E3 2019: Iron Danger Hands-on Preview
Hiiighway to the DANGER ZONE.
07.05.19 - 1:51 PM
Finnish developer Action Squad Studios brought a real surprise to the E3 show floor this year with their tactical RPG, Iron Danger. Being a bit of a mythology buff, my interest was piqued when the staff were talking amongst themselves and I thought I caught the word "kalevala". We talked a little bit about how the game drew inspiration from the 19th century epic poem of that title, but being able to see how that inspiration grew into a unique game with beautiful visuals and truly innovative gameplay mechanics was truly inspiring. Honestly, the real risk with Iron Danger is the number of hours I will probably spend playing it.
The game weaves together some traditional fantasy elements (think elemental magic and villages with blacksmiths) with a steampunk setting. The demo only included a limited number of locations, but the mechanical enemies did not feel out of place in the mysterious ruins or on the battlefield. At the same time, it seeks to tell a very human story based on a young lady, Kipuna, who is imbued with an ancient power that grants her some control over the flow of time. She must learn how to harness this power and how to utilize it in a world threatened by war; fortunately, she has allies with their own unique abilities to help her along the way.
Throughout Kipuna's adventures, the party size is limited to two active members, though there are four playable characters. This is largely due to Iron Danger's exploration and combat system. When Kipuna and her companion are not actively performing actions, it's as if time stops, giving the player time to observe the scene and consider their move. Once actions are confirmed, everyone moves at once in a real-time shuffle, and you see the consequences of your decisions very quickly. During the E3 demo, we saw this in action with Kipuna deciding how to engage some mechanical enemies on the edge of a town. As long as she stayed clear of the enemy's line of site by the side of a building, she could take her time to observe them, sneak by, or plan an attack. When she chose to initiate battle, we got to see a truly unique gameplay mechanic involving her time powers: the heartbeat system.
At any given time, the last five seconds of active gameplay for both active party members is represented at the bottom of the UI as heartbeats. The player can fast forward these heartbeats to see the consequences of a chosen action, such as attacking the largest enemy in the aforementioned group, and also rewind to make changes to the plan as necessary. You can also use these abilities to coordinate the timing of Kipuna and her ally's attacks, having them build off each other. In the demo, attacking head-on resulted in less than desirable results, so time rewind was employed so that Kipuna could use her Echo ability to draw a large enemy out, and her companion used an arrow attack to enrage it, causing it to attack the other enemies while our heroes maintained their distance. The idea here is to learn through trial and error, as the enemies are very difficult, so you can expect to die and rewind rather frequently.
This is a world you won't mind spending time in too, as many little touches make it an enthralling environment. The water in particular looks beautiful, with the effects and animation looking much smoother than previously showcased. You also need to consider the environment when choosing your attacks in battle. That same water will make fire attacks less effective, and you can use the terrain and positioning to your advantage and strike from an area where it's easier for you to rewind time and respond. I used the time to dodge attacks, most often. Honestly, there were some points where I took my time just to look at the vibrant character designs and effects. There is even a graphic novel set to go alongside the game.
Like any new format, this novel time-bending gameplay did take a bit of getting used to, but even with the learning curve, having the time to plan a strategy is helpful. The way Kipuna and her party's abilities grow is dynamic and based on the actions players use the most. These two factors immediately makes the tactical RPG gameplay more accessible by allowing the player to control the way the party develops, as well as plan ahead for any mistakes. This also all makes perfect sense within the story, and it's definitely not the usual RPG grind. I'm looking forward to playing more of Iron Danger and advancing the story further, which is the one area I wish I'd seen more of at this point.