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August 2022

The Iron Oath

Platform(s): PC
Genre: RPG/Strategy
Publisher: Humble Games
Developer: Curious Panda Games

About Chris Barnes

There's few things I'd sell my soul to the devil for. However, the ability to grow a solid moustache? I'd probably sign that contract ... maybe ... (definitely).


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PC Preview - 'The Iron Oath'

by Chris Barnes on June 14, 2022 @ 1:00 a.m. PDT

The Iron Oath is a turn-based tactical RPG set in a medieval fantasy world where you, as the leader of a mercenary company, will recruit, manage, and embark on perilous missions in order to build your company’s renown.

Devolver Digital was always my go-to publisher when it came to engaging indie titles that are bursting with style and character, but in recent years, a number of releases from Humble Games has turned my head. The Iron Oath, a turn-based tactics RPG by Curious Panda Games, is no exception. The cliché title is admittedly one step away from being a satirical "Game of Thrones" spin-off, and it borrows loads of mechanics from other games of the genre, but it attempts to distinguish itself from others in the genre through gorgeous art direction and a heavy reliance on narrative.

The opening moments of the game greet the player with a hex-based combat grid where your party and the enemy combatants stand. Your party consists of standard archetypes. The pyromancer is a tankier class that can place traps and usually win any one-on-one battle. The pugilist is more than capable of withstanding a beating on the frontline while hitting multiple enemies at once, pushing them into traps, and offering occasional healing to himself and nearby allies. The healer offer heals and shields from the middle of the battlefield, while your mage casts spells from range.

All of these abilities are displayed with gorgeous animations that make for dazzling battle scenes. The abilities are nice to look at and are satisfying to use. I was quickly scanning the battlefield for ways to turn the tide in my favor. Adjacent enemies could be knocked into each other for bonus damage. An enemy headed through a choke point on the map could walk into my pyromancer's trap. This reliance on map manipulation and enemy pushing had me reminiscing about another recent strategy game that I adore: Into the Breach.

Once the battle is over, the game's other inspirations quickly reveal themselves. Your party makes its way through an overhead tile-based dungeon. Roadblocks and decision points show up in the exploration, and your choices result in both positive and negative points for party members' morale. As their morale gets low, they'll pick up various traits and behave differently in certain situations. This style of dungeon exploration and morale maintenance is similar to the morale system in Darkest Dungeon.

When you complete a dungeon, you're brought back to an overworld map to navigate to other towns and dungeons. Towns are key for picking up new quests, healing your party, hiring new recruits, and driving the main plot forward. This is where the game starts to take shape. Despite the game's strategy-heavy mechanics, players may be surprised to find how much narrative is in The Iron Oath — and it's all divulged via text, so be prepared to read.

The world is plagued by a "scourge" that occurs every 10 years or so. When it arrives, a dragon emerges from the skies and burns everything in sight. I'm a few hours into the game, but this narrative element seems to manifest as an actual game mechanic in the overworld map, and that's a welcome sight. The moment-to-moment narrative offers more flavor than the overarching lore. I often mixed up who was who based on similar-looking character portraits; this becomes increasingly problematic as the roster of heroes grows, so hopefully the developer figures out a way to address this issue.

The Vanguard, an army whose goal is to drive back the scourge and protect the land, employs you with quests and offers gold in return. The gold can be spent on gear, items, or recruiting additional party members and paying their wages.

Despite this, the management of heroes is key to the core gameplay loop, and ultimately, it's the element that kept me the most engaged. As your heroes become tired and injured from battle, you need to let them rest or heal at a town's infirmary for a couple of weeks. Without the much-needed recovery time, your heroes will earn less experience from battles and potentially pick up negative combat traits.

As your heroes recover, you need to generate gold to ensure that you have enough money to pay their wages on payday. To account for this, you can recruit new heroes at the local inn. You can pay them for a single year's work at a slightly higher price or get a better rate but pay them over the course of multiple years.

Now that you have additional heroes, you can take on some quests and earn gold to pay your heroes' wages. If you don't, their morale declines, and dungeons become increasingly more difficult. Keep in mind that your party's size just got bigger, so now you're on the hook for even higher wages, and you need to take on even more quests. It's a careful balancing act of recovery time, quest completion, and roster growth to ensure you're moving forward without stretching yourself too thin on heroes or money.

The Iron Oath's attempt at a more narrative-driven, turn-based tactics RPG is a welcome one, but it stumbles due to some design decisions. The game tries to entice the player with a rich world and engrossing narrative. With exceptional pixel art and well-crafted audio, the opening moments instilled hope for an epic adventure. However, your cast of similar heroes is drowned out by repetitive side-quests and similar-feeling party members. My favorite aspect of the game is the loop of company management and quest-seeking, but that is also what detracts from the story that the game is trying so hard to tell.

The dungeon exploration and battle mechanics aren't as deep as other games in the genre, but there's still hope. Additional classes and skills are still listed in the game's roadmap, so I'm hopeful that the exploration and battle aspects will be fleshed out more. It's a fun game to scratch that turn-based tactics itch, so we'll keep an eye on The Iron Oath as it progresses in its development cycle.

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