Occasionally, a game will connect just the right components together and make something that is reminiscent of several beloved franchises, whilst still managing to be a compelling game in its own right. Those are the games that don’t get negative connotations against them for taking heavy inspiration elsewhere because it’s clear that the developer looked at the things they enjoyed and thought ‘wouldn’t it be cool if we could do something like that, but with our own twist on it?’ instead of ‘well, these trends are popular, we should do them’.
Okay, maybe it’s not as pure or as cynical as all that, but you can certainly tell when a developer understands what made other games like its own work. Curious Panda Games does just that with its Tactical RPG The Iron Oath.
The Iron Oath Steam Release
This fantasy game carves off slices quite liberally from the juiciest cuts in the turn-based field and gets the food glue out to shape its own prime steak of a game. The key ones that came to mind were Darkest Dungeon, XCOM 2, Into the Breach, and a more general sprinkling of cRPG bits. You play as a mercenary unit in the medieval realm of Caelum, looking to grow into a force once more after a betrayal led to its demise. To do this, the mercs must travel the monster-laden roads between the various cities, looking for work and getting into fights. On the road and in town, taking care of your collective is the main task. Let them rest in the tavern to reduce fatigue, get them in the infirmary to heal injuries, trade with the shopkeeper to improve their gear, and even buy them a round so they like you a bit more.
This self-care is necessary because once you’ve found some work (and it’s never as simple as a fetch quest) going out into Caelum itself is going to hurt your crew, and hurt it hard. General travel is done on an overworld map, where a piece with your personal sigil slides across it like a giant tabletop game. When you have a destination in mind, you’re told how many days it will take, and are reminded there’s plenty of chance for danger on the road to it. If you do get stopped, there’s a nice bit of flavor text, some interaction among your band of mercs, and then it’s straight into the turn-based battlefield action.
From whatever soldiers you have available, you pick a team to throw into battle. There are a bunch of archetypes. Archers, mages, healers, and warriors, albeit with slightly different flavours of each. Then it’s the battle, and like Into the Breach you can plop down each unit in a certain location before starting the fight (unless the enemy got the jump on you). Combat is also similar to that kind of game, where you need to think hard about what unit’s ability will be most effective and where to move them. The Iron Oath is brutal enough that even the smoothest skirmish can turn sour with one poorly-thought out move.
There’s permadeath so you can lose four of your best at the end of a set of heated battles and be left with rookies. Or just as bad, they have a horrible injury or mental affliction that makes them next to useless without the right tools. I don’t think the balance is quite there in terms of how punishing that feels, but the set of systems in place does make The Iron Oath an intriguing tactical RPG.
The Iron Oath is out tomorrow on Early Access via Steam, although there's a demo available to try now if you want to give it a taste before you commit to the brutal medieval realms of Caelum.
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