Helsinki’s provided its fair share of Finnish classics over the years – from Resogun to Trials through Alan Wake and Angry Birds – but here’s one of a different vintage; a game that draws upon a Finnish classic from the 19th century. Kalavela is an epic that’s informed much of Finland’s national identity, drawing upon Finnish folklore (and proving influential to Tolkien as he built his own mythology) – and all this without a voxel in sight.
It’s ripe for returning to, really, which is exactly what upstart Helsinki developer Action Squad – a team who draws experience from seemingly every studio in the area, with Remedy, Rovio, Supercell and RedLynx all making appearances on the various CVs – is doing with Iron Danger, a tactical turn-based adventure with a few neat twists of its own. You’re Kipuna, an everyday villager who is granted superpowers that place her in the middle of an epic battle for the city of Kalevala.
It’s something of a passion project for a team led by Sami Timonen, formerly of Rovio and Supercell, and someone who’s been pushing to establish this new IP built upon the foundations of Finnish folklore through a film, comic books and, of course, a game. To help on that end, Action Squad has recruited a crack team of veterans – many of them making the leap from mobile to Iron Danger’s preferred platforms of PC and console. Given the astronomical figures that games such as Supercell’s Clash Royale earn, what inspired the move back to a more traditional model?
“Working for mobile, it’s not so rewarding,” says Jussi Kemppainen, Iron Danger’s lead designer whose most recent credits come from working on Quantum Break for Remedy. “You’re at a big company focussed on keeping the players playing the game, keeping them hooked. For artists and designers – for some people – it’s not as rewarding. And we’re just not afraid of going belly up, working on a game that’s against the stream! If we were doing it for the glory, and for the Ferraris, we’d try to do mobile. We’ve done it and it wasn’t for us, and we’re doing something now more to our needs, doing something substantial.
“In Finland the funding would fall out of a tree if you just announce on Facebook that you’re making a mobile game, some free-to-play stuff, people will just be calling you saying ‘do you want our money?’, but for us working on this PC and console game I was so sure it wasn’t going to get made, because there’s no way it’d get funding.”
“There are similarities between console and mobile,” says Iron Danger’s lead programmer Heikki-Pekka Noronen. The main point is finding the fun first, that’s something you’ve always got to keep in mind. And it’s about trusting what you are doing – in a mobile game you can make a prototype in two weeks. With Iron Danger, we’ve got time manipulation mechanics I’ve never seen before, no-one’s ever done stuff like that before.”
“And I have a hunch why,” Kemppainen chimes in. “It’s so hard!”
So yes, Iron Danger is a little bit different, a tactical RPG where time manipulation plays a big part in how you go about your business, scrubbing backwards and forwards through a timeline until you get the right results. Or, as YouTube commenter
DonHewgodooko puts it so succinctly, ‘Save scumming, the game…’.
“It’s a mix between real-time and turn-based,” explains Kemppainen. “When you perform an action, like in Superhot, when you do something time starts to move. You do a hit or a block and time moves on, everything around you moves. If the outcome is something you like you can carry on, if you don’t you can go back. If you’re familiar with video editing software, it’s a lot like that. It’s like programming in a way, where you have to do actions back to back.”
“No it’s not!” Noronen quickly butts in, perhaps wary of the project being lumbered with perceptions of being impenetrable and dry, but really that’s music to my ears. One of the best RPG battle systems ever made wasn’t shy in cribbing from the world of programming, so it’s a delight to hear Iron Danger is beating a similar path to the mighty Final Fantasy 12; it looks like a game that invites you to tinker under the hood, to pull apart its systems until you’ve got something approaching perfection. If you want that concept told with some Finnish brevity, though, Noronen has you covered. “I’d say it’s a turn-based game with simultaneous turns.”
Kemppainen, though, can’t help but get carried away. “But they cascade in all these weird ways” You don’t have an enemy turn, there are points in time where there are actions, and you can have one point every half a second, so you can fill up so many commands, the enemy will fill up their commands, then you can see how it plays out.
“It’s not so much an action – in playtesting we’ve had problems with people trying to play this like a Diablo, and the big issue is that this is actually a really intricate puzzle game where you’ve got to figure out what to do so that your characters don’t get damage. There’s all these knots you need to untangle, where your characters are in a difficult spot and you need to get them out of there. The closest thing is Superhot. Then mixed in with Braid. And you control it like XCOM.” Sounds alright, doesn’t it? I’ve yet to get my hands on with Iron Danger, but the concept is pushing all the right buttons, and this small team of 12 seems to have what it takes to make it happen. There’ll be a beta of some sort later this year, with a full release hopefully not long after – and with any luck, this could be another Finnish legend in the making.