At first glance, you might dismiss Ironcast. Its gloomy, functional art style is drab, and it’s yet another Victorian steampunk game focused around some fairly generic mech designs. And yes, it’s a match-3 puzzle game too! This simple genre association will turn off the strategy purists, while the tactical trimmings repel the puzzle aficionados. But here's the thing. I’ve been playing the new Switch version of Ironcast over the last few days and it's actually a cracker.
Here's the setup: Ironcast sets its stall in an alternate-timeline Britain, where the country is at war with those damnable French over some mysterious energy source. In response, a powerful consortium of scientists, philanthropists, and money makers have pooled their resources to create the Ironcast — terrifying, steam-driven battle machines. It’s a fun framing device that serves to give the turn-based tactical action a bit of drive (and, of course, plenty of ‘what-what’s and ‘old chaps’), but you won’t be punching the air or shedding tears at the cutscenes.
What we’re really here for is the wonderful match-3 tactical mash-up that sits at the heart of the game. Ironcast isn’t the first to dollop a match-3 puzzler into the middle of an entirely different genre, but it’s definitely one of the most tactically rich I’ve played. Particularly unusual is that the match-3 element, despite literally taking centre-stage on-screen, isn’t really the focus. Instead the real magic happens outside of the gem board, and comes from the wealth of interesting combat choices the different, tightly-woven elements conjure.
Ironcast’s action is divided into bite-sized missions, with varying objectives, all built around the same colour-matching combat core. One mission might simply charge you with destroying a mech or tank, while another challenges you to survive a certain number of rounds. You could be asked to gather up as many supply crates as possible from the gem board while holding back enemy fire, or face-off against a tough boss-style opponent.
Here’s how it plays out: each round, you’re given two attempts to match as many same-coloured gems as possible. The minimum number you can match to remove them from the board is two (so, yes, I know it’s not technically a match-3 game), and there’s no upper limit. It’s even possible to extend your chain across different colour gems by passing through a 'link' gem first. Gem colours correspond to different consumables — ammo (purple), energy (orange), coolant (blue), repair kits (green) — which are added to the relevant gauge once removed from the board. There’s also a scrap (yellow) gem, which is used to upgrade your Ironcast between missions.
At any point during a turn, you’re able to attack your opponent (using ammo), fix your damaged systems (with repair kits), raise your shields to reduce the effectiveness of incoming attacks, or increase your movement speed to make yourself harder to hit (requiring energy). Importantly, most moves will cause your systems to overheat unless you keep a sufficient supply of coolant to hand.
This means that success in battle is about careful management of your limited resources, and smart tactical forethought. Despite its match-3 heart, Ironcast’s strategy elements are both challenging and deep. There’s undoubtedly a degree of luck to the game (the randomisation of available resources in the gem panel) which won’t be to everyone’s liking. It doesn't bother me, however, because Ironcast’s most interesting moments come about in response to that randomness, in deciding how to maximise the effectiveness of your limited and rarely-ideal resource supplies. It’s about creative problem solving, and making the best of a bad hand.
What I always love in strategy games is tough choices, and here they emerge regularly. Should you prioritise energy gathering to restore your shields, or stock up on coolant to prevent your mech from taking additional damage? Do you plan ahead and scoop up unnecessary resources now, so that you can grab a huge multi-resource run of linked gems on your next go, even if it means that you’ll be exposed to enemy fire this round? And the order in which you make these choices matters too. All your gauges have limited capacity, so constant awareness of every system is key. You might empty a meter before gem collecting, for example, so you can maximise your returns and minimise waste.
From there, the possibilities open up even further. There’s an overdrive system that enhances your abilities based on the length of chains, and a targeting feature that lets you focus on specific enemy systems, offering up even more scope for tactical planning. There’s a choice of active abilities to add to your Ironcast each time you level up — and a rock-paper-scissors-style shield and weapons system that gives further pause for thought when you’re upgrading your weapons and other functions between missions. In other words, a lot of tightly-interwoven systems lie the heart of Ironcast that make experimentation and strategic tinkering a real pleasure.
I'll finish with one of my favourite examples of its smart design: how Ironcast handles permadeath. Ordinarily, I’m not a fan of permadeath in mission-based tactical games — I’d rather have the chance to dive back in and try out new strategies on death, not be whisked out of the game, never to see a particular level again. Ironcast’s approach not only sweetens death, but at times it actually makes me yearn for it. Although permadeath deletes your progress as you might expect, it awards ‘commendations’ based on your performance. These in turn can be used to unlock new commanders and mechs (all with their own specialities), permanent upgrades and more, opening up yet more tactical options for the next playthrough.
While I love Ironcast’s surprising richness, I’m just as fond of its briskness. Missions last between 5 and 10 minutes, meaning I can hop in and get a quick strategic thrill before heading off elsewhere. It’s pretty much the perfect game for Switch: a rewarding, pick-up-and-play time-killer that's also deep enough for those longer, more ponderous sessions. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve turned off Ironcast over the last few days, only to turn it back on again a few minutes later — and, when so many other games are clamouring for my attention, that says it all.