Ironclad Tactics takes the interesting concept of an alternate history American Civil War – fought with steam-powered robots- and applies it to a card-based strategy game. It’s the type of game that almost doesn’t seem to match the general concept in theory, but thanks to a wonderfully animated story that looks like it belongs as a late-90’s Warner Brothers animated movie (think, The Iron Giant), it actually works quite well in the game’s favor.
In a lot of ways, Ironclad Tactics has a lot in common with Plants vs. Zombies. The screen is split into two segments. The top shows the battlefield which, like Plants vs. Zombies, is arranged in rows upon which the enemy travels. Unlike PvZ, the friendly characters in Ironclad Tactics move from the left to the right. The object of most game modes requires a specific number of friendly characters to cross the battlefield without being killed. Of course, the enemy has the same objective. The bottom portion of the screen is designated for card management. Finishing battles unlocks cards, which act as your soldiers. For example, one card shows the Ironclad Prototype. In battle, you select the card you’d like to use (assuming you have enough Action Points to spend on it), select the lane in which you want to use it, and then send it out into battle.
It’s very much a game that feels instantly familiar, regardless of how much PvZ you’ve played. The gameplay is extremely self explanatory, but it also allows the player to learn new tactics and strategy as the game progresses. You’re also tasked with managing your deck of cards which, as the game progresses and certain missions require completing different objectives, grows increasingly important and difficult. Perhaps in one level you’re required to hold off the enemy for a given period of time. That might require different cards than if you’re tasked with advancing across the battlefield first. There’s a certain layer of strategy in nearly everything you do in Ironclad Tactics.
Between each mission, players are treated to a hand-drawn-style comic panel that details a surprisingly strong and heartfelt story. Joseph and Maxwell grew up together, and while Joseph was constantly thrilled with the hand he was dealt, Max clearly felt somewhat slighted, until the two graduate college and begin working for U.S. Navy’s Bureau of Steam Engineering developing steam-powered robo-soldiers called ironclads. In the interest of spoilers, know that the Confederates also have access to their own brand of ironclads and Joe & Max help the North by utilizing their own robots. The story takes a surprising amount of twists and turns, and ultimately is what kept me interested throughout.
Ironclad Tactics’ charm can only carry the game so far. The basic principles of the game are entertaining enough, and it wisely switches up game modes throughout the campaign to keep things interesting. But after a while, the card system grows tiresome, and the upgrade system feels completely under-utilized. The semi-regular difficulty spikes and the random nature of the enemy troops’ deployment sometimes makes the game feel artificially difficult. Ironclad Tactics also suffers from being a mediocre port. The game works just fine, but the UI and controls are very clearly designed for the PC and tablets. Luckily, the snappiness of the controls works well enough to keep the game playable, but also left me wondering what the game would’ve been like had it been designed for the controller.
Unfortunately, for the purposes of this review, I was unable to get into any multiplayer matches, and thus I won’t be judging the game around this aspect. I can say that the game seems to be a perfect fit for 1v1 multiplayer. It’s unclear what the reasons were for my inability to join a match, be it network issues or simply a lack of players.