Iron Danger is a steampunk tactical RPG developed by Action Squad Studios and published by Daedalic Entertainment. The game first released on Steam, Mac and Linux in March 2020 and Daedalic has just announced the game’s launch is live on Xbox Series X and PlayStation 5. Iron Danger looks and feels like an action-oriented RPG with characters that use skills/spells to defeat foes, but where it stands out is its combat. Action Squad have cleverly added the ability to manipulate time during combat via a trance mode heartbeat system. This puts the game into a paused mode which gives you insight into the assailant’s moves using visual and audible cues, detect traps and missiles, and gain the upper hand with every beat of your heart.
You start out by playing as Topi and Kipuna. Topi is the local blacksmith, a reluctant hero who becomes protector of Kipuna. Kipuna is a young girl who becomes imbued with an ancient power that grants her control over time. You learn that death isn’t final, and that you can rewind up to five seconds of time to avoid an untimely death and to gain tactical advantage over the enemy. You must use your wits to control it as you’re drawn into the midst of a war between the city of Kalevala and the armies of the Northlanders, driven by their witch queen Lowhee. Together you must thwart the evil presence in an effort to collect precious shards, the first of which gives you the trance mode time manipulation. Later on, you will meet Lemichen, a fierce warrior utilising both dual-wielded weapons and archery. Successive shards found give Kipuma new elemental abilities and a dream-like area to practice them before continuing your journey.
Misson zones are linear as the game funnels you steadily forward, teaching you the major mechanics of the game early. There is no open-world exploration in Iron Danger, however you can go off the path a little or explore huts to uncover everything that a zone has to offer. Combat is initiated as soon as you see, or are spotted by, an enemy npc. There are some opportunities for a stealth approach utilising things such as terrain and tall grass reeds to set up your attack angle. Once detected, the game halts just like in Dragon Age or Divinity: Original Sin, and a combat timeline runs along the bottom of the game screen. Time is broken up into 14 heartbeat segments showing every move you and your companion make. The enemy will lunge at your position, and by utilising this trance mode, you can attack or block, dodge or simply step out of the way of the oncoming attack. In this respect, I often felt a bit like Neo from the Matrix, simply side stepping an enemy and using a quick cleave attack as they move past my last position.
When I make a move with Topi, Kipuna stands in her original position doing nothing. After initiating Topi’s cleave attack, I rewind time and switch to Kipuna, casting a fireball at the second combatant who is charging at Topi. The fireball is cast and mid-flight, I switch to Topi and move him out of the firing line of the fireball. The flames hit the enemy, igniting them and splashing flames onto the floor, igniting the dry, short grass. The original combatant is on fire and only has a small amount of health left, but ignores Topi and lunges at Kipuna, killing her. Ordinarily this would mean reloading the game and starting again, however I rewind time, use Kipuna’s dodge skill and cast flaming sword on Topi who finishes off the second enemy, then charges at the first bandit, knocking him down and finishing him off. With two of the enemy dead at our feet, there’s not a single scratch on either character and we didn’t use any form of heal potion or ability.
In other RPG’s, this same end outcome could be achieved by ‘save scumming’ where you constantly reload your game to an earlier save to undo any mistakes and perfect your every move. You could look at this time manipulation as a free flowing and fluid version of save scumming, only you’re doing it on the fly. In the intensity of battles, I often make silly mistakes swinging my sword when I should have blocked, or dodging away from a bandit, only to land right into the path of a spray of arrows. Ordinarily your characters would get hit or even die and you’d either live with the consequences or reload to try the fight again from the beginning. In Iron Danger, it’s like every fight is an opportunity to put pieces of the combat puzzle together. Sometimes the pieces don’t fit but with slight adjustments and changes of perspective, you make it work for you.
Despite this ability, Iron Danger still has some really difficult moments, especially with boss fights, but the fact I can slow down and think about alternative ways to defeat the enemies is a welcome addition. There’s not as much individual character customisation in Iron Danger as traditional RPGs like Baldur’s Gate, but where gaming time is at a premium, especially as a dad gamer, something like the trance mode time manipulation suits me perfectly. I am not required to grind away for XP to level up my characters or find stronger weapons/armour. There’s no gold to collect or loot to pick up for the characters, just the odd food item like mushrooms, bread and fish which can be used for quick heals during or out of combat.
There are throwable explosives such as barrels containing oil that can be thrown and then blown up to clear blockages, or to blast a group of enemies. You can’t change skills/spells on the fly, instead you are given a choice as to which skill to upgrade or a new one to unlock from a limited selection at the end of each mission. There are also some great ways to utilise the environment to best your enemy, such as causing a stack of logs to fall down knocking the enemy over or igniting a patch of grass on fire in front of them, amongst other inventive environment options.
Iron Danger has outstanding visuals, intriguing puzzles to solve, music that is perfectly suited to each scene, and quests/missions that can be completed at your own pace. However, it’s the ability to manipulate time using the trance mode heartbeat system that makes the game stand out within the action RPG genre. The voice acting is terrific, and I became more invested in each character and the greater story.