For years now, Devolver Digital has been releasing a veritable plethora of engaging indie games that have all been unique in their particular aesthetics and backstories. The Iron Oath, a turn-based tactics RPG by Curious Panda Games, is no exception. The cliché title is admittedly one step away from being a satirical “Game of Thrones” spin-off, and it borrows loads of mechanics from other games of the genre, but it attempts to distinguish itself from others in the genre through gorgeous art direction and a heavy reliance on narrative.
You will be presented with a hex-based combat grid where your party and the enemy combatants stand. Your party consists of standard archetypes. The pyromancer is a tankier class that can place traps and usually win any one-on-one battle. The pugilist is more than capable of withstanding a beating on the frontline while hitting multiple enemies at once, pushing them into traps, and offering occasional healing to himself and nearby allies. The healer offer heals and shields from the middle of the battlefield, while your mage casts spells from range.
Luckily, most of these abilities are displayed with gorgeous animations that make for dazzling battle scenes. The abilities are nice to look at and are satisfying to use. I was quickly scanning the battlefield for ways to turn the tide in my favor. Adjacent enemies could be knocked into each other for bonus damage.
An enemy headed through a choke point on the map could walk into my pyromancer’s trap. This reliance on map manipulation and enemy pushing had me reminiscing about another recent strategy game that I adore: Into the Breach.
Whenever a battle ends, the game’s other inspirations quickly reveal themselves. Your party makes its way through an overhead tile-based dungeon. Roadblocks and decision points show up in the exploration, and your choices result in both positive and negative points for party members’ morale. As their morale gets low, they’ll pick up various traits and behave differently in certain situations. This style of dungeon exploration and morale maintenance is similar to the morale system in Darkest Dungeon.
The game’s world is plagued by a “scourge” that occurs every 10 years or so. When it arrives, a dragon emerges from the skies and burns everything in sight. I’m a few hours into the game, but this narrative element seems to manifest as an actual game mechanic in the overworld map, and that’s a welcome sight.
A faction called the Vanguard, an army whose goal is to drive back the scourge and protect the land, employs you with quests and offers gold in return. The gold can be spent on gear, items, or recruiting additional party members and paying their wages.
The management of heroes is key to the core gameplay loop, and ultimately, it’s the element that kept me the most engaged. As your heroes become tired and injured from battle, you need to let them rest or heal at a town’s infirmary for a couple of weeks. Without the much-needed recovery time, your heroes will earn less experience from battles and potentially pick up negative combat traits.
Throughout the game, as your heroes recover, you need to generate gold to ensure that you have enough money to pay their wages on payday. To account for this, you can recruit new heroes at the local inn. You can pay them for a single year’s work at a slightly higher price or get a better rate but pay them over the course of multiple years.
The game’s attempt at a more narrative-driven, turn-based tactics RPG is a welcome one, but it stumbles due to some design decisions. The game tries to entice the player with a rich world and engrossing narrative. With exceptional pixel art and well-crafted audio, the opening moments instilled hope for an epic adventure. However, your cast of similar heroes is drowned out by repetitive side-quests and similar-feeling party members. My favorite aspect of the game is the loop of company management and quest-seeking, but that is also what detracts from the story that the game is trying so hard to tell.
Iron Oath’s dungeon exploration and battle mechanics aren’t as deep as other games in the genre, but there’s still hope. Additional classes and skills are still listed in the game’s roadmap, so I’m hopeful that the exploration and battle aspects will be fleshed out more. It’s a fun game to scratch that turn-based tactics itch, so we’ll keep an eye on The Iron Oath as it progresses in its development cycle.