Tails of Iron
UPDATE 30th November: Tails of Iron has received a large content update, which is now available to download. Rather than produce a separate piece, we have added our own DLC to the end of the review giving our thoughts on the new additions to the game. Feel free to read the full review, or if you prefer click here to jump straight to Tails of Iron Bloody Whiskers DLC. Our overall score of the game hasn’t changed, nor have we scored the additional content.
Tails of Iron Original Review: 17th September 2021
Tails of Iron is a game that proudly wears its influences on its sleeves. A story of a prince fighting to reclaim his father’s throne in a quasi-medieval kingdom of rats, this is Redwall by way of Dark Souls with a hefty draught of Hollow Knight mixed in, and all narrated by Geralt of Rivia himself. For a small studio to live up to such lauded inspirations is no easy task, but in keeping the scope limited and focus tight fellow Mancuinians at Odd Bug Studio have crafted an excellent new addition to the 2D soulslike genre.
At A Glance
|Positives||+ Solid, weighty soulslike combat|
|+ Great encounter design and boss fights|
|+ Evolving, detailed world to explore|
|Negatives||– No changing equipment mid-level|
|– Some equipment choices feel superfluous|
|– Overly punitive fall damage|
|Our Playtime||10 Hours|
|Available On||PS4, PS5, Nintendo Switch, PC, Xbox One, Xbox Series X/S|
The world and characters of Tails of Iron are introduced in a straightforward enough manner through an opening cinematic, and while it may lack the deep mystery and lore of Hallownest or Lordran, the game plays well to its strengths; namely an abundance of character and charm. The art and animation is a great mix of medieval woodcut, comic book and diorama, with fantastic attention to detail in the movements of the rats, frogs and other creatures who populate its grimdark fantasy world. The rats were based upon the real-life pets of the developers, and the fact this is clearly observable in their movements despite the (intentionally) stilted, cardboard cut-out style of the characters is really impressive. There’s no voice work, or even dialogue, but the characters are well defined through their design and movements; from your humble squire, burly older brothers and protagonist Redgi himself. The narration, from The Witcher’s gravelly-voiced Doug Cockle, is all played straight, as serious a fantasy as your Game of Thrones or what have you. That the cast is entirely made up of anthropomorphic woodland critters takes the edge off nicely, letting the setting work without feeling overly serious or oppressive.
There is an impressive amount of detail in the world, with plenty of clutter and detritus scattered among the ruins and wreckage. Despite that, the clear artwork and some good use of depth-of-field means that I didn’t find it hard to read or lose track of where I (or, more importantly, my enemies) were or what was going on. This is a game where the screenshots certainly show off the skill of the artists, but it really needs to be seen in motion to be fully appreciated. The environments develop throughout the game as well; the hub town and even surrounding countryside being devastated and rebuilt as the story progresses, an effect that really brings the world to life. There is a fair amount of backtracking, with sidequests taking you through old areas previously cleared, but the little changes in the levels and the story around them helped avoid the feeling of the developer being cheap with their assets.
Combat makes up the majority of the gameplay, and is an area where Tails of Iron really does shine. It takes the basic skill-set of a soulslike – basic attack, charge attack, block, dodge and roll, with secondary ranged abilities and heavy weapons coming later on. It gives a few options in terms of your loadout too – armour is a trade-off between dodge speed and damage soak, while for weapons this is attack speed and damage – and lets you have at it. Enemies come in several varieties, all clearly distinct from one another, with different attack patterns for you to learn and adapt to. It’s all quite workmanlike for the genre, but is solidly executed. Crucially, it is always clear what you should do in a situation, even if in the moment you do something… else. Tails of Iron passes that most critical of soulslike tests in that even in defeat it feels fair. You died because you rolled instead of parrying. You blocked instead of dodging. You ignored the flanking attack to try and get in an extra hit. It can absolutely be frustrating, but it is so because you can almost always see exactly what you did wrong, and know what you should have done instead.
Just in case the many Dark Souls references haven’t made it clear, Tails of Iron is not an easy game, though I think it is more of a soulslite than a true soulslike. Benches on which to save your progress are well placed, so you won’t find yourself repeating long boss runs after each death, and there is no loss of currency or other penalty upon dying either. Thankfully, the time between Redgi being squashed under a frog-general’s mace and Redgi stepping back into the arena is mercifully short. That said, there are also no levelling-up mechanics here, so no options to grind to better stats to help with a particular roadblock, and no multiplayer means no helpful co-op friends to summon in to lend a ghostly hand (though NPC allies will make appearances from time to time). If the world and setting appeal but the mere thought of the phrase “Git Gud” makes your teeth grind you may be better experiencing the game via a let’s play video or stream instead.
The encounter design itself is another interesting divergence from the genre. You’ll fight with groups of enemies in set arena-style encounters, more along the lines of a boss fight, rather than encountering them in the wild, as it were. Numbers are kept low, with usually only two or three enemies on screen at a time. Given the somewhat claustrophobic 2D plane on which you’ll fight this feels about right – with different types of attacks coming in from the left and right I was kept on my toes for each and every fight. Enemies will aggressively flank you, the archers in particular being foes you always need to keep an eye on, which keeps things tense in a format where you can only defend to either side, never both. It pushes you to be reactive and punishes complacency. The bosses come pretty thick and fast as well, with typically only a couple of regular encounters between each one, as well as some light exploration and story beats. I’m usually the type of player to prefer the exploration and regular enemies over bosses in this type of game, but with the regular encounters being structured as more set-piece fights they felt far more consistent with the main game design to me, and overall the pacing worked well.
For all that I’ve praised it, Tails of Iron is not without faults. One issue I had is that aside from the weapon chests you can’t change out your equipment in game. These chests are quite frequent, but it seemed an odd choice when having equipment that isn’t working for you can make some encounters far tougher than they otherwise need to be. I spent a while digging through menus, convinced I must be missing the option somewhere, before accepting that it just wasn’t there.
Equipment in general doesn’t seem to have as much of an impact as I’d maybe like either, with different armour especially not seeming to hugely impact Redgi’s ability to take a hit. The upside is that this does leave you freer than you might otherwise feel to pick what looks cool over min-maxing, but it does mean that this aspect of the game feels a little shallow. Weapon choices are much more impactful, though a lot of the variety in weapons within the three types (spear, axe and sword) is down to just weight and damage numbers, meaning some options are therefore simply objectively better than others. Personally, I’d rather see fewer, more meaningful choices in equipment than swapping things out regularly for a minor cosmetic change and small numbers-go-up boost, but your mileage may vary.
Another choice that seemed odd to me was the very low tolerance for falling damage. Falling damage is always a bit of an abstraction in games, with most protagonists being able to comfortably jump down from objects or buildings several times their own height, yet Redgi seemed to be the rare example of one who seemed worse at it than I, a decidedly sedentary human, would be in real life, taking damage from ledges barely higher than his whiskers. Google reliably informs me that real rats can happily fall about fifty feet without injury (well, maybe not happily), so this felt more than a little counterintuitive. I was frequently surprised to see Redgi taking damage from small hops down from ledges, even after several hours of play, and with health being a valuable resource it left me more than a little frustrated.
Lastly, while I found the Clanger-esque slide-whistle “voices” of the rats that accompany their delightful illustrated speech-bubble dialogues to be quite charming, my wife in the same room pretty quickly demanded I play the game with headphones.
Tails of Iron is a solid, confident entry to the genre. The tightly focused encounter design, meaty combat and enjoyable world-building and storytelling with adorable rodents who think they’re people, I didn’t find much not to like. The difficulty may be a turn-off for some, but the game keeps to the core soulslike tenet of playing fair and making sure that when you die (and you will die), you’ll know what you did wrong to bring it about. If you’re looking for a challenging, rich adventure then I’d highly recommend joining Redgi to reclaim his kingdom and his crown.
In the interest of full disclosure, the publisher provided VGamingNews with a copy of the game in order to conduct this review.
Tails Of Iron Bloody Whiskers DLC – 30th November
There is a place well-known to any observers of the soulslike genre so harrowing as to strike fear into the silent heart of the bravest chosen undead. A place that makes Blight Town, Deepnest or the backstreets of Yharnam seem as idyllic as Animal Crossing. I speak, of course, of the online comments thread of any article, video or ill-fated tweet that dares to raise the topic of difficulty options in the genre. And it is into this hellmouth that Odd Bug Studio’s 2021 2D soulslike Tails of Iron is daring to venture with its Bloody Whiskers DLC.
I should start by saying that this DLC pack is free, which I feel given the content is exactly the right price point. This is an expansion to the game that adds a few extra customisation options and a slightly sparse post-game tournament of additional boss-fights to the game. Nice, for sure, but I’d have felt a little stung if I’d paid for the addition. The other main change the DLC pack brings is the aforementioned difficulty options.
Personally I find myself on the side of the debate that considers difficulty options, at least in part, an accessibility option, and putting such things behind a paywall (which I’m sure has been done already somewhere in an industry with such an excellent moral compass as the gaming industry) is not a good look. I know that adding and balancing these options is extra work for the developer, and I think it’s a much better option to patch them in after the fact as Odd Bug have done here rather than save them for a paid expansion if they aren’t able to accommodate them in time for launch.
As for how they play? I’d still advise sticking to the default settings, to be honest. I played through a chunk of the game on the easy “Fairy Tail” option and found that the challenge was completely removed – I didn’t die a single time, and judging from the save-game timestamps was proceeding through the game about twice as fast as I did on the default difficulty. This does highlight a few issues with the game that I didn’t find much of an issue before – namely the amount of back-and-forth and backtracking the quests entail. Where every journey and every fight has the potential of a violent death I found this trekking around tense and enjoyable, while when even the boss fights were a fore-gone conclusion the whole process became a lot more tedious.
My advice would be to stick with the default difficulty – if you can beat the first couple of bosses then you can beat the rest of the game. Tails is still far less punishing than many soulslikes out there, with nothing but your time lost upon death and no lengthy boss-runs from the benches to get you back in the fight. The pacing and tone of the game work best when every step forwards is hard-earned. That said, if you find dying repeatedly frustrating, or struggle to get into the game then I’m glad this option exists. Tails has a beautifully crafted setting, amazing artwork, a great story and fun characters. If this game mode means that more people can experience that, then that can only be a good thing.
As for the harder Bloody Whiskers difficulty? Yeah, I didn’t get far with that. For all that I said about the challenge making the reward sweeter I’m no masochist. Some people, I’m sure, will relish this challenge, but I found it highlighted some of the imprecision in the controls a little too much (on the Switch version, at least), and some of the ‘unfairness’ of certain bosses’ tendency to effectively stun-lock Redgi. Your mileage may vary with that – I had similar control issues with the Switch version of Hollow Knight that I didn’t encounter at all when playing it on Playstation, so it may just be me.
Overall I’m delighted that Odd Bug are carrying on their support for Tails of Iron, which is easily one of my favourite games of 2021. I’m hopeful that this is a taster for a “proper” DLC giving some new levels and new story sometime in 2022 – something for which I’d gladly pay.