I’m at the farmer’s market on a date with Kyanna, a busty single mother with creepily childlike features. She’s most interested in talent and least interested in romance. That means I want to focus on matching blue gems instead of orange gems. And because I’ve put a point of skill into my sexuality and flirtation, I get extra affection when I match red gems and green gems. I have a teddy bear I can give her to turn all the purple gems into pink gems, which build passion that makes my matches more efficient. But until I match enough green gems, I won’t have the sentiment to use the teddy bear.
After the jump, what does this have to do with Ironcast’s steampunk mechs?
The game is HuniePop, a dating sim in which you play a match-3 to determine whether your dates are successful. It’s yet another attempt to bolt an RPG and resource management game onto a match-3. But HuniePop does nothing to create the sense of being on a date. It’s a ridiculous abstraction, little more than busywork on the way to unlocking anime porn. It’s no different from the Infinite Interactive Puzzle Quest series in which a match-3 stood in for fighting orcs. After Puzzle Quest, a long line of games tried to giving meaning to match-3s, and because playing a match-3 pretty much only recreates the experience of playing a match-3, Puzzle Quest is only slightly less ridiculous than HuniePop.
But because I wasn’t born in the Victorian era, I don’t know what it feels like to drive a steam-powered mech in battle. You would think it’s a lot of pulling heavy steel levers. But who’s to say that it didn’t involve making tough choices among patterns from a colorful grid? Who’s to say it doesn’t resemble arranging the crystals in a glowing grid, like the control panels from Land of the Lost? History doesn’t have much to say on the matter of what it was like to pilot a mech. So when I’m matching purple crystals to restock ammo, I eventually stop feeling the disconnect that I feel in HuniePop or PuzzleQuest. And because Ironcast isn’t technically a match-3 — you’re drawing a line to connect all adjacent gems of the same color — I get the sense of shoveling different types of fuel into a receptacle. On a train, this would just be coal. But on a steampunk mech, who’s to say ammo isn’t purple gems and coolant isn’t blue gems?
This might just be a rationalization for why I feel slightly less ridiculous playing Ironcast than I feel playing Puzzle Quest or, well, HuniePop, where I’d feel ridiculous regardless of the gameplay. But it seems to me those other games are for people who want a reason to play a match-3. Ironcast is a meaty enough systems management game built around a match-3, with the main emphasis on the systems management. The match-3ing is almost incidental. The central fact of Ironcast is a mech with coolant, energy, speed, shields, and two weapons of your choice. Each of these is powered by a different colored gem on the grid. From looking at screenshots, it might look very candy-colored and bright. Casual even. But it’s not. It’s pretty darn gritty. You’re having to decide whether to use your energy for speed to try to dodge shots or for shields to soak up damage. Do you use your ammo to fire your blunderbuss or to launch a missile? At a certain point, after the battle has raged a few turns and you’re running low on coolant, do you dare hold your fire for a while to let things cool down? Do you dare spend time on repairs? There’s a sense of having to maintain power, of having to hold together these clanky clockwork machines, with an elaborately animated visual for your and your opponent’s mechs at either side of the screen.
These feel very much like the kinds of decisions you had to make in a game of X-Wing or in a turn-based MechWarrior game, all reinforced with a latticework of crunchy numbers. The Victorian era machines are in need of pilots who can make tough calls. Even though it’s represented by lining up a bunch of purple gems or a bunch of orange gems, it stands in admirably for pulling heavy steel levers. Games are always about abstraction on some level, but Ironcast doesn’t have to force it by pretending it’s something we already know.
Furthermore, Ironcast exists admirably outside the match-3ing. Between matches, you make decisions about equipment upgrades and modifications, special abilities, and mission selection, all within the context of a badass enemy mech slowly bearing down on London. After a certain number of rounds, you have to fight a boss battle and you’ll likely get killed. Getting killed is permanent. But at least you’ve leveled up your overall progress along a set of persistent unlocks. And then you start all over again. Choose your mech. Choose your pilot. The choices begin before the game even starts. And when you finally kill that boss, Ironcast isn’t over by a long shot.