Be not afraid of death, my child
The Aurolith shall guide you now
Fair far afield, to distant shores
Past Kalevala, the land of heroes
Time strikes you not, though you sense its sting
The clash of battle all around
Stalwart allies at attention until they’re not
Flow time backward to bring them forth again
A new path to halt the Northland’s advance
The Shards must be whole to win the day
Securing past and future from the iron threat
Is that a giant iron bear?
– The Healer of Brumehead, probably
Why this little fit of poetry, you ask? Well, mainly because Iron Danger is based on a collection of Finnish oral-sagas-turned-poetry called the Kalevala. Also because it was suitably epic and a fun way to capture the experience of playing the game. In Iron Danger, you play as Kipuna, a stout-hearted young woman whose village was destroyed by the Northlanders. In the chaos, she was pierced with a Shard of the Aurolith Spirit that allows her to manipulate small pockets of time. It saved her life in the escape to her boat, Fireweed, and since there’s nothing left for her at home, it’s time to set sail to warn the capital and hopefully find a way to address her magical gift wound.
There’s no Aurolith Spirit in the written Kalevala, obviously, but it serves as a device to explain the game’s most interesting mechanic—bending time heartbeat by heartbeat in battle—and gives Kipuna a reason to travel the world seeking to reunite the Aurolith Shards. Honestly, it’s a solid frame, and even though it’s standard quest fare, I did end up appreciating the structure. Kipuna happens upon a warrior named Topi from said capital, Kalevala, who takes her to a mysterious Healer that helps Kipuna understand her newfound Aurolith power. Topi also accompanies her to the city to warn the leaders of the impending invasion. The Kalevalen leadership makes it perfectly clear that finding the rest of the Shards is a good idea as far as they’re concerned. You’re off and set for the rest of the game, though the nature of the Shards and what to do with them becomes more nuanced.
Traveling the world presents an inviting experience in Iron Danger. The environments are generally beautiful, and the character designs are on point for everyone, though I am particularly fond of the ladies’ designs. (I want a helmet like the Healer’s, is what I’m saying.) The outside environments have lovely pops of color and unique touches with the vegetation. Yet, they still manage to feel appropriately desolate when they’re not full of Northlanders, who bring a dark, metallic look that corrupts the beautiful natural environment. I will say the landscape and temples can feel a bit monotonous next to the colorful and engaging dream environments that the Healer takes you through to access more Aurolith power with each new Shard.
The absolute strangest thing to see in this world is Kalevala itself. The bustling town feels a bit cluttered and difficult to navigate because many structures look similar and, surprisingly, there’s not a lot to interact with! I ventured to a few different shops and sites that almost seemed like you should be able to buy things, but no such luck. Just more confusion over what I should be focusing on while I was there. Fortunately, your time in town is extremely limited because this is a game primarily about venturing out and exploring.
The Shards exist at six locations that correspond with ruins from a past civilization that each represent aspects of the Aurolith, so there is no shortage of destinations. After the initial venture to see the Healer and talk to Antheor in Kalevala, the bulk of the game involves going to these sites, fighting battles, finding the corresponding Shard, and the Healer walking you through its use in a vision. The action is broken up into chapters, punctuated by Kipuna’s journal entries at the beginning and end. The beginning entries offer a map and some thoughts about the current situation, and the end of chapter entries detail how battle went: the number of times you died, the number of enemies defeated, and further stats. It also allows you to choose upgrades for your characters in battle! The music and sound design contribute immensely to this flow and provide some immersion as you fight, explore, and transition between chapters.
If there’s one area where Iron Danger really stands out, it’s the battle mechanics. They’re a very successful blend of real-time and strategy combat that feels unique and engaging. Kipuna undertakes missions to the various Shard temples with one ally at a time, where her time-related power is displayed in heartbeats for both characters at the bottom of the screen. Once an enemy spots you, you automatically switch into this mode, and you can use the mouse to rewind and fast-forward through actions (or non-actions) for about ten heartbeats. You choose your actions and abilities from the bar above the heartbeats for each character based on the environment and battle positioning, observe the action and result over 1-3 heartbeats, then adjust your actions as needed. Rewinding and redoing actions is basically required; the game is suitably difficult, presenting large numbers of powerful enemies that respond differently to various skills/attacks.
Choosing your upgrades wisely is extremely important in Iron Danger because characters’ skills build on each other, and each character has a very specific range of abilities. The lone exception is Kipuna, who steadily gains access to different types of magic and grows stronger throughout the journey. With her, progression is more about figuring out which skills you will use consistently and are worth upgrading when a wide range of new offerings present themselves. There’s usually a good mix of ranged attacks, close attacks, magic, and evasion/defense between the two party members. I found myself going the sneaky route, favoring characters like Lemichen for his bow abilities and dodging, combining that with traps and status-inducing magic.
It’s easy to get wrapped up in the movement and environmental effects of characters’ abilities, because Kipuna and her allies can combine their talents with traps and features in the landscape to devastating effect. Want to lure enemies under a tree then topple it over on all of them? Kipuna and Topi have your back. Want to take down a really strong enemy? Kipuna can incapacitate them while Lemichen piles on the damage…and poison…and other effects with his arrows. It’s clear the designers leaned heavily into the strategy part of SRPGs here, and it pays off very nicely; you feel rewarded when you avoid a tiresome and long battle by being crafty. I honestly don’t think I’ve ever used so many bear traps in a game, and you know what? It was awesome. The one issue I had with battle was that it was way too easy to click away from assigning abilities or moving time and accidentally assign characters the “move” action instead. There may have been some user error involved in this, and it was hilarious seeing Kipuna and her allies running around aimlessly, but there were times when it did interfere slightly.
There is a lot to enjoy with Iron Danger. It has the potential to be a really great game, but there are areas throughout that feel unfinished. I mentioned the strange emptiness of Kalevala, but the other town you visit suffers the same way. Characters have strong dialogue and respond to immediate situations in relatable ways, which is great. But they also reference developments and express concerns that don’t end up resolved, or are resolved in a hasty fashion at odds with the built-up tension over multiple conversations.
The most glaring example of this, though, is the ending. Or rather, the lack of one. I don’t relish saying this, but I think Iron Danger has one of the most abrupt endings I’ve ever seen. Kipuna clearly states two objectives when leaving for the final confrontation with the Northlanders, but the credits roll after only one of those is achieved. You get no warning whatsoever that the final battle is…the final battle. There is a graphic novel to go along with the game release, and yes, the current ending leaves room to tell more of the story in that format or a sequel. Still, even if this particular game covers only a single arc in the journey, that doesn’t necessitate such an abrupt ending. Still, some allowances should be made because what Iron Danger does offer is quite the feat when you consider Action Squad Studios’ size.
There are some circumstances where I wouldn’t hesitate at all to give Iron Danger a strong recommendation, and others where I would advise to wait for more in the series or another entry from the same team. For people who have a strong appreciation for SRPG gameplay and love to overthink challenging battles, this is your game. If you really need a game with the sparse, bleak feel of a Norse epic, you’ll find that here. And definitely, for anyone who knows the Kalevala or spends inordinate amounts of time discussing different representations of mythology or old folklore in games, this is especially your game, and I’ll be wanting to talk to you about how the game represents Lowhee and Ilmarinen.