Iron Marines is both a casual and a hardcore experience at the same time. Yes, I know, it sounds weird, but it really is. The presentation and everything around that screams welcome to casual Ville – stay a while for an easy time. However, if you play on “hard” (which I did) the experience is anything less. The developers behind the game are Ironhide Game Studio and are known for their awesome series of tower defense game series Kingdom Rush. This is their first venture into the RTS genre, and it’s not a bad first try, but it comes with some frustration. I had a good time in general, especially for only 5 bucks spent on it, but I think the last area of the campaign was a mistake. As it usually goes, later areas are harder and require more from you, and I got nothing against that. However, the devs made the game harder through frustration, that in my opinion ruins the fun of playing an RTS – to actually kill stuff. You see, instead of making the enemies harder, now each dead unit heals another, and it has the effect of being the worst case of HP bloat I have ever seen – particularly going from one campaign section to another… It was like night and day, and it drained all the fun I was having in one go.
The story, well, there isn’t much to it here. You go from planet to planet, each of them having a specific problem, and by problem, I mean menace as in hostile faction. It starts with zerg-esque creatures like from StarCraft, to evil robots, and then some kind of Ice people(?). To be honest, I don’t even remember what the story was about, just that you have to command hero units, and a massive amount of soldiers to stop the enemy in any way you can. This is part of the casual experience, exactly like their older Tower Defense games. The narrative is there, but it’s not expected in a title like this. The story does not matter beyond its initial presentation, since we are not exactly playing Command & Conquer here that rest on its FMVs to push the story forward. What it does have, though, is typical stereotypes from sci-fi games and movies. It’s all very comical, and finding all the references becomes a thing in itself, especially since certain “funnies” actually grants you achievements and in-game currencies – like finding part of the Star Trek crew on each map.
Gameplay-wise it’s a mix between an RTS and their take on the Tower Defense genre. For veterans of the Kingdom Rush series, much will be recognizably beyond the graphics. On each planet you follow a line, going mission to mission, slowly closing in on the final objective. However, at certain points, the game presents you with a side quest. These are usually much tougher, but give you extra rewards, which are very much worth it, and needed I would say. You usually control hero units, and a few other soldiers of some kind and the missions do wary a lot. It’s everything from all-out attacks on enemy bases to boss fights to sneaky segments. Many of these will be a bit of “trial & error” since you never know what the mission script will throw at you next. But if you fail, you get a small reward still, and usually, the tasks are not too time-consuming, it’s a live-and-learn type of deal.
Now, for being an RTS, it is fairly limiting in what you can produce, so I just want to make clear that will you will not be massing units in the classical sense in this one. The base building mostly consists of setting up a few towers for defense, and unit creation comes down to swapping out units for the right kind of enemy. Nonetheless, some objectives had me pull out all my knowledge when it comes to this genre. There are some tough nuts to crack here! Lots of kiting, pulling back units, tanking, making the most out of unit specialty, etc etc. Very hectic and fun, and it’s incredibly rewarding when you figure out those perfect symbioses between your little soldiers so they become an unstoppable force of death. However, these compositions do not work on every map since enemy groups will change, and some missions have you restricted to only certain units. Usually, you can swap them out to what you prefer, though. It actually took me a while to figure that one out, but if you right-click on a unit, even in the field, you can easily swap them out for another unit in their tier of “military”. Very useful indeed, and it allows you to use your own tactics, instead of something being forced upon you by the dev. This is a great thing.
On every successful mission, you earn coins and research points. You can get more of these by unlocking challenges too, and with that I mean, achievements. Such as doing something specific on a certain map for example. You don’t have to spend too much time looking for these since many will come naturally, but it’s a nice boost to the economy when they do. With the coins, you can buy one-time-use items, like missiles, mines, and stuff like that. These items are worth their weight in gold because they can turn a bad situation around if used correctly. What sucks, though, is if you fail a mission, having used a ton of one-time-use items, you will not be getting them back. However, you do get some gold, even for failed missions, but that money usually doesn’t match the loss. So, you got to be very careful with these things, they are very useful but come with a hefty price if you don’t succeed in your task. The items will be lost forever and can make a retry painful if you rely on them. I do find the balance interesting, and from what I have experienced playing, they are not needed to finish any mission, but they do help a lot! Then we have research points, and they are used to upgrade your units and building. It follows a typical “talent path” with one thing unlocking another, and usually every unlock has several stages. There are tons of unlocks, so there is much to consider while spending these precious points.
Beyond that, we got the hero units, and there is plenty of them too. Each hero earns experience by going on missions, and everyone got three different talent sections you can upgrade. Every hero is unique and comes with their own special abilities. However, hero units became a bit of a problem for me since all new hero units only come with a few initial talent points, which makes them way inferior to my main guy that was already at the maxed level. It just seemed too much of a risk to try someone else out and losing out on all that great power. It also felt like there was no real good time to try out the new ones since most missions are actually tough. There are no breaks here. It became a bit of a trap. I truly wanted to try out some of the new guys too, because they looked interesting, but in the end, I just stuck to the first hero and best hero I had.
I had a really good time on the first two planets, but as mentioned, the third planet sucked all the fun out of the game. I did find the first two planets challenging, though fair, and doable after a few retries. But the third planet… even the first mission put a big hamper on my enjoyment. I’m not sure what happened here, beyond having the devs make the game as frustrating as possible to destroy your will to live. The enemies here were just relentless, and thanks to the new mechanics of dead units healing living units, it became a slog really fast. My bullshit meter instantly gave out readings, and I knew it was over at that point. So, unfortunately, I can’t say I finished the game, which means I can’t comment on the last world beyond that I didn’t like it. To me, RTS games, are always balancing a fine line between frustration and having a good time killing dudes, and sorry to say, Iron Marines crossed this line here for me. I could switch the difficulty setting, but that would feel like cheapening out – I rather give in than do that in this case!
It is as it is, but we have two more things to comment on before we are done. The graphics and this is mostly down to the visual style – are just fantastic. I’m not much for games with cartoon-like graphics, but the games from Ironhide Game Studio is special when it comes to looks, and design. It’s very smooth, filled with details, got great animations, even the background stuff that is barely noticeable has a top-notch quality to them. It’s a pleasure for the eyes through and through, and I hope the 2D art director is paid well for his/hers work. On a whole, the quality of the art, from static images to animations reminds me of Saturday afternoon cartoons from me being a kid. Sound and voice are also good, and most units will have something funny to say when you click on them. It becomes a bit of a cacophony when tons of stuff is going down at the same time, but what RTS does not suffer from this? The music is fine too, even if I can’t specifically remember any tunes, but I guess that is good since it means it was non-intrusive and didn’t get on my nerves. I do remember it being fairly on the dramatic side, though, typical of “epic fights” when it comes to combat.
Can I recommend the game? Well, it is challenging for one, but I can’t recommend it for being an RTS, it got the characteristics of one, but it’s very simplified compared to the real thing. However, for a few bucks, it’s still a fun time spent, regardless of how I feel about the third planet. You might enjoy the increased difficulty, and not go into despair mode like how I did. If you really like Tower Defense games, or maybe just games from Ironhide Game Studio, but for some reason haven’t played this one, I can strongly recommend you give it a go, since many things from that genre remain strong in this one. As said, it’s a wild mix of the two genres, and it works pretty well together all things considered.
Thanks for reading.