by Jason Parker [Ragachak]
RPGs where the characters die permanently are not incredibly common. Fire Emblem and Final Fantasy tactics are the two big ones that come to mind, where if your character runs out of hit points, they die forever. At least in FFT you had a chance to bring them back to life before the battle ended. In Fire Emblem, you had about 20 characters that could take the fallen’s place and could field 10+ characters in most every battle. But Iron Tides, which takes the route of permanent character death, only allows four characters on field at one time – and while the mechanic makes sense, it can feel incredibly frustrating.
Iron Tides takes place in the aptly named chain of islands “The Iron Tides,” where you are in control a Viking Clan exploring the isles for both glory and wealth. It’s a roguelike that is also a strategy RPG. The maps are procedurally generated, and few battles felt the same twice [except the first map, the “tutorial” generally felt the same every time I did it]. You take control of a small Viking village, where you trade in the spoils of battle, recruit new characters [which are also randomly generated], and set sail. Each grid-based map is filled with blockades of rocks that cannot be sailed across, battlefield tiles, exploration tiles and more. Each turn allows you to move a single space.
This is a game that is unforgiving in its difficulty, which is a hallmark of roguelikes anyway. As of this writing, there are about seven maps to battle on, which can be previewed using Skirmish mode (one of the two game modes available). Let’s talk about the simpler mode first, Skirmish. You select one of the maps, from the early Eastgate Ruins to the far more challenging Twin Bridges. Each of these requires their own strategies and plans, but they don’t seem to change for me. Even if you have no save files/characters in use, you can play the Skirmish mode without worry. It has no impact on your regular save files, and is a great way to learn the way your enemy mercenaries will fight, and what the stages will feel like in the regular game when there is much more at stake. You gain nothing for winning and lose nothing for losing. It’s like a practice battle. You’re given four Vikings with a set of skills and have to do battle with a particular stage of enemies. For example, Twin Bridge has barricades, knights, and all kinds of craziness. Raider Galley isn’t quite so stressful, but you are always [always] outnumbered and overwhelmed.
That’s both a positive and a negative for Iron Tides. This game is brutally unforgiving, and losing your most powerful character mid-battle [not to mention in the middle of a stage] can feel absolutely soul-crushing. At least you don’t have to worry about losing your armor/weapons because you don’t appear to get any to equip. It does require you to think, plan, and outwit these enemies, but they come in much greater numbers, and I feel they hit much harder. Not to mention that each map has a level suggestion [and party number suggestion] which can become harder and harder to acquire if you’ve lost party members before. I found myself having to repeat the first and second stage several times and due to a fluke crit, losing someone critical to my team sent me back to farm even more. If you lose your whole team, it’s not the end of the world though. You simply go back home and recruit as many new Vikings as you can. After one or two game overs though, you might not have enough Vikings to fill out a squad [four]. It is important to note that if you under-field a team, you do get bonus exp for kills, and you still get more exp for getting kill chains without losing anyone. When the characters level up, you can assign skill points, or let the game upgrade them for you.
The Campaign is the meat and potatoes of this game, and you might find yourself making several files, or even starting over/deleting files that just feel unwinnable. That’s another thing that’s happened to me. It didn’t make me hate the game; after all, it’s a Roguelike and starting over is going to happen. But I did reach points in the campaign where it simply felt unwinnable. A map might suggest 3 Vikings at level 3 or 4, but I had four level 1s, and they were a long way from being level 2. The grind feels incredibly real, though the game is cute, and the combat’s fun. Be warned that you might have to do levels over just for more character experience. It’s not like I skimped on the exploration either. That’s the thing. I explored as much of the maps as I possibly could, even when I ran down on supplies.
That’s the next thing to talk about: your supplies. Depending on how many Vikings are on your ship, they consume food/drink each time you move a space on the map. You right-click the food/drink icons in your inventory to recover that stamina that goes into sailing. If you run out of food, you start to go hungry, and that is not good. You can gain more food/drink though from winning battles in your spoils of war, through exploring shipwrecks and things of that nature. There are also other items that can be gained through exploring in these random events. You can accrue more glory (one of your two currencies) through these. You might run off some bandits, recruit new Vikings to your team, be offered a powerful item [or opt to not take it and gain Glory instead]. These are hidden throughout the maps you explore, though not all of these items you gain seem useful. You can then sell those scraps of metal in your trading post, and use them as an investment towards the future of your clan. There are also buff items that give you defensive or offensive buffs temporarily.
That leads me to actual combat. It’s turn-based, and your squad can move a certain amount of spaces [not very far]. You can have up to four abilities, and you face mercenaries with a lot of variety – from poisons and bleeds to black powder grenades and hefty tanks. Each has their own priority level, and you really have to spend some time assessing the situation and figure out which has to die first. You have up to three fury points and attacking/using powers use fury, although some characters can return fury back to you. You can recruit a few potential character archetypes, including Valkyries, Archers, and Berserkers. Each time you recruit a new character, they’ll be given abilities from a pool. Once everyone has moved/acted as far as they can, the enemy will do the same. Fun note though, if you get a kill, you’ll be given back a point of fury. So if you’re smart and say, use an Archer to pick off a few characters, you can really clear a field of incoming opponents.
Fun but Bare
This is a challenging, unforgiving, but fun game! I love the visuals, the skills are pretty awesome, and the map exploration is definitely worthwhile. Maybe it’s because I’m not so great at it, but I started over a few times. It always felt enjoyable, but it is not an easy game. This would be a great game to have multiplayer skirmishes though, but as of now, it’s pretty bare bones. There’s not a lot to it, but what is here is excellently done. They are from all accounts, working on more content and updates to it as it continues through Early Access, but right now, I just want a little more. It’s fun, it’s not going to hold your hand for very long, and the game gives you plenty of choices and ways to go about achieving victory.
You can find Iron Tide on Steam in Early Access!
Iron Tide Gameplay Screenshots