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Tooth and Tail review

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Tooth and Tail is a deft and minimalist RTS that's slick as a knife through the ribs.

At a glance, Monaco developer Pocketwatch Games' new real-time strategy game Tooth and Tail can look a little twee. Mice in uniforms, drunk squirrels, a flamethrower-wielding hog who calls himself Uncle Butter, hulking owls that will sometimes regurgitate the repentant for one final battle in the name of the cause. Say what?

Yeah, you heard me.

Tooth and Tail is one of those games. On one hand, you've got pigs in dresses. On the other, you have whiskered mice, their hearts broken by the consumption of their sons, wondering if an appreciation of art might help marble a porcine belly. The game isn't shy about exploring its own conceits. A civil war has broken out and everyone's literally out for blood, bone, and the best cuts of beast. Although nothing's explicitly gory, Tooth and Tail makes enough overtures towards the subject to make for an uneasy experience.

But I'll get back to that later.

Pocketwatch Games' latest title is a slick, stripped-down RTS that eschews many of the genre's complexities in favor of - ha! - pocket-sized fun. The procedurally generated maps are small, easily navigable, and the controls are straightforward. While it's possible to get clever and remap the key bindings, the factory settings work just fine, even if you're stuck with a keyboard and trackpad.

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Part of this has to do with the fact that all the action's pretty much centered around your flag-touting leader unit. You interact with the troops with the right mouse-button. A click will rally soldiers to your position, regardless of where they might be located. Hold the button down and they'll either retreat to you or focus their attention on whatever enemy you might be standing beside. You can also segregate your units, decide if you need a battalion of chameleons or an onslaught of cannon-bearing ferrets.

Or you can just march a horde across the map like I do.

Like everything else with Tooth and Tail, resource management in the game is a spare affair, revolving around - you guessed it!- the handling of food. Gristmills must be conquered in order to have access to farms, which inevitably go fallow after a few harvests, leaving you in need for more conquests. It also applies a kind of pressure onto the player, demanding, without the use of explicit time limits, that you think fast.

I wish I could tell you that Tooth and Tail appealed to me as a sophisticated veteran of the genre because I am, like everyone else who grew up in the era, technically a cognoscenti. But the truth is that I sucked at real-time strategy games, a fact that Tooth and Tail gleefully drove home. But even a pleb can appreciate the artistry of a six-tier smorsgatarta, and I can just about see how it all fits.

If you're smart, you'll know how to layer your troops. Have the squirrels take out the aerial units, while the moles tear down the buildings; keep your fox-sniper at maximum range so as to ensure she can pick off high-value targets without any risk to herself; build bullet hives in sight of your warrens to keep enemies from destroying your infantry before they can be conceived. (I assume that's what happening in those bolt holes.)

There is a lot of potential for subtlety, streamlined and simplified for a game that isn't meant to take all day. Unfortunately, I couldn't get anyone to tackle multiplayer with me and could only party with the AI which, much to my chagrin, remains the superior opponent. However, I'm actually eager to embarrass myself in the company of others. Unlike with the single-player campaign, multiplayer allows you to pick six unit types in any combination from the available roster, leaving room for shenanigans.

So, does this all mean I enjoyed myself? Yes. Incredibly so. I might not have been whooping with glee, convinced of the quality of my cognitive acrobatics, but I fist-pumped at every victory. Every win was a cause for grim rapture. Tooth and Tail kicked my teeth in and had me marching back in for seconds.

It helps that the single-player campaign, which involves you playing as one faction and then another, is happily replete with variety. While some maps involve more traditional skirmishes, others will ask you to accomplish deeds like amass an army of freed prisoners, scavenge food from the enemy stronghold as your legions grow, or, quite simply, survive.

Now, for an entirely subjective opinion: the difficulty scaling felt uneven. Some levels were easier than others, some heroic victory conditions more straightforward. The lack of consistency caught me off-guard a few times; I'm still bashing my head against one of the levels. It might prove appallingly easy for you, however, because again, I sucked at this.

Despite all that, however, I relished Tooth and Tail. It didn't quite resonate with me the way that Monaco did, but it charmed me, anyway. Pocketwatch Games' new title positively drips character. Every mission hub is festooned with animals going about their lives. Eating, drinking, arguing, queueing for meals, soaking the heat of the fire as they wait for the Harvest of their fellows. You can talk to just about every second fuzzy-tailed thing you meet. The music's jaunty, the dialogue is smart, and the pixel art really does help provide an unnerving contrast to the content.

Part Watership Down, part Animal Farm, part parody of everything that is sacrosanct about Saturday morning cartoons, Tooth and Tail is a thing of meticulously engineered beauty.

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