The world of The Iron Oath is grim, full of bloodshed and betrayal. I am leading a company of mercenaries, seeking revenge after a mission went bad and a man I trusted left me to die. I have practical concerns to deal with, like maintaining my influx of gold and supplies. But I also have a much slower, more dreadful resource to manage: the passage of time, and with it, the terrible toll it takes on my mercenaries. I’ve already learned the best way to adapt, though — by just being the absolute worst person, all of the time.
The Iron Oath will be, in some ways, very familiar to fans of strategy games and RPGs. You take a pinch of Darkest Dungeon, throw in some XCOM, and sprinkle in some Divinity: Original Sin. Cook it all in a pan with some gorgeous pixel animations, an epic musical score, a fantasy world constantly on the cusp of an apocalypse, and inventive demonic enemy designs, and baby, you’ve got a stew going.
As I adventure around the fantasy realm of Caelum, I have to navigate between the open world, cities and towns, dungeons, and individual battles. It would be easy for these things to blur together into an indistinguishable mush of numbers and goals, but developer Curious Panda Games introduces each layer of complexity gradually throughout a well-paced tutorial and the early hours of the campaign. There are also some wonderfully granular difficulty settings, so The Iron Oath can either be a relatively chill cakewalk or an unforgiving trek through hazardous territory.
Luckily, the game gives me the tools to succeed in this dangerous world because the mercenaries at my disposal are powerful wizards, rangers, warriors, and elementalists. It’s deeply satisfying to unleash a charged electrical torrent on an enemy or have a valkyrie soar through her enemies, spear first. By the time I was out of the game’s intro and into the open world with my starting mercenary party, I felt pretty confident that I would be able to catch up to the ne’er-do-well who stabbed me in the back and get revenge.
Of course, nothing is ever that simple, and so my story branched out as I met other factions, explored new cities, and expanded my company. This is an early access game, but there’s still a good amount of meat on the bone. Players can upgrade and customize each mercenary in their party, and send their favorites out on more missions for XP. The drawback is that the more you lean on a select few mercenaries, the more stressed and injured they become. Keep relying on them, and they might just snap. Fail to treat their injuries, and they might die. Just like Darkest Dungeon, this is a rough gig. My company gets a round of ale once in a while, but they’re more often treated to skull fractures, trauma, and broken spines.
And even if you do everything “right,” the clock is ticking, as it is for us all. This isn’t a Fire Emblem title where everyone remains rosy-cheeked and bright-eyed; they eventually pass away. There are always new mercenaries to recruit, level up, and customize, and I can upgrade my company to make managing the crew easier … but as I juggle gold and potions, I learn to start treating human life with the same cold practicality. These aren’t my comrades — they’re investments.
This is especially true in battles, which is where The Iron Oath really shines. When I head into a dungeon, I get an abstracted overview. I can scout ahead, disarm traps, and explore. When combat happens, we get right to business; my four mercenaries are placed on a grid along with some enemies. I then decide my initial placement, and the strategy begins. Flanking, cover, and positioning are all important; the enemy is usually equipped with brutal damage abilities and debuffs that can cause chaos if I don’t plan around it. My powerful spells and attacks also have limited charges for the duration of the dungeon, which means I have to ration across many battles.
This constant tension of resource management, limited supplies, and continual danger means that I sometimes have to make some rough choices — choices that my mercenaries will have thoughts about. For instance, in the depths of a dark dungeon, I find an injured man. I can help him out of there, but that will give my enemies more time to set up traps and ambushes. I can give him some of my precious medical supplies so he can escape on his own. Or … I could just kill him and loot his body! That might aggravate some of my mercenaries, but others will think that’s just smart. Giving away health potions to strangers? In this economy?
If I make too many choices that my mercenaries don’t like (or if I don’t pay them because I just had to spend all of my gold on gear) they’ll leave the company altogether. Angry, tired mercenaries are also less useful in battle, which can cause a spiral in morale as they get injured or their friends die.
The biggest issue throughout my time with The Iron Oath is the UI. It’s a collection of little annoyances that don’t seem to matter individually, but they pile up over time. For instance, during battles, there’s no easy way to see my characters’ health at a glance as I survey the battle. Their portrait overlays will have a red shadow that represents their general HP loss, or I can hover over them with my cursor to get a full name and health bar — but neither of these are ideal when I’m also trying to suss out all the enemy information and terrain, while also worrying about the remainder of the dungeon. At other times, I accidentally closed out of upgrade screens, and it took me a while to find them again. None of these are deal breakers (especially in an early access game) but they’re bummers nonetheless.
Overall, I’m excited to see how The Iron Oath develops; Curious Panda Games has already laid out a road map throughout 2022 leading to an eventual full release that includes a new class, more points of interest, and more quests. For now, I’m having a lot of fun with the current build — my mercenaries, on the other hand, probably have some complaints with my management style.
The Iron Oath was released on April 19 on Windows PC. The game was reviewed using a download code provided by Humble Games. Vox Media has affiliate partnerships. These do not influence editorial content, though Vox Media may earn commissions for products purchased via affiliate links. You can find additional information about Polygon’s ethics policy here.