Iron Harvest is an RTS about dieselpunk mechs in the 1920s, which means the tech level (particularly military tech) is at basically the same place as it was at the end of WW1. My guess is that the reason for doing this rather than just doing an alternate universe dieselpunk WW1 is because that would mean that the mechs (loosely equivalent to tanks) don’t show up until halfway through the war.
The Great War is referenced as having happened in the past, and yet it didn’t have the earthshattering consequences it did here in Earth One. Rasputin is still alive, Russia still has a Tsar (despite their official faction name being Rusviet – if that’s not a portmanteau of “Russia” and “Soviet” then what the fuck is it?), Germany still has a Kaiser, Poland is not an independent country (except it sort of is, but not really) but a resistance movement is trying to change that, there is a Great Arab Revolt against an occupying empire, and so on. The Great War definitely happened, but the political situation is remarkably similar to it having not, though it’s simplified in a couple of ways – Poland is occupied exclusively by Russia, rather than being partitioned between Germany, Russia, and a little bit into Austro-Hungary, and the Great Arab Revolt is against Germany rather than the Ottoman Empire, which I’m guessing was done mainly because they can’t just toss out a whole extra Ottoman Empire faction (they’re already letting America play Lawrence of Arabia so that their faction can be used as the Arab side, which I’m guessing is because they decided America was going to be their first expansion faction before they started writing the expansion’s plot, since we know from Scythe that this timeline does have a UK expy). As I get into further down, the factions are pretty same-y in mechanics, but they still require a lot of unique assets and from the pace of release it’s clear that adding a new one is a big deal.
The main plot has an Ace Combat 5 style plot where the factions all get into fullscale war with each other so that we can see them deploying their most impressive weapons against one another, but then at the end it turns out it was all the doing of a secret multinational conspiracy so that we can have a dramatic confrontation between good and evil at the end, but no one’s actual real world country has to be at fault by proxy. I realize that this is basically the only way to serve the twin goals of having a dramatic finale where good triumphs over evil while also avoiding nationalist flag-waving, but seeing as how this game is kinda-sorta about WW1, maybe we could just not have a finale where good triumphs over evil, and instead have a story where joining the war was a mistake but now we’re playing the game of thrones so we have to win even if the prize can’t possibly be worth what we lost by playing. The villains of WW1 were everyone who joined the war voluntarily, and if you want a WW1-adjacent plot, you should emphasize that. If you really need heroes, the obvious choice is Poland, who can be dragged into the war purely by virtue of being between Germany and Russia and now they’re just fighting to survive.
The game kinda flirts with both of these, with the start of the Polish campaign about a Polish resistance fending off Russian invaders (Germans are nowhere to be seen in the Polish campaign, and if you wanted to commit to this, you’d have Russia and Germany going at each other full tilt and occupying Poland incidentally, because it’s in the way). Then later it turns out the Polish resistance are bloody-minded nationalists trying to set up a city to revolt and be massacred because they think that will inspire the rest of the nation to rise up, which is a pretty compelling conclusion to the first act of a story about the costs of war and nationalism, but then the third act of the story is about all three nations coming together to fight a secret conspiracy who was playing all sides from the beginning. This turns the first act’s setup into a Space Whale Aesop. Instead of being about the costs and justifications of war, it’s about how war is caused by a secret conspiracy and world peace immediately follows their defeat in battle. And the transition cut scenes from the Polish to Russian campaigns completely ditch the relatively grounded themes of the Polish campaign to instead have a pulp plot of insidious conspiracies and counterconspiracies all centered around Anna Kos and her family.
The Russian campaign takes forever to get to the bottom of the exposition and let you play a normal mission, too – the first, second, and fourth missions give you a limited number of units with no base and you have to achieve objectives with that, which is perfectly doable and an interesting break from regular base-building now and then, but that third mission isn’t a regular RTS mission, either. It’s an interminable stealth mission where being detected by any unit means starting the whole mission over again, even if you’re twenty minutes deep. Fortunately, there is a “skip mission” option. It’s not until mission five of seven that I finally built some Russian buildings and units. Worse, you spend nearly the entire Russian campaign working undercover for the evil Russian colonel who’s part of the secret warmongering conspiracy, and the main viewpoint character of the Russian campaign is a Polish guy who’s undercover (and who just so happens to be Anna’s brother, something which has nothing to do with Anna’s involvement in the rest of the plot – it’s pure coincidence).
So they spend three missions on exposition to establish the multinational conspiracy, which wreaks havoc with the pace of the Russian campaign and gives us the single worst mission in the entire game, and then the villains are 80% Russian anyway. The Russian campaign in particular goes out of its way to portray the Russian rank-and-file as decent people, and there’s a civil WarCraft mission near the end where the Russian good guys fight the Colonel Zubov, the pawn of the warmongering international conspiracy, so clearly they wanted the Ace Combat 5 thing where no specific nation is the bad guys, but they, uh, did not stick the landing on that.
It’s from the Scythe guys, so if you’ve seen artwork of a giant mech walking past some early 20th century Polish peasants, it’s them. The functional top-down perspective of the RTS really doesn’t capture the very human perspective of the art, but it’s all rendered very well given the limitation that the camera needs to be a somewhat distant bird’s eye view. I really want to see some kind of human-scale perspective video game in this setting to really bring that art to life, a first-person shooter or third-person RPG or something, but the aesthetic definitely survives in bird eye view, even if it gets downgraded from breathtaking to just pretty cool.
The gameplay is solid, but unexceptional. It’s one of those RTS’s where you capture resource points and they give you resources automatically, although it has iron and oil as separate resources rather than a generic “influence” resource like most resource-point games have. You can upgrade resource extraction buildings after you capture them, and they remain upgraded if the enemy captures them from you (and vice-versa).
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