It’s hard to get a real-time strategy game to work well with a controller, but even harder when you realize those who love the genre have preferred only mouse and keyboard basically since the genre’s inception. Throw that together with plucky 2D sprites in a setting filled with animal critters, and Pocketwatch Games’ Tooth and Tail should be an instant pass, or at best a niche oddity. However, it not only competently mashes the complexity of RTS controls into a smaller frame, but actually manages to make it feel dynamic and enjoyable with a joystick in hand.
At a glance, Tooth and Tail has all the features of a standard RTS, like resource generation and base management. Instead of frantically scrolling a cursor across the screen, you issue orders from one unit you control, akin to popular MOBAs like League of Legends. You can still control individual “types” of units by hot-swapping with the shoulder buttons, but there’s no need for micromanaging here.
That’s not to say the game is boring at all. In fact, stripped down to the essentials, every match and story mission feels fast and dynamic. Your commanding unit is the only one who can both scout and build, so you have to toe the fine line between searching for grist mills to expand your territory or creating new critters to defend your bases or help protect you while scouting. The camera remains fixed on you at all times, so there’s even less incentive to constantly manage every action.
Another major part of what keeps the game fresh is the randomized maps, which keep players from memorizing exact build patterns and using the same strategies repeatedly. Resources are finite, also, so sitting idle while your food supplies dwindle is a recipe for defeat (and a recurring theme throughout the story, no less). With four players, the map erupts into chaotic, frantic battles where the last man standing survived with just enough resources to squeak by.
You can certainly enjoy dozens of hours in the ridiculous campaign, although the game’s story doesn’t deliver on its promise of a mature, grounded Orwellian narrative. Though the setting is sobering – landing somewhere between the likes of Brian Jacques’ Redwall, George Orwell’s Animal Farm and Eastern Europe during World War I – the story isn’t nearly so bleak. The themes expressed are used to emphasize the dark humor of the atmosphere, which is fine since you will be distracted by trying to keep these cute little animal bastards alive during the campaign’s set of brutal final missions.
While the single-player campaign is meaty enough to sink your claws into, Tooth and Tail truly shines in multiplayer, which is its biggest flaw. You’ll never really get to touch on the its wonderfully simple-yet-complex systems until you’re up against another human opponent desperately fighting for scraps. The game won’t draw away hardcore RTS fans for too long, but Tooth and Tail certainly deserves a big nod for creating a controller-based RTS that’s silky smooth on the sticks and a blast to play.
This review is based on a retail copy of the game provided by the publisher.