My 20 hours I’ve clocked in The Iron Oath thus far have been a very refreshing early access experience.
I’ve had only minor bug encounters and no gameplay hiccups while working my way through the tutorial of The Iron Oath, a new turn-based tactical RPG that hit Steam in early access back in April (2022).
First Impressions Of The Iron Oath
I was only reminded that I was playing an early access game when I entered dialogue with a character who had a picture of a silhouette as a stand in for an NPC picture or when I encountered a glass ceiling while leveling up members of my company.
Certain branches of the skill tree are “locked in this early access build,” which I would assume is due to balancing work that still needs to be done. Other than that, you can expect to be met with a cohesive early access experience.
If I had to describe The Iron Oath I would probably say it’s a little bit like Battle Brothers and The Darkest Dungeon had a baby that really loves D&D.
Combat In The Iron Oath
When it comes to combat itself, veterans of Battle Brothers will feel right at home with the hexagonal tiled battlefield and turn-based combat, but The Iron Oath leans much harder into the fantasy elements in its character design. Here you’ll find warriors distinguished by classes such as “pyrolancers,” “stormcallers,” and “valkyries,” just to name a few.
Each class has access to corresponding powers, magic and abilities that allow them to specialize in front line combat, support, ranged, or a hybrid of some sort that I found pretty interesting to play around with. While you aren’t spared from the “RNG” in the combat system, you’ll find the emphasis on battlefield mobility sets up plenty of opportunities for player tactics to be more of a determining factor to your success.
Combat is complemented by some pretty awesome (and often brutal) animations that make dispatching enemies very satisfying as chunks of their corpse go flying into the distance or force you to watch in horror as a beloved companion’s body falls limp to the ground following that last hit you couldn’t save them from. Tying all this together is some pretty wicked sound design. My favorite is the subtle grumble of thunder as a stormcaller charges up a lightning attack.
The Iron Oath isn’t all about its combat though…
Storytelling In The Iron Oath
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Curious Panda Games have taken some care in constructing both the choice driven narrative of the game and the world in which it takes place. When not exploring or fighting through procedurally generated dungeons, you’ll be traversing (and fighting) in the overworld. Here you’ll be caravaning from location to location with each moment spent traveling costing you time, which is a resource in itself.
As time passes, payday for your company draws nearer and mercenaries don’t like to go unpaid. You’ll have to find ways to afford their payroll. Taking advantage of the economic boosts or busts as you traverse the overworld is one way towards that end.
For example if a city you visit has just suffered an attack from bandits, they might be willing to pay a lot for medicine or lumber to aid their rebuilding efforts. If you were to go buy some lumber from a city with a surplus, you could make a pretty good profit playing merchant.
Critiques Of The Iron Oath
I’d love to see the economy of the game get a little more fleshed out, but the truth is you aren’t the leader of a band of merchants. You’re the leader of a company of mercenaries.
Completing contracts is your best way of making the gold it requires to not only pay their wages and to buy upgraded equipment, weapons, and provisions that will keep them alive long enough to level up and become more powerful.
Mercenary contracts are offered by inhabitants of the cities you visit and vary in difficulty which is indicated by how many skull markers are next to the contract while viewing it. Each city brings new combinations of different narrative driven and procedurally generated fetch quests available to your company. Although it seems repetitive, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing for a game like this.
You’re really just looking for excuses to go into a dungeon or scout a forest in order to earn more XP and more gold so that you can keep growing your company’s strength and numbers. This is the key gameplay loop and it totally works. Most quests will send you spelunking through a cave or a dungeon. You can tell how much influence was drawn from The Darkest Dungeon when it comes to how you work through each dungeon chamber by chamber with random encounters having a chance of happening in each.
The longer it takes you to work your way through a dungeon, the more debuffs get applied to your party and the harder things will become for you. Although you can command a company that is quite large, you only choose 4 mercenaries to go with you in any given dungeon crawl or overworld fight and each time you choose to use a companion, they accrue a fatigue debuff that goes away over time, making it necessary to have large numbers at your disposal if you want to do a lot of questing and fighting without having to scurry back to safety and wait until everyone is healed and rested up.
Final Thoughts Of The Iron Oath
The Iron Oath is already an impressively realized tactical RPG.
There was obviously a lot of thought that went into worldbuilding, lore, and the main quest line. The phenomenal music score alone was enough to keep me coming back to this world. Once the skill trees get fully unlocked and as the devs do a little more work polishing the UI, balancing, and adding some quality of life improvements I think it could be something special.
The devs clearly have a focused vision and pay attention to the details which makes it feel fresh even though it’s not spearheading any new ground as a genre. If you’ve made it this far, I’d assume you already know if this is the kind of game for you. If it is, I recommend picking it up on steam to help support Curious Panda Games in their endeavor.