There has been no shortage of RPGs this year, but that hasn’t deterred Curious Panda Games from adding one more to the already lengthy list of titles vying for our time. The Iron Oath may not be a name that has garnered the same amount of attention as 2023’s heavy hitters, like Baldur’s Gate 3, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t deserving of a slot in your digital library. I won’t bury the lede; The Iron Oath is an enthralling role-playing experience with a ton of heart.
The Iron Oath is a tactical turn-based RPG enveloped by a high fantasy setting. The fictional realm of Caelum houses the countless hours of on-screen action, beautifully rendered in retro pixel art with character sprites packed with personality. Here, a band of mercenaries finds themselves beaten, scattered and demoralized following an all-too personal betrayal. It’s up to these mercenaries to get back on their feet, rebuild their company – the company banner and name are yours to choose – and ready themselves for round two.
A fully customizable 5-man crew needs to be assembled and maintained to take on the plethora of contracts, dungeon diving and unexpected encounters awaiting for the player-made mercenary group. There are a variety of classes on offer here. The Pyrolancer, for example, wields a spear and specializes in fire-based abilities. The Stormcaller slots in as the caster, manipulating wind and electricity to devastating effect. Players will quickly familiarize themselves with other classes, such as the Guardian, Pugilist and Valkyrie early on.
Failure is Failing to Prepare
As the team ventures forth, their composition becomes extremely important. It’s always good to have an answer for every possible problem. A company full of Stormcallers may not end too well. Picking who joins any given mission is just as important as each character’s positioning during battle. Having Valkyries and Guardians forming the defensive line at the front makes sense, but it always won’t be that simple if you find yourself attacked from multiple sides. The Iron Oath really wants players to think tactically, assessing environmental advantages and attack type effectiveness.
Combat kicks off with a deployment phase that allows the positioning of each party member before the action starts. Once the fight begins, player-controlled mercs and AI enemies will queue up and take turns performing actions, whether offensive or defensive in nature. There are a lot of moving parts in the heat of battle, like the aforementioned positioning. Flanking an enemy on either side with two of your characters will result in massive damage on their attacks. Executing a knockback ability on an enemy whose back is up against a wall or is standing in front of a pit is also an effective strategy for thinning the herds.
Of course, every battle isn’t guaranteed to be a victory. The Iron Oath is highly scalable when it comes to difficulty, meaning the resiliency of the opposition is dependent on that initial choice (although it can be changed). Playing as the developers intended, the challenge ensures those tactical considerations are on the mind at all times. Because there’s always a risk that a party member gets injured, suffering debilitating effects, or worse yet dies. Keeping provisions on-hand for these undesirable but potential outcomes is important, lest one of those lovely named sprites finds themselves pushing up pixelated daisies.
Riches in Renown and Reputation
The exploration that breaks up the combat comes in the form of overworld travel and dungeon crawling. On the overworld map, multiple locations can be selected from, including several cities. Company reputation can vary by city, as can the state of a given city. A town worried about the increased demon attacks may increase guard presence on neighboring roads, providing a bonus to travelers on those routes.
Cities offer multiple amenities, including an infirmary for injured personnel, a marketplace for gearing up and an inn for loyalty-boosting merriment and fatigue-restoring rest. If your company finds themselves kind enough to close out a city’s available contracts, they will also find themselves building reputation and renown, which translates into Company Upgrades – doing a bit of good for the world converts into increase XP gains, an expanded roster, and much more depending on where those perk points are allocated.
The dungeons are a different beast. Players are given a dungeon layout overview, with many tiles housing unknown factors. There are limited scouting uses that can be activated to reveal those unknowns, so use them wisely. Not every path leads directly to the dungeon boss, either. Parties can opt to explore more of a dungeon, but time doesn’t stop ticking. Each dungeon begins with one positive and one negative modifier; as time ticks, additional modifiers are added and can offset the search for treasures. It’s an effective risk/reward mechanic, ensuring that time management is factored in.
Whether it’s the main storyline or a one-off escort of a few refugees, the narrative is told in the style similar to a Dungeon Master reading for a Dungeons & Dragons campaign. The writing is compelling and descriptive, painting tense and emotional scenes without any on-screen visuals depicting them. It’s a testament to how much care Curious Panda Games has taken with The Iron Oath. The tale of vengeance is far from uncommon, but it is executed well here.
The Iron Oath Review Verdict
The Iron Oath: The Iron Oath is a surprising RPG addition closing out 2023. The stunning pixel art and lively sprites work in tandem with the mercenary group as they bond, endure loss and perhaps drink a bit too heavily at the inn the night before a big job. The level of customization and player imprint on offer here is impressive and it's an experience that should definitely be on the radars of those who enjoy the genre. – Joshua