September 23, 2017 11:00 AM
By: Alec Blouin
There’s a story, possibly just a legend by now, of a time when a real-time strategy game was ridiculously popular on a console release. This was a magical time before Windows, where early genre examples like Dune II were just as likely to be played on consoles as they were on an MS-DOS PC. Once the RTS moved beyond its infancy with the release of Red Alert, it became commonplace to have the multifaceted and versatile control interface of simply clicking on the units you wished to move around the battlefield using a mouse and keyboard. After years of development, RTS games releasing console versions have largely been a joke. This isn’t to say that PC is superior so much as that the games were seemingly designed without joysticks in mind. Even Halo Wars, a game made entirely for the Xbox console, suffers from utilizing a mouse and keyboard approach. Simplifying the units or changing how you might click and move them still doesn’t address the fact that simply using a mouse is far faster.
Along comes Tooth and Tail, changing the idea of how an RTS operates down to its very core. Tooth and Tail has turned the idea of a console RTS on its head, creating a wild tapestry of excellent gameplay and aesthetics into something ridiculously accessible to even someone who might be wholly unfamiliar with what an RTS is.
Tooth and Tail is a fast-paced and hectic RTS game with the same speed you may find in Starcraft, but it works even better with a console controller than it does with a mouse and keyboard. The developers tried a new formula to replace the old system of clicking on a group of units and moving them from one place to another by replacing the cursor entirely. Now, instead of a cursor, you control a character on the screen. You can build the army you play, you could find a spunky mouse girl as your avatar, traversing the battlefield with only a proud banner in your paws, directing your troops with the cry and wave of your courageous presence. No matter the appearance, your cursor is a flag carrier who commands troops around the battlefield, moving quickly in a variety of ways to scout and determine the best areas to attack. Your avatar chooses the locations of production buildings, resource harvesting, and claiming new territory, while also revealing the map and commanding groups of your army. While this has been tried before in Brutal Legend, that game was unfortunately not well advertised as the RTS it was, and its enthusiastic fanbase is rather small.
At the beginning of a multiplayer game, you can choose the makeup of your army. This can be battalions of snakes backed up by a minigun-wielding badger, or a troupe or healing pigeons that fly around the map with an owl that coughs up zombie mice. There are 15 units to choose from in whatever combination you like, with each ranked in three tiers that represent the drain to resources they’ll represent. Along with the troops, you may also choose a few static defenses to help hold off enemies until you can arrive with your battle groups. This is doubly interesting when factoring in the game’s splitscreen options. If you thought screenlooking was an issue in FPS games, you will not believe how much it impacts an RTS.
Once in the match, you’ll be met with a view of your main resource building in Tooth and Tail: pigs working in a grist mill. You’re able to expand the farms surrounding your production structure, which is creating meat to feed your army (a particularly grisly process), which you then use to build production structures and defenses. When a production structure is built, it uses a little more meat to build a soldier automatically, which pops out of the structure after a timer counts down. Larger and more powerful units take more meat and more time to produce, and if you find yourself with more of a drain on resources than you can currently support you’ll start to starve, at which point you’ll have to sell structures or flat out lose the game entirely.
All these actions are done by your cursor, the avatar and army leader you choose at the beginning of the game. You can move around using the keyboard, hitting appropriate buttons to place a building or clicking in order to command your troops, flicking through the different groups you may command by smacking the right keys, or you can skip all the hubbub and just use a controller. The two pads I used worked spectacularly well, and in fact felt far more intuitive and responsive. I was easily sailing around the map placing my mortar-carrying ferrets on the high hills and surging forward with a battalion of marksman squirrels to assault an enemy base with all the ease I could order troops around with a mouse in Starcraft. The lack of individual control over particular troops might also mean you lose important units because your healers were busy patching up one of your farmers instead of your flamethrowing boar soldier. These are minor complaints that tend to build up over a couple of games in a row, and some careful maneuvering can overcome some of this problem, but it can never be eliminated, especially in the heat of battle.
The pace never slows, either. As you’re scouting and building, so is the enemy. In mouse-based RTS games you were able to click on a minimap in order to instantly move the screen around, but in Tooth and Tail, this is done by your avatar digging into the earth in order to teleport around. The maps are small and intimate, so even running from one point to another is usually not much of an issue. The only problems I had with traversal is if the randomly generated maps happen to be particularly vindictive. Indeed, every single map is random. If you play the campaign, you’ll find that replaying the mission doesn’t get easier because you’ve memorized the best places to build some machine gun nests. Every attempt at completing a mission you might have played a dozen times before is new and fresh because now there could be impassable walls limiting your ability to easily assault with firecracker frogs.
The campaigns follow the different factions and their individual pursuits, which largely revolve around attempting to not starve to death. Food, particularly meat, is the issue that’s being fought over. This eternal conflict is not so much about who gets to own the farms so much as which side gets to be the food. If you lead your army to failure, you’ve sentenced all those troops to being consumed by the opposition, and somehow that feels far worse than simply losing to the Russian armies of other RTS games. In between each mission, you get to explore that faction’s headquarters, talking to random soldiers to see what they might think of the situation (spoiler alert, most of them just want food), and this is how you choose what mission will be next.
Every unit, every level, every voice line, and every chord of the music is focused on a single, particular aesthetic. If Animal Farm had been mixed with All Quiet on the Western Front, this would be the result. War is hell, and these animals are both the reason and the solution but have no choice but to be caught in a conflict they’d rather not have to deal with. Along with the victorious chants of strong voices comes the lilting trills of sorrowful fiddles. Every soldier you speak to could be food after the next skirmish, and you actually begin to feel for them, despite the darkly humorous setting. The made-up language that the plethora of characters use sounds a lot like Russian to me, though I’m not experienced with Russian enough to say this is true for anyone else. Still, the fictional phonetics lend to the fantasy World War 1 tone, along with every other element, and the voice actors for this animal Simlish are phenomenal. The design of each sprite makes Tooth and Tail almost feel like a 3D game, despite the obvious 2D design. The shadows of clouds passing over your grist mills, the fire of your burning fields, the light from your machine guns all change the environmental and character lighting to a degree that borders on hypnotic.
Tooth and Tail not only delivers on a promise to forge an engaging campaign and an even more riveting multiplayer founded on the ability to think quickly in potentially inhospitable, unknown environments, it delivers and tone and setting. It delivers on mechanics and gameplay. It just delivers. It’s a bite-sized RTS with a great aftertaste that will keep you coming back. The grisly and dark tones may not be as family friendly as a video game about funny talking animals might seem, and it’s shocking from the start when you see skunks choking suicidal troops to death with mustard gas. These are the horrors of war, and it seems a little more impactful than even other games that might show gratuitous amounts of human death throughout the game. These are, after all, characters similar to those you might have seen on TV shows or in your books while you were growing up brutally murdering and then eating each other.
One of the larger problems with Tooth and Tail is the AI. One or two troops may be fighting for their lives against an army while the rest hang out, likely talking about how they’re close to starving. You’re forced to constantly watch over them, which, despite the interesting ways of bypassing the fact that your cursor isn’t as fast as a normal mouse click can be, you’re still not able to reach the people who need a good slapping to get them into the fight before they’re already dead. You can finally get to an outer territory from claiming a couple extra farms deep in your lands only to find all your troops clumped up and did stupid things which got them all killed.
Yet Tooth and Tail inspires the hope and fear you’re meant to experience in anything trying to mimic the sensation of the first world war, and with the subject material of talking animals, it’s usually difficult to pull this off while also making an excellent, accessible RTS game with the replayability you’d expect from a much larger production. This is a must-have for fans of the strategy genre, especially if you prefer faster-paced, micro-intensive games. This isn’t simplified so much as streamlined, a distinction that’s very difficult to make, but is exemplified in Tooth and Tail‘s ability to both tell a story and allow you to jump right into the action. Even if you don’t consider yourself a fan of the RTS genre, this might be an excellent choice of a game to dabble in, as it will undoubtedly test your ability to adapt to changing situations while not tearing you too far away from the idea of other third-person games. All things considered, Tooth and Tail is a game changer for how console RTS games should be looked at going forward.
Our Tooth and Tail review was conducted on PC via Steam using a controller with a copy provided by the developer. It is also available on PlayStation 4.
Tooth and Tail rebuilds the RTS genre with an easily accessible console-friendly design that retains the elements that make RTSs so much fun. Fast-paced gameplay, random maps, and a dark, humorous tale told not just in the campaign, but in the design of each unit. This is a step in the right direction over other bite-sized RTS games.
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