Review: Ironclad Tactics (PS4)

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Title: Ironclad Tactics
Format: PlayStation Network Download (401 MB)
Release Date: January 20, 2015
Publisher: Zachtronics LLC
Developer: Zachtronics LLC
Original MSRP: $14.99
ESRB Rating: T
Ironclad Tactics is also available on PC, OS X, Linux, and Android.
The PlayStation 4 download version was used for this review.
A copy of this game was provided by the publisher for review purposes.
PS Nation Review Policy

The story of Ironclad Tactics takes place in the United States during the Civil War but paints an alternate history where both sides have steam-powered mech technology to do battle. In the game, you follow Max and Joe as they attempt to out-invent the other side’s technology to gain a tactical advantage.

Gameplay:
The gameplay of Ironclad Tactics is a mix between a card-based battle system and a strategy RPG (SRPG). The game itself seems very simple: you start off in New England and go from battlefield to battlefield across the country. Each time you win a battle your cards get upgraded and new game mechanics are introduced. Between each battle you watch a series of slightly-animated, visual novel styled cutscenes.

When you first start off the game you’re given a tutorial deck. The tutorial however is not very good because the game tells you to do something but leaves you with no idea what you’re supposed to be doing. I found no indication on the screen what I was supposed to do so I kind of had to click around and I eventually figured it out.

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Each battlefield is laid out as a static screen and your objective is to move your mechs from the left-hand side of the screen to the right. At first it was very confusing because the game doesn’t quite explain the objective, it just tells you to move your mech. Though the objective of the game seems simple it’s actually very complex and there’s a bit of a learning curve before you understand what you are doing.

… it’s sometimes tough to get the card you want quickly enough before it disappears …

Once you get past the tutorial mode you’re given the ability to customize your own deck of twenty cards. After each battle new cards are introduced and unlocked and the number of new cards you get depends on how well you perform in the battle. There are also special tasks that, if you manage to achieve them, will allow you to unlock special cards.

There are several different types of cards that you can employ in your deck. The cards that I’ve come across so far are: various mech cards, infantry cards, action cards (cards that allow you to move faster, move vertically on the screen, etc.), and weapon cards. As you proceed through the levels the mechs get more powerful and you get more choices for weaponry with different firepower and range. In addition to the enhanced weaponry and mechs, your infantrymen also get more powerful and are able to do more.

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As mentioned before, each battlefield is a static screen and your objective is to move your mechs from the left-hand side of the screen to the right. Each mech has a number of VP associated with them (I assume it means Victory Points) which are awarded to you after you get all the way to the right side of the screen and leave the battlefield. Your deck is at the bottom of the screen and you must choose a card from there and place it in one of four swim-lanes on the battlefield. There is a battle clock, or turn timer, near the bottom left of the screen and as it counts, your mechs and men take one step forward automatically (unless you pause them). Each card in your deck has an AP (action point) cost associated with them. For each turn, you are awarded a single AP (action point) and as you accumulate more you are able to spend them by playing a card. The objective is to gain the target number of VP that is indicated at the upper left and right corners of the screen. Those indicators show your accumulated VP as well as your opponent’s along with how much they have left to win the battle.

Though most of the game is fully automated the developers did a great job of creating the different rules of the battlefield. On later levels there are bunkers that, once captured, increase the rate at which you gain AP. Once a soldier from either side passes through a bunker it’s captured until the other side walks over it. Infantrymen are very vulnerable however and while they can arm mortars and mines they will get squashed or killed very easily by any opposing mech. One fun tactic that I was able to employ on a few occasions was marching a highly-armored mech just a few places in front of a mortar, then I’d have my soldier parked on the mortar. I managed to get lucky because the opposing side was armed with only short-ranged weapons, so my armored mech pretty much created a blockade and allowed my men to use the mortar almost the entire battle.

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All in all the game is a great concept but I found it very frustrating and difficult to play. First of all you can tell that Ironclad Tactics is a straight PC port, it even has a mouse pointer on the screen that’s used as a cursor to select cards, place them, and also to interact with your army. Since there are no real shortcuts built with a controller in mind it’s sometimes tough to get the card you want quickly enough before it disappears. Which brings me to the most frustrating part of the game.

Unlike a regular card game, you’re not allowed access to your full deck. You are able to choose all the cards that go into your deck but they’re pretty much shuffled and you only have a selection of five cards at any given time. As the turn timer ticks down, the card at the far right of the screen disappears and a new card is introduced on the left-hand side (like a conveyor belt). Most of the time the card you really need at a certain point is not available which makes many of these battles super frustrating and almost only winnable by luck. You are allowed to bring one card from the far right of the screen and place it at the front of the line, but it costs one AP to do a swap. Given how slow the AP is awarded, swapping the cards seems like a waste of your time and you risk not having enough AP when you really need a specific card.

Waiting for AP to accumulate is like watching paint dry.

Waiting for AP to accumulate is like watching paint dry.

Another very frustrating part of the game design is that since your deck is shuffled and the cards come at random you’re almost always waiting on your AP to build up. The CPU AI is so good at playing they’ll usually have three or four heavy mechs on the board before you can even get a good card and get the points to be able to play it. There also seems to be no difficulty setting available and it seems like the CPU is able to select whatever cards it needs.

… main battle portions look like hand-drawn sprites …

There are several other modes in the game you can try, such as a puzzle game, and four or five other campaigns. So, the game seems to have quite a bit of content, but if you are not skilled at Strategy RPG’s (like myself) you won’t even get that far. Overall, I think this game requires a good deal of patience and also is more geared towards seasoned SRPG players. If you’re a novice at card games and at SRPGs I would not recommend this game to you. With that said, I can’t imagine even skilled SRPG players getting past the randomness of the card shuffling and the overpowered CPU opponent AI without getting as frustrated as I did.

Visuals:
The visuals of Ironclad Tactics are pretty nice and the art in the cutscenes reminds me of several of the Telltale adventure games. The main battle portions look like hand-drawn sprites and the game has a nice overall aesthetic.

One issue I have with the visuals though is that being a PC port, the font size is pretty small to play on a big-screen TV. My recliner is probably a good ten to fifteen feet away from my forty-six inch HDTV and I had to get up a few times to be able to read some of the text.

I sure could use some mechs right about now.

I sure could use some mechs right about now.

Audio:
The soundtrack and sounds of the game are pretty well done. There’s quite a bit of bass to it so if you have a subwoofer you may want to turn it down a couple notches. The game does have surround sound but since this isn’t a high-action game it’s mostly just for the music and the sounds of the mechs pounding the ground as they walk.

Online/Multiplayer:
Ironclad Tactics has both co-op and versus online components. Since I could not progress through the main story I did not use the online feature. I did however play using the PS4’s Share Play feature to get some help passing one of the battles, but the connection had quite a bit of lag which made the simulated mouse-based control very problematic. Though I did not play online against a player I would recommend that you only try it if you have a very good connection since one missed click can cause you to throw the match if you miss the card that you need at a specific point in time.

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Conclusion:
Overall, Ironclad Tactics is a great concept with a really neat historical fantasy element to it. I’m a big fan of mechs and robots so I really enjoy the entire concept of the Civil War with giant robots. Unfortunately due to a combination of the game’s mechanics and my poor ability to play SRPGs I did not enjoy the game enough to muscle through it. After five failed attempts on the tenth or eleventh battle I had to give up.

With that said I do believe that if you enjoy a challenge and are very skilled at SRPGs this game may be a good one to pick up. However, I do not recommend this game to players with little to no SRPG experience. If you really love the concept and style of this game then it may be a good one to pick up on sale. I also think this game is better suited for a PC or Tablet since you would have a real mouse/touchscreen and could quickly select your cards and get them on the play-field. Either way, a mouse/touchscreen wouldn’t solve the game mechanic of being fed random cards from your deck five at a time.

Score:
6.0

* All screenshots used in this review were taken directly from the game using the Share functionality on the PlayStation 4.

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Written by Jason Honaker

Jason Honaker

A software developer for over 15 years, originally from St. Louis, MO and currently living in Seattle, WA. Started gaming in 1979 on the Atari 800 8-bit PC. I play all sorts of games, but am partial to RPGs and 3rd person brawlers and shooters.

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