Iron Danger preview: ride on time

Let’s make save scumming a thing of the past. The act of saving your game at the beginning of your go on a turn-based strategy title has long been the preserve of those who don’t want to live with the consequences of their actions. Iron Danger looks to make that act of cowardice into a core mechanic of its own brand of real-time tactical combat – but instead of save scumming, you’re time travelling; rewinding past actions to try again and rework your decisions. It’s a twist to the typical format, bringing more dynamism and elements of real-time strategy to proceedings… oh, and developer Action Squad Studios describes Iron Danger as ‘based on Nordic mythology retold in the vein of Lord of the Rings meets Transformers’. So there’s that.

Designed from the very beginning with a rewinding feature at its heart, Iron Danger offers up a different take on the usual hack-and-slash batter-‘em-up – a freedom you don’t find elsewhere. “We were really adamant about pursuing the time rewind mechanics because it was something we had not seen before – ever,” explains Jussi Kemppainen, game director on Iron Danger. “We were laser-focused on creating a game that you could not get from anywhere,” he says. “We wanted to bring something totally new into the world. Something that had never existed before and something no-one else was pursuing at the moment. For our team, that was the driving force during the sometimes difficult production process.”

This focus on rewinding meant the game ended up – naturally – coming out as something different to the norm, something Kemppainen is proud of. “For the player, the biggest change is that they do not need to play it safe,” he says. “It is totally possible to just run in head-first to the most intense scenario and then afterwards try to figure out how to deal with it. If it all goes sideways, just go back in time as long as possible and try something completely different. It allows for unprecedented freedom of exploration of tactical ideas without the fear of failure.”

The decision to include mechanical units wasn’t done for any reason other than the team liked them. So they put more in. Solid reasoning, to be fair.

This design focus on the rewinding mechanic did result in some tweaks being made to the formula, though – no approach à la Dynasty Warriors was on the cards, as too many enemies on screen would have, basically, broken things. It’s a lot of AI logic to rewind at the same time and reimplement when the player starts going again. “We resorted to making most of the enemies incredibly difficult to counter the [smaller] numbers,” Kemppainen says. “This proved to be the right decision. With the time rewind abilities, it is possible to pit yourself against incredibly difficult enemies, and you can still eventually come out on top, as you have all the time in the world to perfect your tactics.

“The game mechanics also gave us a fresh take on more grounded combat, as everything is based on real-time strategy under the hood,” he continues. “In turn-based games, your tactics are not ‘realistic’: you are playing with a different set of rules. But in our game, you get to experience a hectic, ever-evolving combat scenario with more true-to-life, real-time tactics but with the usability of a turn-based game.”

Despite the rewinding – and repetition by design – there’s a focus on not grinding through Iron Danger; a desire to respect the player’s time and make them focus on the more important stuff – not replay sections for the sake of it. This is achieved through elements like a lack of loot – there isn’t even an inventory in the game – and a focus on combat in design, rather than the more ‘tedious’, in Kemppainen’s words, elements.

The world is a mix of Iron Age fantasy, steampunk, and a hint of modern-day for good measure.

Another step away from the tedium of sameyness comes through Iron Danger’s embrace of Finnish folklore and culture. Rather than looking elsewhere for inspiration, Action Squad is doubling down on what it knows. “For me personally, taking Finnish inspiration was a great way to honour our own quirks,” Kemppainen says. “Only a handful of games have actually been Finnish in style. What we perceive as mundane is exotic for everyone else around the world – and as we are a nation of five million people with our own language and habits no-one understands – it really is exotic. So I wanted to embrace Finland and our folklore. It is full of unused gems of stories and themes.”

As the first release from Action Squad, a lot is riding on Iron Danger. Even with the team’s combined experience at the likes of Rovio, Supercell, Remedy, and more, Kemppainen acknowledges the studio is “an unknown entity.” “We struggled a lot with finding funding and a publisher,” he says. “It was not an easy sell: first-time team making a debut game with never-before-seen, unproven game mechanics. But we were always able to keep going thanks to Sami [Timonen, the CEO’s] relentlessness. In Finland we call it ‘sisu’ – he has heaps of it!” It roughly translates as ‘grit’ – and there looks to be a lot involved in the making of the game.

Being able to rewind your actions gave Action Squad carte blanche to make encounters punishingly difficult. If you fail, just rewind and try again until you don’t.

How it all began

The roots of Iron Danger go back to 1998, when Action Squad’s CEO Sami Timonen was still in school. “We had to read Finnish folklore, Kalevala,” he explains. “The stories were really inspirational, so I felt that it would be cool to create a new folklore with a [different] angle. I got a vision to mix elements of our folklore with modern action movies. I started to draw sketches of these ideas.

“Later, I went through comics, and I thought that if Marvel has Thor and there was a Captain Britain and a Captain America, why don’t we Finns have our own superhero, like Captain Finland? So, I painted a concept of that. At a later stage, I had my superheroes fighting against mechanical tank bears in a World War 2 setting with Finnish folklore vibes.

“[We eventually made a live-action proof of concept trailer], and during post-production, I got more and more inspired by the Kalevala [and other folklore]. I wanted to step back in time to the Iron Age with my superheroes, bringing with me some of the mechanical elements of the modern world. What would be cooler than steaming tank bears made back in the Iron Age?”

Genre: Timecop tribute | Format: PC | Developer: Action Squad Studios | Publisher: Daedalic Entertainment | Release: 25 March 2020

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