly reactive, responding to every choice you make differently. But it never passes up an opportunity to swing at you, making engagements intense and harrowing. The game’s iterative approach to fights makes every fight feel like a puzzle to be understood and unlocked.
At any time you can move time backwards or forwards to see the results of your actions (or inaction). Your goal is to create the ideal battle wherein you slaughter your enemies and they can’t lay a hand on you. Even if one of your characters is killed, you can just wind time back and save them. Every encounter is a puzzle to unravel, and the enemy AI responds differently to you depending on what action you take.
The game measures time in “heartbeats” which are tracked using a timeline at the bottom of the screen. Fast attacks take a heartbeat or two, while slower attacks and spells can take up to three. Bigger attacks and spells also have a cooldown time. Movement distance on the map is also measured in heartbeats. This timeline also tracks when you take damage, so you can better time your dodges, blocks, and other defensive maneuvers. However, you only have about 14 heartbeats to work with at one time. You can only rewind time so much.
Iron Danger has no save/reload system. You have near-infinite leeway in the short term, but after a certain point, you must live with your decisions. Time manipulation is a sort-of save scum feature, but it is hardcore in the sense that the only way to reload is to restart the entire level. (Progress is saved between levels.)
This was particularly amusing and difficult for me when I was trying run from an enemy mob. I misread the map and ended up cornered on a pier, with no way to escape. I could wind time back to roughly the moment I got onto the pier, but not before. I had to fight with my back to the wall, but with time on my side (badumtish!) I won the battle.
Iron Danger’s time control solves a lot of the problems of real-time with pause RPG combat. In games like Pillars of Eternity, you can stumble into a fight with your characters arranged in a painfully suboptimal positioning that puts you at a disadvantage throughout the battle. When this happens in Iron Danger, you just wind time back and re-approach the danger zone differently this time. Maybe you open with a fireball. Maybe you throw a grenade. Maybe you send your tank charging in with a buff. It’s great.
Great promise, minor flaws
While, Iron Danger’s execution of its core conceit is excellent, it has a few flaws that bear mentioning. None of these issues are gamebreaking - in fact, they’re only noticeable because the rest of the game is so well done.
Progression systems are very simple. Your characters’ hit point totals never go up. Their basic melee attack never gets more effective. You can improve existing skills (which does increase your damage totals) or learn new ones, but compared to more expansive strategy games and RPGs, advancement is limited. It’s sufficient, but I’d be excited to see what they manage to cook up for the sequel.
On a related note, the inventory system is very basic. You never equip new weapons or armor. You do get a few consumable items that can heal you or reset cooldowns, as well as explosive throwables. But you can’t share them among your party. If Kipuna has healing items, she can’t hand them off to Topi between battles. However, if you’re cautious enough during battles, you rarely need healing.
The game has some stealth elements but they feel like a bit of an afterthought. You can’t see enemy’s viewing cones, so you’re never quite sure when you are and aren’t visible. The game does add some tall grass that you can hide in, but it’s few and far between. I’ve never been able to entirely sneak past an encounter. Picking up items actually takes your characters out of stealth mode, which is awkward and weird. As far as I can tell, stealth is best used to start the battle on terms most favorable to you.
Your character’s viewing distance seems weirdly short sometimes. You can be standing two feet from away from an open doorway and you still must step into the room to see the enemies within. That being said, enemies don’t come charging out of rooms as soon as you open the door. You’re kind of blind; so are your enemies.
The dodge is one of the most important moves in the game, and it’s a tiny bit bugged. If you’re standing on slightly lower ground, sometimes you cannot dodge onto slightly higher ground, even if your character could easily step up onto it. This is annoying, but nothing that a minor patch can’t fix.
And speaking of bugs, sometimes enemies and allies are too close together for you to click them and apply buff spells. Given that you only ever have one ally at a time, there should be a way to apply the buff to them by clicking something other than their character sprite.
A small note about content
I only had one truly off-putting moment with the story, and that’s when one of your allies, Lemichen, tries to kiss Kipuna out of nowhere. Up until that point, Lemichen is portrayed as a bit arrogant and revenge-obsessed, but not as the sort of creep who tries to make out with minors.
She tells him to get the hell away from her, and he does, but it’s very weird and off-tone. Immediately after that, one of your other allies tells Kipuna that she should get rid of Lemichen and, for some reason, she argues that she needs him because he’s good at killing. The incident seems immediately forgotten and Kipuna trusts him again almost immediately. I have no idea why this weird story beat took place, and the game would be better without it.