Tails of Iron
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 Hollowknight 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.