Tentacle Wars' stages contain embryos, little blobs that grow at a steady pace. It's quite nice watching them swell, their numbered hearts ticking upwards. But at some point, baby needs lebensraum. Depending on the distance, nuclei can attack each other, sending out barbed, undulating tentacles that lodge in each other's cell walls - as well as defending against whatever's incoming.
These are drawn-out wars where number-balancing and pincer movements are of equal importance, and despite the lack of any gore they're very unsettling. The way the tentacles battle against each other isn't especially bad, a head-to-head numbers battle. But watching an isolated embryo suddenly swarmed by its neighbours, a mass of greedy organic tentacles slamming into its body at the same time before it's inevitably transformed, feels more merciless than anything in Gears of War.
The basics of Tentacle Wars will be familiar to Galcon fans, though it operates in a different manner. As the embryos rest, their number builds up. The higher the number, the more powerful that embryo is in a fight, and the more tentacles it can send out (to a maximum of three). Fighting on more than one front weakens an embryo's power, and fighting straight against an embryo with a higher number will lead to defeat - eventually.
It's 'eventually' that's the key. Where Galcon's hoarding is followed by massive assaults, Tentacle Wars feels more like sumo. The weight in conflicts often shifts several times back and forth before coming down on either side, thanks to the ways you can shuttle power between embryos. As well as attacking with tentacles, for example, you can lodge them into your own embryos, creating powerful interconnected defences. These tentacles can then be lopped off, returning their numbers to whichever embryo needs them most - so if you have a big embryo next to a small one that's under attack, this quickly fatten it up.
The single-player mode, which currently stands at two worlds of 20 levels (with more 'coming soon'), does a great job of introducing the subtleties of Tentacle Wars' positional game. Many levels are basically puzzles, where initially counter-intuitive tactics prevail over what seems to be the obvious solution. There are great big barneys as well, but it's the long and quiet struggles you tend to remember, embryos deadlocked for minutes at a time before a sudden shift in weight brings it all crashing down.
Multiplayer is where the real fighting happens, with quick matchmaking and a player base of truly frightening capabilities. I'm pretty good at Galcon but win one in five games of Tentacle Wars on a good day, thanks largely to over-aggression paired with incompetence. It's merciless stuff, tempered only by the knowledge that it was your own fault (and next time you'll get the bastard). The only slight disappointment is the five maps, which are varied enough but after regular play become very familiar.
Tentacle Wars is a difficult one to get the rhythm of, havering between defence and attack, building up and knocking down. And that endpoint, when an embryo is finally exhausted and switches sides... beautiful and horrible. It's a mix of cool-headed number-crunching and white-hot finger-slashing, where confusing action with strategy can see your defences disappear in an instant. It's not quite unforgettable, but Tentacle Wars lodges somewhere in the brain's soft tissue.
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