Permadeath in video games still has such a stigma attached to it.
Forcing you to start right back at the beginning of a game if you die seems like a truly shitty thing to do, but in this age where roguelikes are aplenty, it’s not all that uncommon. Some truly force us to start over, back to square one as a powerless noob with no other objective than to beat our best score, but others encourage permanent improvement with upgrade systems.
Ironcast, a game that combines steampunk-style combat in giant mechs with match-three puzzling, gets it just right. Yes, permadeath is a bitch, but it never feels unjust, and with a gameplay loop so addictive and satisfying, you’re constantly eager to jump straight back into the action.
Ironcast tells a story of an alternate-timeline Victorian era where Britain is at war — with an army of giant mechanical fighting contraptions at their disposal. In order to attack, guard or repair yourself, you need to match the corresponding colour ‘nodes’ in a standard match-three grid. You and the enemy take it in turns to make your moves, limited only by the number of nodes you have. Each battle has its own goal; perhaps you just need to destroy the enemy, or perhaps you need to survive long enough to gather some intel from them. Only one thing is certain in each fight though: you take too much damage, and it’s game over. For good.
It’s not an easy game, by any means. In the 10+ hours I’ve put into it, in that time restarting probably over a dozen games, I’ve never once managed to beat the first boss. Or what I’m assuming is the first boss. I don’t know what comes after; I get obliterated every time, and then it’s back to square one. Well, almost. Thankfully, every time you play Ironcast you earn medals, which can be spent on permanent upgrades such as stat improvements, different rigs or different characters (all with unique skills).
While every death is disappointing, the game makes it easy — and inviting — to dust yourself off, pick your morale up off the floor and jump back in to try again. Unlike many other match-three puzzlers, strategy is key; this isn’t a game about making matches just to clear a board. Every single move you make must be a step towards a clear goal. And when you die, the only message you can take away is, ‘my strategy wasn’t quite right that time’. It makes you want to try again, harder this time, testing out new approaches and thinking about things differently than you did each time before it.
I’ve played other games with permadeath and it can be exhausting; playing through once is enough of a slog that the thought of trying again is just too much, and the game sits abandoned on your hard drive, never to be loaded up again. Ironcast, on the other hand, taunts and goads you, flexing its difficulty each time you fail, but making you all the more eager to beat it.
One of these days, I will.