Platform: PC (Steam, £5.99, releases tomorrow)
Developer: Curve Studios
Oh yes. Iron Fisticle is the good stuff.
Reckless innovation isn't the only way to make a cracking boutique game. Take a classic genre from yesteryear as a foundation, then build a rock-solid experience on top of it that's mechanically refined, satisfying to play and forward-thinking without losing the nostalgia factor.
Iron Fisticle nails it: an uncomplicated and deeply wholesome fusion of Robotron and Gauntlet that absolutely delivers where it counts. Hectic action, a fantastic arsenal, deceptively deep moment-to-moment action and an addictive progression system that makes each game over a little victory of its own. It's not going to change the face of the industry, but it's bloody good fun.
Curve Studios' Dave Parsons is clearly a student of the old-school. As mentioned, Robotron, Smash TV and Gauntlet form the basic framework of the action, which sees a burly knight (and his mate, if you're a fan of local multiplayer - if not why not?) travel into a deadly dungeon to emancipate an enormous pile of food from an evil monster and its nefarious employees. That's all the exposition you're getting and that's all you need, because we're here for the arcade action.
Each floor of the dungeon is a grid of interlocking single-screen arenas, through which you'll choose a path and eradicate everything you encounter. The doors lock, enemies spawn, then either you kill them all and leave or get smeared across the scenery. Hordes of zombies, monsters, magic-users, insects and bosses await your assault, punishing you at range and mobbing you up close; forcing you to carve your way through leagues of massed minions with your back to the wall. Delve deeper and foes multiply in number, teleport around, lay mines and explode, forcing you to adapt or die. Most likely both.
Dodge, weave, collect hundreds of bonus pickups and... if necessary... deploy the awesome power of the Iron Fisticle itself (a glorified smart bomb). Then repeat in hopes of finally making it to the boss of the floor and moving onto the next one. It's a top-down shooter. What did you expect?
The action is simple, stressful and effective, but that's selling Iron Fisticle short. By choosing a straightfoward genre template, Parsons and co. had time to make sure that all the little details are spot on. Simple doesn't mean simplistic.
First off: the weapons, which are the primary way that you interact with the world. By killing things. Each has a unique role and cadence that completely changes the way you play on a second-by-second basis. The default axe deals reasonable damage, but fires very slowly even after several upgrades, meaning that you have to carefully place each shot to ensure that it finds its mark as the mobs close rank, opening up an escape route at the last second to quickly slide through. Conversely, the flamethrower suddenly puts you on the offensive with massive power at pathetic range, whereas throwing hammers bounce off walls and columns, just as two examples. They're powerful and versatile, but time-limited and temporary too.
Picking up these secondary weapons lets you change your tactics on the fly, with advanced players encouraged to leave and unleash them at the perfect moment, which adds a pleasingly strategic level to the action without detracting from the twitchy reflex shooting.
Then we come to progression and levelling. Yes, levelling. In an elegantly simple move, your score is your experience, meaning that every item you pick up means something beyond a higher stake in the leaderboards. Death is permanent -- this is an old-school shooter after all! -- but you'll gradually accrue more health, greater variety of secondary weapon spawns and persistent upgrades that let you delve further into the depths with each and every run. I'm loathe to call it a Roguelike, since Iron Fisticle is as much of a Roguelike as Geometry Wars, but if you've played one, you'll already know the compelling satisfaction from getting that little bit deeper.
Occasionally I felt that I failed a boss or section because my character wasn't powerful enough as opposed to me being skilful enough, but at least convenient floor jumps take the pain out of backtracking. Optionally, mind you.
Presentation, again, is spot-on. Iron Fisticle harks back to the Good Old Days™ with its authentic spritework, interface layout and even optional CRT scan lines (recommended!), but offers smooth 60FPS action, personality-laden animations and a sumptuous colour palette to boot. If I were to criticise, and I'm going to, I'd suggest that the HUD can be inconvenient to read at a glance (especially for player 2) and that more variations in terms of backdrops would have been appreciated, but the retro aesthetic arguably tied their hands on that front. The soundtrack seals the deal.
Most importantly of all, though, Iron Fisticle gets the gameplay right. The raw connection between you and your avatar, the movement speed, the responsiveness of the controls, the sound effects and the satisfying splatters of viscera every time your axe hits home. Pacing benefits from golems that spawn in if you dally, keeping you pressing forward, boss encounters can stray into danmaku territory and a small number of 'challenge' rooms shake up the experience with limited vision range or more durable foes (though frankly I would have liked a few more of them, especially in the early floors). Every facet of it seems to have been playtested to destruction, purposefully designed to feel as hectic, solid and satisfying as possible.
Yes, this sounds like a banal observation, but I've seen so many top-down shooters add extra layers of complexity yet fail to make good on the most basic and fundamental part of the game: the top-down shooting itself. Iron Fisticle does nothing but nail it, and does so with old-school class.
- Finely-honed and seriously satisfying top-down action
- Enemies and secondary weapons shake up your playstyle
- Addictive persistent levelling, unlocks and progression tied into the scoring system
- Cracking retro aesthetic down to the scan lines
- Greater variety of challenge arenas and backdrops would have been nice
- Repetitive and derivative by design
- Local-only multiplayer (though we won't mark it down)
The Short Version: Iron Fisticle is a rock-solid retro shooter that absolutely nails what we need from the genre. Great presentation, robust mechanics, nuanced weapons, hectic action and compelling progression make for a class act.
Straightforward and deeply satisfying.