Review: Tooth and Tail20 Sep 2017 0
Review: Tooth and Tail
Released 12 Sep 2017
I’m sure I wasn’t alone in my first impression of Tooth and Tail being that it was committing heresy. Between console support; direct control of only a single character; cute animals and games lasting a maximum of twelve minutes; there's almost no end to the crimes of Pocketwatch Games.
Tooth and Tail nails its colours to the mast with its byline of “real-time strategy distilled”. Some games prevaricate over what they are trying to do. They attempt to appeal to a range of audiences. Usually, the result is that none of those audiences are fully satisfied. Tooth and Tail makes its aim clear and blimey does it get it right. The promise of a twelve minute game is fulfilled easily enough by making resources few and used up very rapidly. Run out? You have sixty seconds before you lose the game. Your standard strategy game forces combat more obliquely, with resources important, but not game-ending, for much of the contest. Tooth and Tail rams the importance of resources down your throat with the clock for your impending doom ticking fast.
More than any other strategy game, how you handle your resources matters in Tooth and Tail matters. Resources, of course, matter just as much in every other game. But the speed of Tooth and Tail make every mistake matter far more and hurt far more rapidly than your standard fifty minute long game. Despite its short length and unusual mechanics (more on that later), every component of a classic strategy game is present and important. Resource gathering, turtling, rushing, spam, fast T2; it’s all here. I would argue that anyone who wants to start to understand the essence of strategy of gaming, Tooth and Tail is the natural place to start. All excess fat has been stripped off the classic real time strategy model. With dynamics that take place over seconds rather than minutes, Tooth and Tail more than earns its title of: “real-time strategy distilled”.
Gameplay is disconcertingly simple. Players control a single character with their gamepad or WASD like something out of an RPG. Right click to order your minions to your position. Hold it down for them to follow you around or to focus down a target. Left click does the same thing, but for a single unit. Spacebar builds things. That’s it really. Micro is heavily reduced (unsurprisingly) and macro gameplay comes to the fore, something I approve of for a strategy game (it’s in the name). Choices must be made rapidly. Do you build a farm? Or will you build another building to produce units? Wait too long and the enemy has made their choice and is coming down hard on your outnumbered forces. Units build automatically, so you’d better be prepared to make sure you don’t lose them. A bad defeat is guaranteed to strangle your economy, to speak nothing of enemy knocking on your door.
The setup for Tooth and Tail is straightforward. In a fantasy world where Redwall has been merged with the Russian Revolution, four competing factions vie for victory in a bloody civil war. Whoever wins will feast. Whoever loses is the food. Those cute furry animals suddenly seem a whole lot less cute! It’s a very clever juxtaposition of theme that Pocketwatch has done. And it casts the “cute furry animals” in a whole new light. The game’s campaign follows the adventures of four characters, each representatives of one of the factions. Every side has a clear theme and real world analogue. The “Commonfolk”, with their glorious red banners are clearly the cute furry creature’s equivalent of the Bolsheviks. The “KSR” (nobody but the developers appear to know what “KSR” actually stands for) in their paramilitary uniforms are reminiscent of fascist movements. Whilst perhaps not to everyone’s tastes, the theme of Tooth and Tail provides excellent bits of colour to an experience that could become dangerously stagnant. The campaign itself, as is traditional these days, starts with simple tutorial missions, before transitioning to missions of ever increasing difficulty.
Tooth and Tail bills itself as a “popcorn RTS” for strategy veterans. Coming out of many of the multiplayer matches I’ve played in its ranked matchmaking, this reviewer begs to differ. Packing so much of the traditional RTS model into the space of, at most, twelve minutes, results of in a heady cocktail of adrenaline, as every decision you have made in a game piles up as the match comes down to a bloody finale. It begins right at the start. The player is presented with a choice of twenty-four units. Of those, they must choose six. Unit variation is good, although balance makes the choice of some units no-brainers unfortunately. Then there is the randomly generated map that the player is placed upon at the beginning of a game.
That particular element has copped some flak from players. The argument has some merit; there can and will be maps which clearly favour one player over another. In this reviewer’s opinion, however, the essence of strategy is being placed in a situation that might not be as favourable to you as it is the enemy and using the resources available to outthink, outsmart and outfight their opponent. Your mileage may vary, but it is my firm opinion that the random map is a positive step. In my own adventures in multiplayer, I believe I’ve lost as many favourable maps and I’ve won unfavourable ones – it balances out, and it forces the player out of their comfort zone, which is good in my book. Every battle genuinely feels different. In one, we’ll be struggling over a hill that commands the enemy’s base. In the next, we’ll be struggling through miserable swamps to try to contest a single scrap of dry land.
The greatest strength of the multiplayer is that it genuinely feels like a contest of wills, rather than merely the player pushing tanks or robots around. With the player only able to be in one place in one time, it’s possible to read the player’s intentions. Every time the enemy’s character pops up on the minimap, the player is forced to think: “why are they there, what are they plotting?” It makes for extremely tense gameplay. Victory, and the accumulated adrenaline, is an extremely potent drug. And defeat, after all, can always be blamed on the map or unit selection.
Multiplayer isn’t all roses however. The matchmaking pool is small, and the long wait times; especially for games which don’t last more than ten minutes normally, could easily turn players off. Many a time I’ve joined a queue, waited a while and then gone to play somewhere else. The only thing worse is when the matchmaker, desperately searching for another player, places you against someone who grossly outmatches you. On one occasion it happened that I was matched against the fourth highest ranked player in the world three times consecutively. To say it wasn’t much fun is an understatement. It isn’t unusual to be matched against the same players multiple times and it really hurts the fun factor when you find you’re beating (or being beaten by) the same player consistently. Bugs, such as being unable to confirm your character selection in multiplayer, can also crop up from time to time. This, naturally, makes the long queue times an even worse pill to swallow.
Tooth and Tail does what it sets out to do extremely well. Fast games, simple controls, quick action, it doesn’t bother with anything else because it just doesn’t need to. It’s reasonable that the game won’t be to everyone’s taste. Where are the grand coordinated pincer attacks and complex economies? Why can’t I direct my units individually? Tooth and Tail throws out a lot in its quest to cut strategy gaming to its essentials. But if one wants to get to the essence of strategy gaming, where every action matters and that action’s feedback is almost immediate, then I urge you to at least try it. It isn’t perfect, but its damn close. And for rapid fire action, few strategy games can beat Tooth and Tail.