You have to hand it to Signal Studios; they actually found a unique way of presenting World War I combat. While the Army Men and Lego series have taken some of the freshness out of living plastic figurines, Toy Soldiers’ authentic representation of kids playing with miniature troops makes interactive historical combat feel more harmless than usual. It’s surreal fun to see these plastic soldiers burst into bits after being shot, as is looking down from your fighter plane on the painted landscapes and cardboard backgrounds below. Also, it’s not another first-person shooter, which certainly helps.
And that leads into what makes Toy Soldiers doubly impressive: it’s a tower defense game that integrates shooter elements into its combat. The regular real-time strategy play of placing protective units on the map–like artillery, anti-aircraft, mortars, and flamethrowers—are all present, but Toy Soldiers also lets you take control of any these units at will. With two presses of a face button, you can embody an artillery unit and gun down onrushing enemy soldiers from a third-person shooter turret perspective. Doing so nets you combo bonuses, adding to the challenge of the fairly basic gunplay.
Unfortunately, the nature and limitations of some units doesn’t make for engaging third-person combat. The only three of the seven units worth wrangling are the artillery, anti-tank turret and snipers. While the tanks and fighter planes are fun to control initially, the novelty soon wears off, as you’ll find that a strong anti-air unit negates the need for fighter planes. The tank is also problematic, as leaving it for ten seconds causes it to explode and respawn at a base. Since later maps force you to use the tanks on stronger enemy units, this enforces micromanagement play between the strategy and the shooting. This constant juggling exposes a common problem for console-based real-time strategy games: analogue control of the camera. This ends up taking the focus away from strategic thinking and the complex battlefield, focusing more on clumsy mechanics that get in the way of the fun.
Toy Soldiers is at its best during boss fights, which display both fantastic creativity and ill-thought out design. When the giant Tsar tank thunders onto the screen–crushing everything in its path to the backdrop of the ominous, villainous wartime music–it’ll make each of your neck hairs stand up on end for sure. However, defeating the tank depends entirely on having the right units set up for it, and this can be very trial-and-error since you don’t really get much warning about its arrival. More pertinently, it doesn’t offer any warning about its path around the map before it ultimately heads for your toy box base and destroys it, which it will likely do without mercy on your first go. That would be fine, but losing your toy box forces you to start from the beginning of the level, facing the same enemy waves that you faced before. Since this leads to around fifteen minutes of repeated play, it feels unnecessarily punishing.
Of course, all of this is largely excusable because the single-player campaign constantly evolves and never really tires despite its limitations. The two-person multiplayer mode also presents a very efficient distraction, albeit one that can become quite protracted and cyclic. Toy Soldiers is definitely entertaining, and certainly novel enough to be worth giving a go. But, for all of its novelty, this unique real-time strategy hybrid could have possibly been much more.