Let me paint you a picture. Some time ago, a game developer decided to create a game in which the player controls a group of mercenaries that travel through a large overworld map, going from town to town, picking up odd jobs and ends to gain money and reputation to pay the ever-growing group of mercenaries as well as keep them well-stocked with various resources and weapons and armor to use in difficult grid-based tactics combat. The game developers then released this game and called it Battle Brothers. Sometime after this, the game devs over at Curious Panda Games thought to themselves, “Okay, but what if we make Battle Brothers even more for this Luke Nally guy?” and so they set out to make that game. They released it and called it Iron Oath.
The top 4 games by Time Played in my Steam library all involve some sort of grid-based tactical combat, and the 5th game involves difficult turn-based combat, so suffice to say that the overall gameplay of Iron Oath immediately made it stick out to me as something I needed to pick up and try and it did not disappoint.
The primary thing that set Iron Oath apart from Battle Brothers and Wartales, another game with a very similar overall game concept, is the focus on characters. This mercenary group has dialogues between the members, giving the cast a little extra weight and therefore, the player a little more investment in the characters, which I quite enjoy. With that said, yes, I absolutely did quit out of the game and restart the campaign when one of the said characters died in combat. The mercenary group is expanded with random characters you can hire at the respective towns. But the core story revolves around the original band of mercenaries, so I just didn’t feel right letting one of them die.
Iron Oath also uses a class system, and while I only experienced a small variety in my playtime, it was a strong selection. The Stormcaller and Pyrolancer were particularly fun for me, allowing me to finally realize my dream of smiting a demon before running them through with a massive flaming spear. The current Early Access build doesn’t allow for full exploration of their abilities, but all the classes I played with had a solid selection of abilities, giving each class all-around capabilities. I rather liked this approach, as it allowed me to use whatever class theme I enjoyed most, rather than forcing me to use certain classes to fill out the prime team composition.
Iron Oath’s story revolves around your little band of mercenaries being betrayed and then striking out for revenge, as well as finding the nephew of one of the mercenaries who sticks around. Meanwhile, the world itself is a medieval fantasy world called Caelum that has been affected by a cataclysmic event, which cast the world into a dark age. This opens up a variety of enemy types, with your usual medieval baddies of bandits and thieves but also allowing for more fantastical enemies such as demons, ghouls, skeletons, and the like. There’s also a giant dragon that likes to fly around and absolutely destroy cities from time to time, but that just provides opportunities for mercenary jobs to help restore the cities, so destroy away dragon! You’ll sometimes encounter these enemies through story encounters on the overworld map but you’ll mostly run into them in the dungeon setup in Iron Oath.
If I didn’t know better, I’d say the gameplay in the dungeons is straight out of a roguelike. The dungeons are explored via tiles, jumping from one to the next. Each time you jump, time passes with a negative effect on the party at certain thresholds, determined by the difficulty. Some of the negative effects are being more privy to ambushes while camping or being more prone to being long-term injured on the battlefield. You can also scout ahead at the cost of time, the tradeoff being you can suss out combat encounters before you run into them, therefore lowering your chances of being ambushed and avoiding the negative effects that go along with being ambushed. It’s not the most engaging dungeon exploration, but I think it fits the game well, adding a little bit of stress and making the player prioritize certain things over the others. Do you want to fully explore the dungeon to maybe discover an item or resources if it means that you’ll potentially start every single combat at a disadvantage due to a time effect? I’m a coward, so I played on the easiest difficulty, which alleviated a lot of the stress. But for those of you looking for a hardcore game, I could definitely see these decisions becoming large factors in how you progress through the dungeons.
All of this is tied neatly in a retro-inspired graphical package. It does add a little charm to the game with the overworld, especially benefitting from this aesthetic, but I do hesitate to say it’s a good design choice. It is by no means bad, but I find myself wondering if this really is the best way to present this style of game. However, as many times as I have pondered that, I’ve also said to myself, “I bet the developers had a bunch of fun designing how the abilities look and interact.” I suppose, with that, I must give credit to Curious Panda Games for pushing what I think works and does not work for game genres. The character models themselves are detailed and distinct, with the enemy demons being especially enjoyable for me. The grid used in combat is very clear and distinguished, making it easy to maneuver. The audio is commendable, with the sound of horse hooves while traveling around on the world map being a rather nice touch, and just like with the graphics, the game shines in the combat with crisp sound effects following every attack and ability.
Iron Oath is another inspired entry into the small but hopefully burgeoning genre of mercenary sim tactical RPGs that sets itself apart as a distinct take on it. The developers at Curious Panda Games have managed to flawlessly execute their vision, although I’m left wondering if that vision lines up flawlessly for me. Regardless of the small hesitations I have, I walk away from each play session thoroughly enjoying the entire product before me due to the attention to detail in every aspect of the game and the pure fun I have with the gameplay. The combat is fun and incredibly satisfying, and every time I think about it, I’m converted more and more into a fan of the aesthetic. I’m incredibly excited to see where this game goes between Early Access and full release, but until then, I’ll be having a grand old time leading my mercenary squad, The Hecklers, with Demon Lord Magee at the helm.
Note: This is an Early Access impression, and is not feature complete. The state of the game as it was played for this review is not representative of the end product.