Tooth and Tail Review: An Enjoyable Game with Mild Distemper
Pocketwatch Games -- the studio behind the cult hit Monaco -- recently launched its second game. Dubbed Tooth and Tail, it's a casual RTS with simplified features.
In Tooth and Tail, four animal factions are fighting for control over an important decision that will determine who gets eaten. With a cute art style and a story that's simultaneously grim yet lighthearted, there's a lot to love about this fresh take on the strategy genre. But unfortunately, the game falls back on itself hard in terms of RTS management.
Wheat is for Swine, Meat is for Animals
Tooth and Tail takes place in a world where civilized animals (excluding pigs) have decided that they would rather eat meat, and that all other foods are for Swine. These Swine are depicted mostly as unintelligent sources of meat -- and their only purpose is to survive until "harvest" and feed the other animals.
However, Swine isn't the only meat that this animal society eats. During hard times, religious Civilized faction, lead by Archimedes, controls a lottery that determines who gets eaten when the Swine aren't enough to sustain everyone. Recently, this lottery claimed the life of Bellafide's son -- which sparked a revolutionary fire that leads him to found the Longcoats faction with the intent to fight back against the Civilized.
Fighting alongside the Longcoats are the Commoners, lead by the beloved Hopper -- a hero to the everyanimal, who gave up her own arm so her people could eat. And fighting for the sake of ending the war are the KSR, led by a quartermaster who was pressed into the conflict.
An Interesting "Lite" RTS
Tooth and Tail is described as a "popcorn" RTS where you control your commander directly, and indirectly give orders to your units as you play. In the single-player campaign, you often have anywhere between 2-6 units to build or utilize depending on the mission itself and the faction. You'll also need to control Gristmills, the primary source of meat. In these Gristmills, your swine will fatten themselves up for the harvest. As the single-player campaign progresses, you'll play through each faction in the continuing war for meat and dominance.
An interesting feature in Tooth and Tail is that all maps, including the single-player story missions, are randomly generated. So playing through the campaign multiple times yields different maps with the same objectives.
Matches generally last 5-15 minutes, and your general strategy revolves around managing a single resource for meat while defending your own production buildings and attacking your opponents. You'll do this with a variety of units -- including drunken squirrels, self-exploding toads, medical pigeons, flamethrowing boars, and much more.
Multiplayer matches are relatively straightforward, with standard 1v1, 2v1, and 2v2 matches. Each player picks a limited number of units that they can use throughout the match, and then it sets off and plays out accordingly. Like the single-player campaign, these maps are randomized for maximum replayability.
One of Tooth and Tail's best qualities is undeniably its art style, from the vaguely retro in-game graphics to the charming artwork for the characters. The game was visually engaging, and the variety of environments because of the randomized maps went a long way in making sure things felt fresh most of the time.
Being a "popcorn" RTS also has its benefits, because you don't have to worry as much about time constraints if you want to sit down and play for a while. With most strategy games, you have to take a moment and decide whether or not you can dump two hours into an online match. But with the average Tooth and Tail match time being between 5-15 minutes of non-stop action, it's a great game to pick up and play for short intervals.
The meat of Tooth and Tail, however, is its simple control scheme and easy-to-learn mechanics. RTS games have a reputation for being hard to learn, and even harder to master (and rightfully so). But T&T doesn't suffer from this mechanical learning curve, so it allows newcomers to the genre to enjoy themselves just as much as veterans.
Multiple people can also play from the same computer at the same time. That's right -- Tooth and Tail is one of the few PC games that supports split screen. So cute animals murdering each other can be made even better with up to four friends in split screen couch co-op.
The Wrench in the Machine
Unfortunately Tooth and Tails' greatest feature is also its greatest drawback. Simplicity can be beneficial to a certain point, but has adverse effects when it's taken too far. And those familiar with the RTS genre might find that to be true for this game.
The game removes many of the unit control features that make RTS games enjoyable -- like complex unit pathing, patrols, direct unit control for precise orders, inability to split units of a single type into multiple groups, and many others. So there's no way to handle your Tooth and Tail unit in a granular, strategic way. You're forced to group all units of all types together, or every unit of a single type together. There is no middle ground. And the only orders you can give to these overreaching groups are "attack," "follow," or "stay".
The randomized maps are also a huge drawback when it comes to strategic development, in spite of the replay value they add. In the Steam description for Tooth and Tail, Pocketwatch Games describes these maps as follows:
"With procedurally generated maps and customizable factions, no two conflicts will be the same, forcing players to strategize rather than memorize."
While adaptability is definitely part of good strategizing, I believe that Tooth and Tail has taken it too far, while claiming it's something that it's not. In most cases, strategy has been outright replaced with adaptability in both single-player and multiplayer modes.
Eventually, you reach a point in the game where the difficulty of your encounters is not determined by your skill level or the AI's skill level, but by your randomly generated start position and your foes. There were multiple matches I played where the AI would get the high-ground advantage with hills that blocked my unit vision and gave them an angle to fire down on my units -- with no possibility of going around. In this case, "strategy" would have been using ranged units to overcome the obstacle, or simply moving to a new vantage point. However, the random maps don't lend themselves well to these actions in the single-player campaign. So instead, I had to slam dozens of units at an immovable wall.
This sort of gameplay doesn't encourage strategy or really even adaptability -- it just demands that you play into the few options that you have for approaching a situation, whether or not doing so makes any strategic sense. And of course, restarting a single-player match in hopes of getting a better randomized map isn't very strategic, either.
The procedural generation isn't as bad in multiplayer mode, since for the most part things seemed at least semi-symmetrical. However, I have had times where I've run into multiple choke points against enemy players with simply no way to overcome them due to how hills, bunkers, and line of sight works. These types of issues were further aggravated by my inability to issue complex orders to my units in order to compensate.
Verdict: A Little Flat, But Enjoyable
Despite it lacking in the strategic depth I'm used to (and fond of) in RTS games, I enjoyed my time with Tooth and Tail. The story was engaging, and the frantic pace the game sets right out of the game kept me immersed in its world. It's a solid game overall, in spite of a few minor misrepresentations in its marketing.
In spite of a few hangups, Tooth and Tail is a good casual RTS game for those who want some strategy but don't want learning a game to be a second job. If you're interested in Tooth and Tail, you can head over to Steam and pick it up for $19.99.
[Note: A copy of the game was provided by Pocketwatch for this review.]