There was a time when tower defense games reigned supreme. It was during a short period when I was far away from games, and when I would peer over the garden wall into the world of game culture, I would see that PC game players in particular were having a grand old time creating buildings and mowing down lines of enemies as they walked by. I was a fan of real-time strategy games in my even-more-youthful-youths, and when I merged back into the gaming universe I tried out some things like Defense Grid and found them unappealing. It was only with Orcs Must Die that the genre, or the parts of the genre that are barely represented in that title, really clicked with me, and I’ll admit my biases still center around that kind of play. I like my defenses strong and my action exciting. I want to build things that kill lots of enemies as I augment them to do that work even more efficiently.
Toy Soldiers: War Chest wants to have something for all of the fans of the myriad genres and subgenres of tower defense. Playing the game proceeds through selecting an army: WW1-era Germany, some Rainbow Brite-lite cuddly creatures, a fantasy army, and a few others that are variously either locked or just stuck behind various forms of paywalls (which I will get to in just a minute). DLC and the Hall of Fame Edition include He-Man, G.I. Joe and Cobra. You take that army to a battlefield and enemies spawn, making their way toward your fragile toy box. If too many enemies hit the toy box? Game over.
The so-boring-it-hurts playstyle of tower defense dominates these games. Wave after wave spawns, and the towers you place and upgrade are going to automatically fire at those enemies. These waves move at an unbearably slow pace, and the different types of towers you can build just lay into them constantly like there’s no tomorrow. For most of the game, this is enough.
However, Toy Soldiers: War Chest knows that this is not exciting. The only potential dynamic action in the top-down tactical view is knowing when to sell, rebuild or otherwise change your towers into better matchups for the enemies who are appearing, and this isn’t exactly twitchy go-for-gold fast pacing. It feels like a slog.
Toy Soldiers: War Chest tries to shore up the tactical tower defense with the ability to assume direct control of your towers. It isn’t just an option; very early in the game it becomes extremely necessary to begin micromanaging your bubble machine guns (or whatever the equivalent is) so that you can take out a series of enemies in a row. The game’s AI, while sufficient sometimes, just doesn’t quite know the exact button presses to lay the hammer down on invading toys. You grab the machine gun. You aim. You hold the button down. You wait.
It’s a waiting game all over, actually, even though it really wants you to embrace some kind of action. Beyond moving forward in the game, the real reward for direct control is the fact that you can build up energy that allows you to summon army-specific commanders or powers to shift the tower defense toward some kind of semblance of offense.
I mentioned Orcs Must Die above because I thought, for a mere instant, that Toy Soldiers: War Chest might have some of that kind of action. The first, and maybe the most useful, energy ability that you can deploy is a third-person-controlled toy figure who runs around the battlefield and does tactical operations. You have some limited powers alongside a weapon, and it’s an excellent break from the slow pace of the larger strategic experience of the game.
It’s nothing like the game of orc trapping. You only have access to your commander toy for a short amount of time, and more often than not your entire opportunity to use it is limited by the spawn times of enemy waves (despite the fact that you can trigger them at will once you’ve finished a previous wave). More often than not I felt like I had wasted my commander when I summoned it, and the later levels functionally required that I burn all of my commander time destroying enemy structures (rather than doing any proper fighting) so that I could survive future waves.
The act of playing Toy Soldiers: War Chest is a slow march through a swamp. The feeling that the game knows that its traditional tower defense mechanics are not exciting is palpable, and the qualities that it papers over those faults with are just insufficient to draw me in.
My final problem with the game actually has very little to do with the act of play at all. People often talk about Ubisoft games’ dependence on huge open worlds filled with things to do and towers to climb, but I hear far less about what I think is a worse practice: monetization strategies. Toy Soldiers: War Chest feels like it was designed to make you spend money on in-game store purchases. It’s the same old story: you need in-game currency to unlock objects to play with, and you get that currency by completing missions with sufficient ranks. However, you need to be sure that you’re buying those objects as time goes on (or unlocking them in booster packs at the ends of missions) because if you aren’t you might as well not bother. Nothing worse than not having the longest range of a gun unlocked because you forgot to spend your in-game currency on it.
It’s a system that seems balanced if you have infinite patience (I do) and really shady if you don’t. One could spend X amount of money at the very start of the game to purchase a lot of in-game currency and completely unlock the entire game. If you don’t, you might have a lot of item grinding to do. And you’ve gotta do one or the other, otherwise you might as well not bother with the reward-the-most-toys online versus modes (I did not have a good time there).
It’s not just the online mode: from play to unlock design, I did not have a good time with Toy Soldiers: War Chest. This anecdote might sum it up best: a friend back from a long trip watched me play a single mission. We sat in silence through interminable wave after wave, and about halfway through the hour-long mission he blurted out “why are you even playing this?” I didn’t have a good answer.
Toy Soldiers: War Chest was developed by Signal Studios and published by Ubisoft. It is available for the PlayStation 4, Xbox One and PC.
Cameron Kunzelman tweets at @ckunzelman and writes about games at thiscageisworms.com. His latest game, Epanalepsis, was released on May 21. It’s available on Steam.