Review - Iron Angel of the Apocalypse
Posted: Tue Nov 13, 2012 9:46 pm
Iron Angel of the Apocalypse is one of those strange titles that are the 3DO's distinctive trademark. The gameplay is not unusual, but the atmosphere definitely is, and its technical limitations also make it a striking entry in mid-90s gaming. It is, in short, one of the most technically poor games I've ever played.
Save the FMV cutscenes, the whole game plays out with a massive HUD border, thus limiting the actual gameplay to a boxed-in section of the screen. Enemies, which are robots with such low polygon counts that some look unintentionally cute, are rarely confronted more than one at a time. Nor does the game keep track of them all; all enemies, even bosses, freeze in place whenever you're not within arm's reach. Despite these processor-conserving factors, the game suffers from poor frame rate, short draw distance, and bouts of prominent slowdown.
As a technical package, Iron Angel of the Apocalypse is not unlike an NES port of Wolfenstein 3D. The exception is the FMV, which is more than up to par and delivers some impressive CG models.
That said, the technical issues aren't a big factor. Why? Because the game's slow pace and focus on puzzle solving and navigation over firefights make things such as frame rate unimportant, and things such as the short draw distance actually help the gameplay. Which brings me to the single most important point of this review: Contrary to popular belief, Iron Angel of the Apocalypse is essentially a dungeon crawler without the RPG elements, not a 1st person shooter.
First of all, the grid-based levels are labyrinthine, and you're often required to go back and forth between levels in order to advance, so making maps is essential. Second, both the player character and the enemies move so slow that reflexes are of little use, while strategy and positioning are key. Third, traps and teleport circles are scattered throughout many of the levels. These are all traits of dungeon crawlers. It's not just that Iron Angel is incapable of pulling off the frantic action of a good 1st person shooter; it doesn't try to.
As a dungeon crawler, Iron Angel of the Apocalypse doesn't bring much new to the table, unless you count the lack of RPG elements (though you do upgrade your HP twice). However, the level maps, puzzles, and enemies are all well-designed to provide a varied and balanced challenge. As I progressed through the game's 30 floors, I found myself almost continuously confronted with something new: an enemy which requires a different approach, a new puzzle, a better weapon, or an additional ability. Each set of five floors climaxes with a boss fight and a cutscene, and though the bosses are sometimes on the easy side, they're tough enough to live up to their title.
Though there's no automap feature, each floor has a complete map located somewhere on it. Even if you don't have one of these, you can always check your coordinates, which makes drawing your own maps a snap. At least one save point is found on each floor, and health and ammunition pickups seem to always appear just when you need them, and no sooner. Save points also completely refill health and ammo, but you can't abuse this feature much since enemies respawn whenever you change floors.
In short, this is solid, enjoyable dungeon crawling. But what makes Iron Angel of the Apocalypse special is not the gameplay, but the sombre, almost post-apocalyptic atmosphere. The FMV cutscenes are set in a stark technological dungeon, with bold camera angles which evoke the style of an art film. Those characters who have dialogue speak only in terse, emotionless phrases. The soundtrack is varied, yet always full of mechanical rhythms and a brooding tone. All together, these elements paint a haunting picture of a dying spark of humanity entrapped by a tower of soulless machinery.
Even with their technical limitations, the gameplay graphics add to this. The wall textures are futuristic and inventive, and at times bizarre; one of the later stages is painted with strange symbols. The story is well-done, with an ending very appropriate to the game's atmosphere.
I've shed a lot of praise for Iron Angel of the Apocalypse, because I was pretty enthralled with it. But the issues with frame rate and such can be a nuisance, particularly the jerky way your character turns. It's much like the jumping cursor in Rebel Assault, but without a lock-on feature to compensate. And it must be admitted that if the game were handed to 100 gamers, probably 1 of them would love it, 9 would admire its style but find it not much fun, and 90 would hate it with a burning passion. If you don't care for dungeon crawling, then you should run far away and don't look back. The same goes for anyone who tends to get hung up on a game's technical merits.
And now, the vital stats and the final judgment:
Graphics 6/10 - The real time graphics are technically poor, but the design throughout is striking and atmospheric
Sound 8/10 - Moody soundtrack and acting suit the game's strange tone
Longevity 6/10 - A lack of secrets leaves little reason to replay this one, but getting through the first time takes a while
Catering to Japanophiles 10/10 - With a title in Japanese text, a Japanese live actor, and no dubbing whatsoever, this English localization of Tetsujin is as Japanese as you can get without importing.
Iron Angel of the Apocalypse is a unique release which will drive off most gamers with its niche gameplay and appalling technical performance. But those who are looking for something atmospheric and don't mind a good dungeon crawl should give it a try.