Early Access Preview: Iron Tides

By Josh Brown 24 Jul 2017 0

Between your grand strategy sims and fast-paced RTS titles, there's any number of titles willing to tempt your brain. Fighting for the return of the turn-based strategy genre, Iron Tides is here to pillage, plunder and feed its Viking army back into the halls of legend.

In development for the last two years with a small team with great ambitions, Iron Tides struck many as being dead in the water following its Steam Greenlight success and subsequent silence. But after coming so close to a prestigious award as a finalist in the SxSW 'Game Pitch' competition, why would the team pass up the praise? The achievement already sits there in its Steam Store page even before release.

Main Body

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Vikings, being the adventurous types, once ruled the seas making a name for themselves as islands fell to their might. As the years went by, however, those who followed in the footsteps of their ancestors thought it was all too easy. Discontent with their corruption, the gods began to churn the oceans - turning them from a Viking haven to a dangerous pool of death and destruction weaning out the weak-minded. Now filled with feuding forces and wild bandits, a dauntless Viking hero appears to set things straight.

Iron Tides is all about paving your own adventure. While you may be following a pre-determined narrative across its main campaign and various side missions as you look to find the Viking’s new hero, the decisions you make along the way can heavily shift a chance encounter. With a stamina meter burning down as your Viking forces grow hungrier on the waves; your journey can only last as long as your supplies hold out. Generally attempting to travel from one side of the waters to the other picking off enemies along the way, the staple fog of war means a labyrinth of geological elements are likely to stop you dead in your tracks.

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With each dead end only urging you to consume more of your rations, you're constantly fighting over the decision to purposefully engage in combat against enemy bandit ships in the hopes of procuring more grub or strolling into multi-choice 'Explore' tiles typically confronting you with a narrative weight on your shoulder. Do you help an old man survive another night with some of your goods, or do you just add to them by taking what he has? Would you hear out a weary soul, or rob them blind? The intricacies of the lore means there's never really a wrong answer - but one decision could be the flap of the butterfly's wing that ushers in chaos down the line. A wrong turn could mean powerful units starving to death. Replacing each takes Silver and Honor - both of which could have been used to unlock resource boons, higher damage numbers and a bigger boat. But constant decisions have to be made.

Everything in Iron Tides seems to scream brilliant game design. Within the first 30-60 minutes of booting it up, we were pushing through the seas chugging mead to get by wedging swords into our enemies and living with a certain code of honor any good Viking would swear by. It's on-point in its execution from balanced combat, tell-all unit design and a UI that manages to minimize the feeling of complexity many other strategy games would give off from the start. We rarely had to put much thought into what we were seeing whether in a duel to the death or not.

Seeing rocks appear from the fog indicated we were playing a game of chance with the seas. Visual and audio cues alert you to nearby enemies and narrative 'explore' situations, and the simple UI tells you everything you need to know from a glance: current stamina, how much honor or silver a decision will yield, and how far you are from Norhaven. You need to balance your knack for adventure with how long you can expect to stay on the seas before your warriors begin succumbing to hunger. Greed only causes more problems.

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Arguably the main allure of the game, fighting is just as simple to understand.  From the start, it’s easy to gauge what the enemy is capable of, as their straight-to-the-point design echoes that of your own fleet. Upon landing on a tile adjacent to an enemy ship or stronghold, you're thrust into battle. You arrange and deploy around 3 or 4 of your Viking fleet to tackle the enemies scattered across the deck with each unit moving across a set amount of tiles, burning ‘fury’ each turn to launch their attacks. Gaining new skills from a randomised pool as they level up, it soon becomes about smartly managing each unit’s fury with stronger moves typically needing to 'cool down' as the turns go by. You constantly have to evaluate how each of your deployed units compliment the rest. Even the way units are facing when they’re attacked will factor into their chance to block or evade whatever comes their way.

Killing blows regenerate a single point; and with other units capable of gifting additional opportunities to their allies, you're often using one to help a stronger fighter continue their onslaught while ranged attackers throw in some extra hurt from the back. Each unit earns skill points as they level up, allowing them to grow in ways that may add or shift up to your strategy accordingly. But while unit types may be few and far between, their movesets are rarely one and the same. With at least 7 unique skills able to be randomly assigned to their 3 empty slots as they grow in power, losing a vital unit in battle means retaining the same composition from the town's recruitment halls is unlikely.

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Early Access Promises

Raising a modest sum of around $25,000 and the backing of Darkest Dungeon creator Tyler Sigman, Crash Wave Games got all that they wanted. Backers have had their hands on this one for a number of months now, and their playtesting and feedback has likely already played a significant role in the game’s Early Access release. The team are hoping to throw in community requested features, a bunch of new battlefields and some additional chance encounters as development continues into through the winter; but they’re open to the idea of delaying a full release if players want more.

But we're not even sure if it's entirely necessary. The first public build of the game can easily clock up around 10 hours of gametime in your Steam library across its narrative campaign. And with a skirmish mode available from the get-go, those looking to keep the ride going can certainly do so already. It makes a sweet deal that much sweeter, but just know that even in Early Access, you're buying into something that feels more or less feature complete for a two-year indie title.

 If there’s one thing we can hope for, it's controller support. Almost entirely playable with just a mouse or keyboard alone, its minimalist design is perfectly suited to some impromptu couch gaming. If you have a Steam controller, you’re already set.

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Conclusion

Already offering up close to a dozen hours of tactical exploration across the seas, Iron Tides can be considered a necessary refinement of the rogue-like genre. While the basis of the established sub-genre typically means starting fresh if you fail, they often usher it in with complicated rules and unfair punishments. That isn’t the case here. A streamlined design means you’re fully capable of making informed choices from the start; striking a balance between gunning for it on the high seas and buckling down to business when a fight breaks out.

Delightfully simple in its design, Iron Tides shows how a good idea can come together with a small team that are proud of their plan. Having almost won an award for the game's pitch alone, Crash Wave knew they were onto something. Strategy games rarely feel this inviting, and Iron Tides gets a lot more right than it gets wrong.

Iron Tides is due to launch on Steam's Early Access program by the end of July 2017. At the time of writing they plan to hit Version 1.0 sometime in the Winter 2017, however they reserve the right to push released until early 2018. There will be a price increase when it launches.

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