The Iron Oath official artwork and logo

Much like any business these days, your mercenary company in The Iron Oath has to carefully manage its finances in a turbulent economy, strike a fine balance between relying on veteran workers and investing in new blood, as well as fight off hordes upon hordes of interdimensional demons that have come to destroy everything you know and love! In a way, it's the perfect showcase of what it's like to work in retail!

So if you're curious how you can save the world on a budget, as well as how the Darkest Dungeon inspired missions play out, allow me to share my thoughts after spending quite a few hours exploring The Iron Oath's pixelated world.

Dungeons and difficulty

From the very beginning of the campaign, even in the tutorial itself, The Iron Oath is a rather intense game. You start off dirt-poor and with only the most basic of supplies, yet everyone will expect you to dive straight into the mouth of hell in order to solve their problems. Best of all, even if you do manage to succeed you'll end up with barely more gold than what you started with!

Things aren't much easier on the combat side of things either, because much like Darkest Dungeon from which The Iron Oath takes a great deal of inspiration, each mission is an endurance run where the odds are heavily stacked against you. You can only bring four characters with you into each dungeon, as well as only purchase a small assortment of supplies to help you along, and that's it!

From there you have to wonder across a square-grid map in search of enemies, treasures, and the all-important quest objectives. Each step you take and each special dialogue option you choose costs you a certain amount of time, and the more time you spend in the dungeon the more negative events you'll stack up. Some of these can make your characters more likely to suffer debilitating injuries, while others will make them increasingly unhappy until you finally set up camp and rest, which comes with its own set of risks.

As such, exploring dungeons can be a nerve-wracking yet exhilarating experience since the only way to find out what's coming up next is to either blunder into it face-first or waste precious time scouting ahead. Things do eventually become somewhat formulaic as there's only so much variety in the current Early Access build, but the whole process of plundering dungeons is definitely something I can see expanded into one of The Iron Oath's star attractions.

The Iron Oath screenshot of low-health characters in the dungeon

Everyone is nearly dead. Do you risk everything, or admit defeat and fall back?

It's also worth mentioning that your health does not regenerate between battles. So not only do your actions throughout the dungeons have serious consequences, but every move you make in the turn-based combat encounters does as well!

The actual mechanics behind the battles are all fairly standard stuff for a turn-based RPG, with the three standouts being the Attacks of Opportunity that prevent you from easily escaping from melee combat, the flanking system that makes it so surrounded characters take a lot more damage, as well as the various environmental hazards that allow you to stun or damage opponents by chucking them into pits or breaking boxes with their nose. While it's by no means revolutionary, I found the combat in The Iron Oath to still be highly satisfying thanks to a combination of stylish pixel visuals and some fun abilities.

I also greatly enjoyed the level of challenge as I was constantly at the brink of death, yet somehow I'd always find a way to sidestep my demise and leave with all of my characters in... acceptable health! There was a real sense of dread going into each dungeon, especially since I needed to not only complete the objective, but also make a sizable profit in order to avoid the awkward situation where I can't pay off my roaming band of murder-machines. So throughout the early game I had an absolute blast with The Iron Oath as it really felt like every move on the battlefield and every decision on the dungeon map mattered.

Unfortunately, that didn't last all that long as the balance in The Iron Oath is currently a bit wonky. There is essentially no way to avoid taking damage in the combat encounters, which means that low level characters with poor equipment are frequently going to get beaten within an inch of their life and suffer serious injuries. On the other hand, once you get them leveled up and gift them some proper armor, there's very little the enemies can do to actually challenge you since their abilities just aren't particularly nasty.

The Iron Oath screenshot of three bandits blowing up at once

After a while, common enemies are nothing more than a brief stopgap

Characters, customization and repetition

Speaking of abilities, each of your characters has six different ones you can unlock, though only four are usable at any given time. Each of those abilities then has a variety of small upgrades that allow you to tweak and enhance certain aspects of the skill. Add to that stat points you can distribute after each level up, and in theory you have a massive amount of customization to play around with.

In reality, however, that's not exactly the case since you only have so many viable abilities and upgrades to choose from in the current Early Access version. This then results in the battles becoming more and more homogeneous the further you are into the campaign since higher level characters mostly play alike. So instead of being able to revel in the power trip, I just kind of started losing interest after a while since I would know exactly how each fight would play out before I even did my first move.

The Iron Oath's Early Access status becomes even more apparent when it comes to the lack of small quality-of-life features. You can't tell how much damage an enemy is going to take from a channeled attack or a damage-over-time effect, or even how far they can move on their turn, which introduces some unnecessary guesswork into the combat. Similarly, there is no easy way to compare gear, so if you're trying to outfit a dozen different characters you'll have to slowly shuffle between the shop and your inventory, over and over again.

The Iron Oath screenshot of the shop menu

I'd also like to see more interesting weapons in the shops

To help make things at least a bit more interesting all of your abilities have a certain amount of charges, and the only way you're getting them back in the middle of a dungeon is by resting, which involves you potentially running into even more fights. So rather than spam your most powerful attacks, you have to carefully ration them throughout the dungeon as you can never really tell how many more enemies there are between you and your objective.

This is quite an interesting system since you have to constantly weigh your options and decide how many resources you're willing to commit to a single battle, as well as how much damage you're willing to take in pursuit of efficiency. However, once again the issue here is that the balance is a bit messed up so higher level characters very rarely have to worry about running out of juice, or anything at all for that matter.

While none of these problems are individually all that annoying, they do start to wear on you with time. So even though I still had fun with The Iron Oath, it's definitely one of those games that will benefit greatly from a couple of balance patches and content updates. The core concept is good fun, it's just that most of the numbers are currently all wrong. After all, I don't think the tutorial is supposed to be the hardest and most intense part of the game!

The Iron Oath screenshot of the tutorial fight

I nearly lost my whole team in the tutorial!

Exploration and trading

Interestingly enough, the aforementioned risk vs reward system does not apply to the overworld. It doesn't matter if you've been ambushed in the middle of the night or if you're running from one battle to another, all of your characters will have all of their abilities available in every single fight. Needless to say, this makes overworld battles a complete joke as you can simply spam your most overpowered attacks until all enemies are reduced to piles of ash, all without ever having to suffer the consequences for your recklessness.

In the end that's probably a good thing, because the overworld throws way too many filler battles and events at you. I wouldn't mind the occasional scuffle with bandits to break up the monotony of traveling between cities, but when you run into two or three very similar events while roaming around, the novelty starts to run out quite quickly. So taking a note from the Pokémon series, I would appreciate if The Iron Oath added some sort of bandit repellent to make travel a more straightforward experience, or at the very least made it so I didn't have to manually reset my destination after every single interruption.

The Iron Oath screenshot of the various interruptions on the world map

You get to either waste in-game time or real-life time

I say this because I love the idea behind the overworld, just not how tedious exploring it can get. Basically, each city on the overworld goes through a series of events that dictate what's happening in the surrounding region, what sort of items and mercenaries are going to be available for purchase, as well as what sort of trade goods are currently in demand. Combine this with a reputation system that gives you discounts in cities you've saved from danger, and you've got yourself a rudimentary yet oddly enjoyable trading mini-game.

For example, if a gigantic void dragon appears out of nowhere and torches a city to the ground, that's the perfect time to stock up on things like wood or stone and then head on over there to assist with the rebuilding effort. You'll not only be able to earn heaps of gold from selling your overpriced wares, but you'll also be the only armed force in a town that's in desperate need of protection - perfect for some high-value contracts!

While the regular events are usually a lot less lucrative, it's still a fun system that encourages you to take risks by investing most of your hard-earned money into trade goods that can (potentially) be sold at a profit later on. It also encourages you to travel all across the world and interact with different locations and cultures, which if fleshed out properly, could end up being one of my favorite parts of The Iron Oath. As it stands, it's an interesting idea somewhat mired by the fact that traveling around is a rather laborious process.

The Iron Oath screenshot of the void dragon attacking a city

I have a feeling the price of wood is about to skyrocket!

Presentation and story

These sort of problems are a real shame since the world design, and the presentation in general, is straight up gorgeous. It doesn't even matter if we're talking about the overworld map or the turn-based battles, The Iron Oath's pixel artwork is colorful and charming all the way through. A similar thing applies to the sound track as well since it does a great job of setting the atmosphere and providing an engaging backdrop to your fights. So as far as the presentation goes, I'm happy to say I have no complaints whatsoever!

As for the story, it's currently too short and too by-the-numbers to be interesting enough to really talk about, though it's at the very least well written. In fact, the most impressive thing is not even the main storyline, but rather that The Iron Oath manages to auto-generate surprisingly relatable and random personalities for your various mercenaries.

While none of them get a ton of characterization, having them occasionally comment about the situation based on their previous experiences and in-built traits really goes a long way towards making them feel like actual people rather than a random array of spells I needed for that specific mission. So in a funny little twist, I ended up caring more for my randomly generated goons than the carefully curated story!

The Iron Oath screenshot of the characters showing some personality

Even though these events are rare, it's still nice to talk to the characters directly

Closing thoughts

The Iron Oath is a promising strategy game with a lot of genuinely fun ideas, but right now it's so early in its development journey that most of these concepts are just not fully fleshed out yet. This is especially apparent with the combat balance as the tutorial was by far the hardest part of my entire playthrough!

So while I would highly recommend keeping an eye on The Iron Oath moving forward if you're a fan of turn-based RPGs, I wouldn't dive in just yet. After a couple of months and a couple of updates, that's a completely different story, but right now The Iron Oath is just too rough around the edges to really chow down on.