Posted on 16 Sep 2017 by Jay Shaw

Tooth and Tail

The Defence

Developer: Pocketwatch Games
Publisher: Pocketwatch Games
Genre: Indie, Strategy
Platform: Consoles, Mac, PC
Review copy: Yes
Release date: 12 Sep 2017

The Prosecution

Minimum
OS: Linux, Windows
CPU: Intel Core 2 Duo 2.0 GHz
AMD equivalent
VGA: Intel HD 3000
Nvidia equivalent
AMD equivalent
RAM: 2 GB
HDD: 2 GB
DirectX: 11
Controller: Full
Mod Support: Yes
VR: No
FOV Slider: No
FPS Lock: 120+

The Case

Tooth and Tail is the story of cute animals doing horrible things to each other. Sadly it’s not narrated by David Attenborough but that doesn’t stop it from having Animals Of Farthing Wood levels of brutality between furry, scaly, and feathered creatures. You’ll command a horde of put-upon allies to war and beyond. But is it any good?

The Trial

Tooth and Tail‘s most striking aspect, the art, may be the most off-putting thing to the average consumer. Anthropomorphic animals have become entwined with the much misunderstood furry subculture to such a degree that it’s easy to assume anything with anthropomorphic animals is a weird sex thing. As a member of that subculture, let me tell you it most certainly isn’t. Tooth and Tail tells the story of a revolution by the working classes against the corrupt and decadent nobles. There’s no room for softness except in a pistol-toting squirrel’s tail.

The story kicks off with your character, an impoverished farmer, losing his son. The son was literally eaten by the bourgeoisie and you swear revenge upon them. One death becomes the spark that ignites the latent hatred in everyone’s hearts into the fires of anger, and then literal fires of revolution. There are multiple factions in play; the poor blue coats who you start out with, their allies the underground fighters of the red coats, the “secret police” style green coats, and the affluent yellow coats. Each with their own selection of units and tactics. Overall though the story has strong tones of the Russian revolution of the early twentieth century.

Not a question you'll be asking often.

The gameplay is just as deep as the story. It’s easy to assume a “zerg ball” will suffice in any RTS, and it often does but Tooth and Tail shines in making the use of small numbers of troops to maximum effect. Each faction has their own units but they generally fall into a few categories; anti-infantry, anti-air, anti-building, etc. Their differences come from how they go about their tasks – the blue coats prefer deploying mid-ranged fighters backed by a flamethrower toting boar and mortars, meanwhile the red coats prefer guerrilla style strikes from stealth capable chameleons followed by heavier club wielding lizards.

You’ll command your troops and build via a single leader. You only have direct control over this single unit and must move around the battlefield to give orders or build structures. Your leader is both your scout and cursor. Typically these flag waving commanders are capable of taking a bit more of a beating than a standard unit and regenerate their health once safe but if they die they’re forced to choose a gristmill, your bases, to respawn at. Needlessly throwing your commander to their death won’t cost you anything but the enemy will certainly take advantage of your time unable to give orders. Your orders are simple – you have two buttons, one to call your whole army and one to call your currently selected unit. You don’t command individuals but rather all units of a single type at once, this works well because typically you’ll only have two or three different unit types at your disposal per mission and numbers are small enough that you’ll want to commit all your forces to each attack.

A typical fight will play out with you spotting the enemy with your commander. At this point you use the rock-paper-scissors type unit relations to decide what to send in. Let’s say you’ve encountered a mixed force of owls and club wielding lizards. Your anti-air isn’t going to last long against the lizards, but the owls will shred your anti-infantry units. So you take command, ordering your mortars to a safe position nearby while you take a flamethrower boar and your anti-air in. You command the boar to target the group of lizards and switch to the anti-air units, using the single unit command button you move the commander up to the owls and hold the button down to focus your unit’s fire on each of them one at a time. The boar is almost dead but your mortars are dispatching the badly hurt lizards with ease now and your surviving anti-air are free to join in with general fire on the remaining lizards.

Says the guy hiding in the toilet for several missions.

These small scale skirmishes make up the majority of Tooth and Tail‘s combat. Occasionally you’ll be defending your position or attacking an enemy position but the principal is the same, find the weakness and formulate a plan quickly to exploit it. Sometimes you just won’t have the units to win a particular fight but retreat isn’t a failure, falling back to preserve your food (used for building new units and structures) so you can build a new warren to spawn more units can be a good strategy. Your warrens aren’t your most important structures though: gristmills make up the core of your bases, each has an area around it in which you can build warrens and defensive machine-gun turrets and also eight farm plots arranged around the gristmill building itself. Farms provide you with food and are lightly defended by pig farmers, losing these will stifle your ability to reinforce and expand but isn’t the end of the world. Gristmills can be destroyed and captured, a good assault may see your base moving from the corner of the map to right on the enemy doorstep. Or you may choose to take several gristmills and use your commander’s burrow ability to fast travel between them to coordinate a more widespread strategy.

Between missions you’ll be wandering around various headquarters and hide-outs. You’ll talk to your units, supporters, and investigate interesting bits and bobs for backstory and information. The characters are well written and for the most part likeable. Interactions however are brief and though you get a quick idea of the personalities of each person you never really get to know them. There were a few characters I wanted to know more about but generally what you get is enough, wouldn’t want to get too attached to the horde of ferrets you’re going to send to their deaths in the next mission. Usually there’s only one mission available at a time, completing them will unlock another area of the hide-out and another mission as well as more things to inspect and people to talk to. It sounds minor but there’s enough charm in the environments to make you want to get into the new areas and see what’s going off.

There’s a solid amount of replay value in the campaign too. Each map is randomly generated, this also helps with difficulty, for example you may struggle to defend your initial point but retry the mission and you may get a more advantageous position. The situation is never hopeless though, the random generation doesn’t give you unwinnable maps. Time of day and weather conditions are similarly varied but don’t do much to affect gameplay, fog and sandstorms will limit visibility and can open up ambush tactics via long range units using the commander’s vision area to attack unsuspecting enemies. The maps themselves are fairly basic, there’s only a handful of features – hills, rocks, trees, water – but they’re competent and thanks to the unique command and tactical structure of the game, work well. Going back to the mortar example – you could hide your mortars on the other side of a hill from the enemy and place your commander atop the hill to spot the enemy so your units can fire from safety. Terrain and vision areas play a large part in strategy and evading combat or initiating ambushes.

They'll feast on angry Rabbi mouse and SS Rat's minions. Seriously.

Other modes round out the package: split screen coop, skirmishes, and multiplayer ranked and unranked are all options. In these additional modes you can choose to build your own army free of the story mode restrictions. Each match lets you pick a commander and six units from the fairly large selection. You’ll have to take cost, build times, number of units per warren, offence and defence into account. All the units synergise with each other fairly well while some work excellently on their own. Kasha the sniper is especially effective if left alone somewhere to pick off enemy patrols while snakes with their poison spit can be excellent for a sneaky suicide strike on an enemy warren to thin out enemy forces. Even more-so than in the story you have to be aware of your farms and territory; over time farms go fallow, they stop producing and that plot of land is ruined for the rest of the match. Unwise decisions and cowering in a single gristmill will rapidly deplete your supplies and leave you vulnerable to the enemy. When playing against the AI even the easy one can give you a run for your money with the additional hurdles this mode adds.

The Verdict

Tooth and Tail is a unique strategy game and plays equally well with a keyboard and mouse, or gamepad (which I actually preferred) thanks to its novel commander mechanic. The unit list may only be about 20 strong but there’s plenty of variance in each of them to make every one distinct and interesting. It’s not perfect however, sound design is forgettable and due to the speed of combat you can have lost a considerable amount before being able to respond to an attack alert. Farms go fallow a little too quickly to make defensive measures worthwhile in multiplayer too.

Overall Tooth and Tail gets by thanks to a fairly strong campaign mode and stand-out gameplay that makes the RTS more accessible and perhaps more appealing to non-RTS players. Personally, I wholeheartedly recommend it but it isn’t for everyone. There’s still some room for improvement but the potential of a Tooth and Tail series is evident – my imagination is already running wild envisioning the developers applying this kind of twist to other conflicts.

Case Review

  • Fly Your Flag: Direct control of a commander makes giving orders to units a cinch and eliminates the need for accuracy with a mouse.

  • Mouse on a Spike: Though not bloody, the conflict is brutal. It opens with a dead, cannibalized child and escalates from there.

  • Fall In: Units are all unique and interesting to use. An inventive commander can use unit combinations to devastating effect fairly easily.

  • Replay: Randomly generated maps, even in the campaign, provide a decent amount of replayability.

  • Mixed Appeal: The anthropomorphic animals murdering each other thing won’t appeal to everyone.

  • Limitations: A defensive “turtling” strategy isn’t an option and players who prefer that style will be left out in the cold.

4 Score: 4/5
Even non-RTS fans don't need to turn tail and run from this one.

Evidence

  • Graphics: Options are basic. Resolution, windowed/fullscreen mode, vertical sync toggle, and a simple quality selection via a drop-down box. They're not the best but the game runs very well on moderate hardware. The pixel art graphics aren't particularly demanding and some nifty use of lighting and transparency effects adds depth and detail.
  • Audio: Just two volume sliders. Sound design is competent but nothing amazing, you won't really miss much if you turn the volume down.
  • Controls: Fully customizable via a rebinding menu, even for gamepad controls. The defaults are fairly good and the game is very playable no matter what input method you use. If you so choose, you could play exclusively with the keyboard as the mouse cursor itself isn't used at all during gameplay.
4 Score: 4/5

Watership Down, Animal Farm, stories that are classics because they address issues like freedom, oppression, politics, murder, and hope. They do it in a way that is understandable, even for kids (warning, they are not suitable for kids), and that’s exactly what Tooth and Tail is.

The meat of the gameplay in Tooth and Tail is a very simple base/resource based RTS. The resource is meat (or food,) the losers get eaten. You need to build and you need enough food to feed your troops or they starve. New warrens can also be built to expand your troops. Your leader is your cursor, telling your troops what to build and what to attack. This lends the game a singleness of purpose that fits in well with the story (the revolutionaries become so obsessed with one thing [revenge], that they lose sight of what’s important: freedom, justice, love). It’s an unusual method of controlling an RTS, but a very clever one that works well.There are a handful of basic unit types, light, artillery, heavy, etc. and they’re all made more interesting because they are all animals. Really, the idea to use animals, to tell the story of the Russian revolution was genius, it just conveys the idea of losing their innocence in their journey to become “civilised.”

The artwork throughout is incredible, the story is captivating, tragic, and disturbing but Tooth and Tail is not a long game, and its strategic depth is about on par with a Ladybird book. That said, I enjoyed Tooth and Tail far more than I was expecting too. Seize the means of production comrades!

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