Iron Tides’ basic concept seems like the perfect viking-based video game. Form raid parties, explore the world in a longship, and get into small-scale, turn-based battles in the areas that you explore. Add in some light RPG elements for a sense of progression and Fire Emblem-style permadeath, where the death of one party member does not mean that your adventure has come to an end, for a sense of danger. It’s a wonder that no one’s created a game quite like it before.
The game is set in a world where the gods have decided to punish the vikings for warring with each other by plaguing the seas with storms. A new hero, known as “Sigurd the Frostborn,” has decided to build better boats and head out into seas that had been lost to the vikings for a century. The story begins with Sigurd’s fleet being scattered by a storm. You take control of a ship that has been separated from the fleet. You have only two vikings and very few supplies, but you must make it back to Nordhaven.
Vikings are currently separated into one of four classes: Berserker, Hunter, Valkyrie, and Vanguard. Other than the Hunter, each class is a shield-bearing melee class. Each viking that you encounter will be a unique character with its own randomly-generated set of four abilities and stats. They can level and, as they level, you will be able to put points into various talents, which grant them buffs. The talent tree is linear, but also randomly generated on a per-viking basis. The randomly generated elements make it so that any viking could potentially be useful to your party, regardless of their class and your party’s current composition, which is a nice change of pace from that of similar games.
Operation of the game is fairly simple. Nordhaven acts as a base of sorts, offering facilities for hiring more vikings, upgrading your longship through a research tree of sorts, and buying or selling items that you might need or have come across in your travels. Clicking on your longship while in Nordhaven will take you to a world map where you can select a quest. At present, there are two types of quest: Main Quest and Side Quest.
Choosing a quest will take you to a randomly generated sea map where you must complete a specific objective, such as find something or destroy so many outposts. When at sea, you move one tile at a time, with each movement causing you to lose Stamina. Should you run out of stamina, your crew will begin to go hungry, with one viking losing half their health with each movement that you make without stamina. You can use food to replenish stamina and bring your vikings out of a state of starvation, but food is not infinite and you will have to manage it wisely.
As you explore the map, you may come across various locations that can be explored. These will offer all sorts of rewards, which are generally either varying amounts of the game’s currencies, Glory and Hacksilver, or food and other random items that can be used or sold. You may also come across a pirate ship or outpost along the way, which will automatically initiate a battle, should you sail within an adjacent tile. Despite the fact that pirate ships are out there, they do not move.
Each map, while randomly generated, is finite and rectangular, featuring an exit on each of its four sides, albeit you always enter maps from the left. You can exit the map using these exits at any time, regardless of whether you have completed your quest or not. This is particularly helpful when you suffer a terrible defeat and have but one viking left, with no options left but to limp back to Nordhaven.
The battle system is also fairly simple in terms of operation. You begin by placing your units on the field; many battles have fewer slots available than you have vikings, so you will need to pick and choose which ones you send to each particular battle. Once the battle has begun, each viking is given two movement points and three Fury per turn. Each viking has upwards of four abilities, each of which cost varying amounts of Fury; the first two abilities cost one Fury, whereas the third ability, unlocked at level two, costs two Fury and the fourth ability, unlocked at level three, costs three Fury. Fury can regenerated mid-turn by killing enemies at a rate of one Fury per kill. It should also be noted that the direction that units are facing does matter; some abilities grant additional damage when attacking enemies from behind and shield-bearing characters have a chance to block when being attacked from in front of them. Fortunately, the game makes it simple to change the direction of each of your vikings using the arrow keys, regardless of their current status.
At first, battles are fairly easy. You can indulge in more complex tactics, but you won’t really need to. Early encounters are all fairly easy to beat, often with barely a scratch on any of your crew. It isn’t until you hit the point where quests start to recommend having a party of level two vikings that the game really begins to demand that you pay attention and really think your turns through. Shortly after hitting that point, I quickly lost almost an entire crew and was forced to really think about the complexities of the combat system.
One thing that the combat system does really well is that it lets you use your movement points and Fury in whatever order that you want, even allowing you to switch back and forth between vikings at will. You’re not required to move and then attack, nor are you required to move your vikings in any specific order.
This freedom to carry out your turn in the order that you want really allows you to carry out some fairly complex tactics. It lets you think out the order of attacks and movements, ultimately positioning your vikings exactly where you want them to be during your enemy’s turn. You can also ensure that the right vikings strike killing blows, granting them additional Fury that can then be used to carry out more or greater attacks while simultaneously saving the Fury of other vikings. This can be exceptionally important for frontline vikings that find themselves in the thick of battle.
It is through these complexities, and those of enemies that inflict status effects or deal damage to adjacent tiles, that the game’s simple battle system manages to remain involving and tactical. It is the perhaps the most deep, yet accessible turn-based combat system I have ever encountered, which is quite a feat.
One of my favorite tactics is to take a Valkyrie that has the Jump ability, jump next to an Archer, kill it, and then walk away. In general, the Valkyrie class’ Jump ability is an enjoyable one that gives at least one melee class a true sense of range through enhanced movement.
More so than many other games, Iron Tides does an excellent job of easing you into its complexities. It starts out on a sea map, forcing you to experience the loss of Stamina caused by adventuring before subsequently forcing you down a path that leads to wreckage that you can explore for food. It later forces you to take part in battles and explore wreckage that will grant you another viking, inherently explaining that you can find more vikings out in the world.
It then snowballs from there, later introducing you to mechanics such as bomb-using enemies and enemies that can poison you through dedicated battles. It’s a tutorial that feels much more natural than others and I felt a need to commend that.
I am also rather fond of Iron Tides’ aesthetic, which almost gives you the sense that you are playing a board game. The way that scenery for sea maps is disjointed and tile-based calls to mind boards created from various set pieces. The way that each battle’s map is laid out almost feels like an individual board meant for turn-based battles. Even the battle mechanics work are very reminiscent of a board game; you can almost imagine each character’s Fury being represented by pips on their respective figures. It’s all very charming and lends to the game’s near-immediate accessibility.
Iron Tides is a charming, well-designed game that is both accessible and deep on a level that few games manage to achieve simultaneously. It is a game that, despite being in Early Access, is so well polished that I have yet to encounter any discernable bugs. It is a game that I will certainly be playing more of and one that any fan of turn-based strategy games would do well to pick up.
Iron Tides is available on Steam Early Access for $14.99, temporarily discounted to $12.74 until July 31st.