Iron Fisticle asks the question ‘How well can you keep it together with your back against the wall?’ Developed by Confused Pelican this game is a dual-stick top-down carnage fest whose gameplay and visual style hearkens back to the glory days of blowing two weeks’ worth of allowance money in a single afternoon at the video arcade. It is claustrophobic, tense, bombastic, and worthy of a critical look. Button Mashing turns the table and now asks the question: How well can Iron Fisticle keep it together with its back against the wall?
Mechanically, the game is straight forward and familiar. The player controls an armored knight and uses his default battle axe and other various weapon power-ups to carve his way through waves of ever-pursuing enemies, enduring and maneuvering through the levels of the game.
The level design, though modest, is deliberate. The game map consists of only four floors. Each floor contains battle chambers, increasing in total number with each higher floor, wherein the main carnage occurs. Each chamber is a single screen, no panning or roaming around, and has its own structural obstacles which can help or hinder your gameplay: make one false move and you will yelp with horror as you find yourself suddenly cornered; make one smart move and you will mow down your enemies without mercy. Between the patchwork of chambers are different types of connectors which host either a ‘bonus stage’ or a shop for power-ups or nothing at all and you just move right on to the next chamber.
Know this: Iron Fisticle is not a dungeon crawler. Exploration has no place here. Literally. There simply isn’t room for it. The arrangement of chambers is clustered instead of labyrinthine. Your end goal – the boss – is clearly labeled on the map of every floor. The game will even stymie your attempts to wander through each floor (no back tracking!) as if to flush you out into the presence of the floor’s boss. Chambers are not grand arenas nor do they house hidden nooks with super sweet loot. This choking sense of immediacy smothers out any need or desire or thought for exploration.
Iron Fisticle’s narrow, claustrophobic scope is its greatest strength. It doesn’t try to be more than it is, washing out the potency and crunch of the gameplay. It doesn’t try to be anything else, though some extra effort into the presentation would help the game stand out – more on this later.
Indeed, part of the challenge of battling in such a claustrophobic space is trying to maintain both a microscopic and macroscopic view simultaneously. Each chamber quickly becomes clogged with enemies. So, while you are hacking away at the immediate threats you must at the same time keep an eye out for minute openings and empty pockets which you can use to maneuver the mindless mob, and position yourself to best utilize your timed powerups.
There is also just the right amount of types of enemies. The game balances quantity and differentiation very well, prompting you to make realtime decisions in movement based on how much of what is coming at you. Enemies are not in a frenzied rage but are still persistent, so persistent. Most of the time the safest place to be, whatever the situation, is with your back against the wall, skirting the perimeter. Overtime a satisfying momentum is established; once you get rolling it’s hard to call it a night.
A major speed bump to this momentum is the ‘bonus level’. The bonus level switches gears from top-down slaughterfest to sidescrolling jumper. The obstacles and loot are randomly generated and the controls are laggy. These levels are not only pointless but botches up your mojo, your tempo, your pulse. They kill the momentum. They are not very bonus-like: You will see 5X more coinage in a regular slaughter chamber than in the entire run of the bonus level, and the rewards for completing it are also rather piddly. There is very little motivation to take the bonus levels seriously. More often than not, as my veins are still pumping neon adrenaline from playing a previous chamber, I take the first opportunity to perish in a bonus level just so I can move on to the next chamber.
Though the claustrophobia is practically palpable while in the chambers, the game gives the player a gratifying amount of elbow room when it comes to the metagame – another one of the game’s strong points. Once you beat a boss and enter a new floor, that new floor is now available for you to jump to from the title screen – a design that is sure to make any roguelike purist scream to the heavens. Likewise, some of the connectors between chambers are shops where, from four randomly generated items, you can purchase ability upgrades or health. Some of these ability upgrades are permanent, carrying over into the next game. These options – these freedoms – provide an opportunity for players to tailor their experience with Iron Fisticle.
The most important freedom the game gives you is the option to erase all progress data. Because, admittedly, once you’ve maxed out your avatar the game quickly looses steam. You are so tremendously OP that there is little challenge left. So, reset that sucker back to level zero and experiment with your own self-imposed restrictions during another playthrough. Yes. The replay value is subtle but quite tremendous.
Aside from the lame-duck presence of the bonus levels, the only other area of improvement involves the lack of attention to details in the rest of the presentation. Particularly, more love could have been given to the audio which could bolster stronger, more confident gameplay and add character to the game overall. There are times when the game gets delightfully chaotic, a mishmash of activity. During these moments I’d like to hear more from my avatar, something other than the indiscernible grunts when taking damage and disgust when you pick up certain loot. The ‘taking damage’ soundbyte needs to be more pronounced, so I can hear just how much heat I’m taking and can try to GTFO. Hoots and hollars, taunts and jabs, praises to GabeN. Something! The same goes for footsteps. It is just this robotic clunk-clunk-clunk, regardless of the frothy viscera that is smeared all over the floor. Let’s hear some sqishyness!
This may seem nitpicky, but attention to little details like audio and health bar and bonus bank placement can really go a long way. It can ultimately help raise Iron Fisticle above the din and come into the focus of many more perspective gamers – a place where the game belongs.
Held up against the wall, Iron Fisticle does indeed keep itself together. It is unadulterated arcade action but could have been more outstanding with just a little more attention to details in the presentation. It recognizes the focused scope it which it operates and does not overextend itself. Solo or co-op the game is an absolute blast to play, just as were the arcade boxes of old.