EA SCOUT the last line of defense for buying on Steam's Early Access
by Jordan Helsley
previewed on PC
Before video games proliferated our lives, many of us knew the value of spending hours on end playing with plastic toys. Action figures, dolls, cars, whatever they were, we'd make stories, set up action set pieces, and dance the little figures around in one-of-a-kind theatrical plays. Toy Tactics is an RTS game that attempts to capture a sliver of that magic.
Saturday Morning Tactics
Toy Tactics shares a theme with quite a few other games trying to capture this playtime feeling. Unlike its contemporaries, though, it is doing so with a more minimalistic art style. Instead of green army men or articulating action figures waging war, the units here hop around in something more akin to Fisher Price's Little People: legless and armless (albeit with floating hands) with armour and weapon pieces that feel snapped on. Every basic unit gives the impression they were made from the same mould, and the world around them feels very "imaginary battlefield diorama". While there is not much detail even when zooming the camera in, and you can get in there, the simplistic nature of the art works in its favour.
Much like the fights we would wage with our toys of yesteryear, things quickly devolve into chaos. There's an overarching system of physics governing the game, and it really goes wild when two armies smash into each other. It's cartoonish and fun because the consequences are light. A squad of five units could see one of its members stranded across the map due to an errant swing from their (much larger in scale) hero units, only to be reunited shortly after when he wobbles back into formation.
Seriously Playful Tactics
The whimsy of these physics, while inconsequential, captures the imagination of playing out meticulously planned battles, but the beauty really does come in the planning. Toy Tactics sets itself apart from other real-time strategy games with its formation drawing: a unique micromanagement system I immediately want to see become the mainstream in some way. The idea is simple: you have a group of, say, 10 archers in a line. You can draw a new formation for them in any way you see fit, a V-formation, a swirl, a phallic analogue, or perhaps a big circle. Want to split them into two groups? Draw two lines, and so on. It takes some getting used to, but the end result is much more elegant than just about any RTS on the market. It combines micro and macro unit position in an intelligent way, and makes the war more engaging.
The system breaks down a little bit when trying to join two formations into one. The game accommodates this, but I didn't have much success making it work. The developers were smart (and nodding again to the way kids play) to add a pause button, taking any time pressure off of formation management, but I think unit selection could still use some tuning at this stage. The tried-and-true drag-to-select and ctrl-click methods would be welcome additions.
Those aren't the only RTS conventions you'll have to kick. Instead of clicking on a spot to move, you're positioning markers (in the formation you've drawn) by dragging them, and watching your little warriors hop to their destination, and only slightly more than occasionally getting caught on the landscape. You also have to select your battalions by either picking a formation, or selecting all of one unit type from a roster on the side of the UI. Innovation, especially in RTS games, is welcome, but it slows down the pacing a bit too much for my liking just to group up three swordsmen and five archers.
As inventive and generally well executed as the systems are, the intelligence of the game itself can't quite keep up. I encountered my fair share of early access bugs, but a lot of my struggles might be more than just glitchy code. Unit pathing needs work, though it was mostly fine. Several times I'd captured what were meant to be autonomous catapults, only to have them either do nothing, or simply firing in random directions. On a few occasions attempts to activate spells, abilities you pull out of nowhere like a kid who wants to spice up the fight, such as fire arrows from the sky or plopping down soldiers on a given spot, either never activated or the units that were just dropped in never moved. A few times, mostly during the tutorial, the game failed to register objective conditions and prevented me from progressing. These are mostly consistent with early access growing pains, but as of this publication they're issues to consider.
Playing To A Stalemate
Toy Tactics has quite a few cool ideas. It is an accessible RTS game with enough potential to change, and possibly help revitalize, a dated genre. If they continue to build on this solid foundation they'll be well on their way to accomplishing both of those goals. It is hard to recommend a game based on promise, though. Gameplay issues aside, there's just not quite enough length or variety in the campaign to make it a lengthy play for RTS veterans. It’s exactly what I would have wanted as an imaginative kid waging war on my bedroom carpet, but I may have set my sights a little too low.
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The game has potential, but we're not ready to jump in with both feet. If the game interests you, look, but don't touch - yet.