Just two years ago, every review written of a game in the "Tower Defense" genre started off with a long description of how it worked. Now, there have been enough games with the same concept that the introductory explanation is able to be shortened from a long diatribe to a single sentence: players build defensive structures to prevent waves of opponents from reaching a location. It's an increasingly common premise, and one that's shared with a number of other games like Pixeljunk Monsters and Defense Grid. While it's part of a genre that has been growing exponentially as of recent, the latest entry in the genre, Toy Soldiers, manages to do a good job separating itself from the rest of its contemporaries with a unique setting and a number of gameplay elements that help make everything feel wholly fresh.
The reason that everything feels so new is because of the game's brilliant style, which has players defending a toy box from toy soldiers out of a World War I set. On an elaborate setup, the toys go to war, and the player needs to build gun emplacements to stop them. There are a number of different types to put down, each filling the basic role the genre calls for. The archetypal defense structures of anti-air guns, machine gun turrets, and basic splash damage weapons start the player off, while more are added as the game progresses. Eventually, giant cannons are taking down dozens of enemy units at once, and flamethrowers are scorching enemies as they attempt to crawl under player-placed barbed wire.
Each kill earns the player money, which can be spent to upgrade, repair, and build new buildings on pre-set spots. Separating the game from others is the ability to jump into any turret and control it, as well as being able to fly a number of different planes and control one of several tanks. While the turrets will fire on enemies themselves, vehicles and sniper towers must be controlled manually, which means doing a lot of micromanagement in the later levels. On that same note, even though the turrets will take shots at foes, they can benefit greatly from the player's help. It's possible to make precise shots that are impossible for the computer to pull off, adding to the hectic gameplay in a big way. Firing cannon shots allows the player to actually follow the shot and guide it to a perfect spot, something that never, ever gets old. To make things more complicated, enemy vehicles will also go out of their way to target players' buildings, so repairing and defending is much more important in Toy Soldiers than it normally is in other tower defense games.
For as interesting, unique, and fun as it can be, there are a number of issues that mar the experience. What starts off as a simple strategy game that anyone could jump into eventually rolls into something drastically more complex, with some of the later levels being so difficult that even the hardcore will have a problem beating them in one try. This can sometimes be chalked up to the controls simply not being perfect, though it's often just due to the game being more difficult than it needs to be. It adds replayability, that's for sure, but it's still an issue, and Toy Soldiers will likely end up leaving those trying to cruise through the singleplayer with a bad taste in their mouth. The palate can be cleansed with some multiplayer, adding much-needed legs to the experience, and offering some interesting battles where players need to play both offensively and defensively. Just as Introversion did with Darwinia, I hope to see the developers attempt to make a multiplayer-focused version of Toy Soldiers, because the concepts could do with some fleshing out, and there are some great ideas encapsulated in the game.
Stylistically, there are few games with as much charm as Toy Soldiers. The feel of playing with actual army men should throw some into a nostalgic coma, even if few remember playing around with tin World War I figures. It just gives the game a tangible feeling that sets it apart from just about everything else, which, when coupled with great sound effects and music, leads to an experience that stands out on the Xbox Live Arcade. There's even an option to throw a faked "tilt shift" camera on everything, further pushing the bounds and making the game a treat to look at.
All in all, it feels like the beginning of what might be a fantastic franchise. The flaws, albeit minor, amount to issues that take the game from a wonderful experience to just a good one, though it's without a doubt one of the most interesting games in its genre. A few fixes here and there and a larger multiplayer component can lead to a great sequel. For now, though, it's still worth checking out, if not just to relive childhood memories of large scale wars with small scale toys.