Yes, Cyberpunk is all the hype right now. But there are different types of ‘punk’ I’m more in love with. Historical settings with a touch of fantasy have always been able to capture my imagination. From the fascinating mix of old, new and magic in Harry Potter to one of the best strategy games of recent years. Frostpunk. A game that has been able to create an atmosphere sending a chill through your spine.
Now, it’s time for another historic ‘punk’ strategy game. And this time it’s not steampunk, but dieselpunk. In the vein of Company of Heroes, a strategy game putting strategy front and center, we will endure war.
So… where do we start?
It’s 1920 and the world is a little different than we remember from our history books. Three nations that have emerged from World War I, Polania, Rusvia and Saxony. Tsar Nicholas II and Rasputin are still alive in this reality and no revolution has happened. The world of Iron Harvest is depicted beautifully by the artwork from Jakub Różalski. The artwork is used in all the loading screens and promotional imagery for this game, and rightfully so, as it shows the cruel beauty of a post-war 1920 mech dominated world. It’s dieselpunk, baby.
For people reading this who want to learn more about Jakub Różalski and his work, check out 1920+ This is a compilation of artwork and an actual boardgame which has been the foundation for this game.
Besides the beautiful artwork and worldbuilding from Różalski, the developer King Art Games has been able to transform this into an unique and impactful world. Even from this isometric perspective the game is able to pull you in, as if you’re actually controlling a 1920 mech army in Poland.
The game contains various game modes, a three part campaign, the Skirmish mode and the Challenges mode. Let’s begin with Challenges.
In this mode you play the RTS version of ‘Horde mode’ known in the Gears of War franchise. You set up your defenses and choose the best tactical location to survive multiple waves of enemies. In the other mode, Skirmish, you play a more classic real time strategy mode. But, as an extra bonus objective you are tasked to capture certain locations. These are mostly iron mines or oil pumps.
The campaign is divided into three parts. You start by playing as the Polanians. Your hero is Anna Kos, and you first meet her when she’s a child. She’s competing in a snowball fight with other children, which acts as a tutorial of sorts. It teaches you the basics of the tactical aspect of the game. This game is very much a cover based strategy game, akin to games like Gears Tactics.
During the campaign you’ll be playing different type of game modes. There are levels where you are defending against waves, there are levels where you have to build a base and destroy the enemy base and there are more simplistic levels in which you’ll travel through a map destroying everything in your path.
One scenario in the Polanian campaign was my highlight of the game. You are set to bring a train to the other side of a bridge. But, the other side is heavily guarded with enemy troops. In a difficult, but rewarding, fight you are fighting your way over the bridge. Together with Ana and her pet bear. Yes, she’s got a pet bear.
Overall the writing in the campaign is alright. It’s not the strongest aspect of the 20 plus hour playthrough. The cutscenes in between work really well though, as they make sure it’s one continuous story. The writing is never cheesy enough to be annoying, while keeping the story light enough to make you forget you are fighting mechs in the snow. The alternative reality just works, mostly because of the mechs.
These machines are incredibly designed in this game. You have large overwhelming machines with multiple cannons and large legs to small and cute Smialy, which looks like a large and round iron heater with legs. Adorable and deadly. The mechs look amazing and the variety in them should be appreciated. And eh…whenever you see a flamethrower mech called ‘’Ognivo’’ signal your infantry they should run. Those things are scary and deadly. Not adorable at all.
Gameplay-wise there are improvements to be made. In my opinion King Art Games hasn’t been able to evolve the genre with Iron Harvest, but has used many aspects from other games to create a compelling overall experience. The cover mechanics are sometimes annoying, with the AI responding to cover in a funny but messy way. Imagine taking cover behind sandbags and every time you do it, the enemy just comes storming at you. That’s what the AI does in Iron Harvest.
Another aspect that could be improved is the pacing of the game. In the first minutes of every match the pacing feels good. The infantry, besides the cover mechanics being a little funky at times, feel great to play. Bringing upgrades to the table such as grenades, medics and building bunkers and sandbags works really well. But, when the mechs arrive, it’s all about them. It seems King Art Games has tried to remedy this by adding a game mechanic in which you can use the infantry to restore resources from fallen mechs. This means you need a certain amount of infantry units to make sure you can continue your war efforts. Now you also know where the game got its name from. I’m gonna call this mechanic the Iron Harvest. Oh, and you’ll need engineers too to repair all those mechs you are sending into war.
But, when you are in the later stage of the game the pace of battle just slows down to a crawl. It becomes a war of attrition as it becomes hard to make true advancements into the enemy bases. A balance issue for sure. But let it be clear, overall the gameplay is a good experience further enhanced by the sound design. Buildings collapsing when mechs walk straight through them, bombs (there’s even a train with a cannon on it!) sound amazing and the sound design and the look of complete destruction go hand in hand.
And before we summarize this review, I really want to talk about the music. The Russian male choir, the use of violin. This just oozes charm and love. A superb original soundtrack.
A well thought out real time strategy game that has been able to capture the feeling of a post-war dieselpunk reality, sometimes hampered by gameplay mechanics and pacing issues. King Art Games has put out a great strategy games that, with some more budget and time, could’ve been one of the all time greats in the genre. If you like Company of Heroes, or the strategy genre in general, this is a game you should play. And if you like historic punk settings, then I really want to emphasize on how great the atmosphere in this game is. It’s depressing and beautiful. It’s what I want to see from a game set in this genre.
Iron Harvest is out on PC right now, available on Steam. It’s coming to Xbox One and PlayStation 4 soon.