As a DM, I try to dabble into other systems whenever the time is being kind to me. While this is not often the case, Mouse Guard is one that I got to spend some evenings with and ended up loving. It contains a fascinating concept where you play as what the title implies and takes place in a civilisation that is similar to the humans take on the medieval period. However, what made me adore it besides taking on these small creatures’ perspective, is how much character development this setup offers. From the player creation to the actual sessions, Mouse Guard makes it difficult to not take it seriously. Because of my obsession with this TTRPG, I was very much intrigued when I saw Tails of Iron, as it reminded me a lot of it in style and tone. Was this a tale also worthy of my sleepless nights?
Storybook with pictures
The rats have been fighting off frog invasions for ages, until King Rattus one day united his kind under the same cause and drew these fiends away. Sadly, when the king started to grow old and weak, his kingdom became vulnerable and was once again attacked by Green Wart and his army. As his days are coming to an end, it is decided that the crown should go down to one of Rattus’s descendants. The youngest of them, being you.
This game’s plot is a simple one, and it never tries to play itself as something else than you trying to stop a dangerous war to take place. Although, the story tries to provide the player with strong moments of loss and people being brutally killed left and right. While there are charming characters to encounter, none of them contains any depth or stays long enough to leave any impact, making their deaths forgettable. The worldbuilding is similar to this; competent, but nothing more. There are intriguing locations that clearly have their functionalities in this society, like farms, markets, and an archery. Unfortunately, despite one neat twist towards the end, this kingdom is not exactly brimming with lore.
I do admire Tails of Iron for not trying to be deep, but rather solid in its setting and storytelling. Regrettably, this is also where this title falters harshly due to being uneven in its presentation and structure. To give an example: you have a narrator who tells what is occurring on the screen through nicely written monologues, giving this a fairytale vibe. Simultaneously, you have the creatures using speech bubbles with visuals to indicate what they are talking about, which is a cute way to showcase their conversations subtly. These are two ideas that work wonderfully alone, but combining them just overexplains obvious events.
Because of using these two ways to tell a small story, the developers break the atmosphere in half and turn it uncanny. Choosing one or the other would have enhanced a clear tone, but now it does not feel like a fairytale both adults and kids can enjoy, but instead a setup that is meant for minors to take in. Which an adventure featuring humanoid rats getting violently impaled and sliced into pieces by crude weapons, probably was not intended for. I still enjoy the concept that is being presented and the immersion can be effective, but the parts where the story is being forefronted became rather tiresome than endearing.
Story Score: 5/10
A bit on the rusty side
I hate how comparing something to Dark Souls is so overdone that it has become a joke, but there are clearly games that just use elements from that series as a marketing tool. By already stating this, you could probably tell that this goes for Tails of Iron as well. In this 2D metroidvania, you are set on a linear pathway where you are given clear objectives on what to do, with minimal issues to figure out on how to get to each new area. Exploration is in other words; barely present. Even with trinkets to find, the map is far from diverse or interestingly designed to make this even an adequate part of the journey. This world truly feels like an afterthought and it does not help that the minor upgrades for traversing are so underwhelming that might as well have been keys.
Unfortunately, this journey becomes worse with your character’s uncomfortable controls. The jumps are awkwardly stiff and there are some gaps that you can barely make. With how these leaps also carry your momentums, I was not surprised that I would fall and take damage multiple times. This I find aggravating, as there are parts where it would be simply quicker to jump down instead of taking a long way around. At the very least, you always lose a set amount of health regardless of how big the fall is, but the platforming is poor at best. It is also sad to see that the wall jumping and both vertical and horizontal climbing are so restricted that they feel like context-sensitive moments.
Furthermore, the fact that you have to use the analogue stick for movement is bizarre to me in a side-scroller. The combat is not much better due to this, but there are some commendable parts to it. You can dodge, hold a shield to defend and deflect attacks, and use two-handed and one-handed weapons with ease for quick swings or charged ones. All offensive moves use the shoulder buttons, and it is nice how this makes it easy to quickly jump between tools for destruction. I do question why you have such an interesting setup for the melee combat, while you just automatically target an enemy when shooting arrows, but I digress.
The foes come in a good variety as well, with clear prompts on what attacks should be deflected and which ones should be dodged. Some opponents will dig underneath to get a jump on you, others can fly around, and there are soldiers that have diverse sets of weapons on them. It is then a shame how uneven these battles can be in difficulty. Many of the fiends will be easy to take out soon after your first meeting with them thanks to the clear visual highlights on what type of attacks they are going to use, which are shared among all of them. Yellow for deflecting, red circle for avoiding the area around the enemy, and lighting red for dodging far away. Sure, you will be fighting multiple opponents simultaneously, but not with enough variety to make these encounters challenging.
I could also say similarly about the bosses, as they are all over the place in terms of difficulty too. A couple will have more diverse patterns and some will be more straightforward in their attacks, but never in a good structure to make the combat become progressively harder throughout the game. What I despise the most about these battles, is simply how drawn out they are. With long health bars that can take an eternity to take down with similar patterns to overcome, I got downright bored whenever I fought these big creatures.
Although, the combat can be entertaining from what it presents, as there are some solid aspects to it when taking on regular enemies. It is just unfortunate that the mechanics never become comfortable. Every move has your character leaping forward, including deflecting, which made it constantly seem like he glitched into making contact with an opponent. This was probably done to make sure you would be always able to hit your foes, but it just felt stiff and awkward. In fact, every motion is a struggle, which is annoying against enemies with faster movements. It also does not help that the arsenal to find is rather underwhelming.
You can equip helmets, armour for the torso, and shields, all coming in light, medium or heavy sets, affecting your general defence and resistance to certain types of fiends. This is a terrible idea, as you can only change your setup in chests and I found myself constantly stopping at them around the world just to put on suits that had better resistance for each area’s main opponents, making this needlessly tedious. I also never saw much difference in using the swords, axes or spears, both when it came to the one-handed or two-handed versions, as they are too similar to each other. Even the ranged weaponry I only swapped between depending on what ammo I had on standby. All of these should affect your character’s speed as well, but I never noticed this.
This take on an RPG setup is just bad, as you have to backtrack all the time to save points with objects for restocking ammo, equipping preferable armour, and refilling bottles of poison for coating your tools in. The only concept I somewhat like in terms of preparations, is the bug juice for healing. You can only carry one flask of it, but you decide on how much you drink from it by holding down a button and can only slowly walk as you do so. While you can refill it by finding barrels, you can also kill bugs and use their juice to fill it up. This is a wonderful design, as it makes the moments where you can only rely on defeated critters for gaining health back tense and exciting!
Sadly, this means little when there are so many annoying forms of padding in this game. For example, you have three different forms of currency in this universe; iron, scraps, and gold. The first two are easy to come by and I ended up buying everything the store had just by smashing barrels I came across. As for the coins, they can only be gathered through side quests that are all about killing creatures and you can only activate one at a time, making you constantly revisit the billboards for new missions. This awful backtracking is actually the main structure of this linear metroidvania, with even the fast travel points doing little to mitigate this issue.
I truly wonder what the original plans behind this project was, as Tails of Iron is not big enough to make exploration engaging. Just the aspect of gathering food for the chef to create a meal for extending your maximum HP is so easy to do, that this setup might as well have been replaced by traditional XP. Indeed, there is no form of levelling up in this RPG, as you only get materials from slaughtering regular foes. With how some fights are also mandatory, it can be repetitive when you end up seeing only a couple of enemy types for long stretches of the playthrough. At least the bosses can drop worthwhile items, but that is about it.
There are tons of other problems I have with this project, such as how buying poison is useless when you can restock them nearby for free, how bosses can deal tons of damage to make them arbitrarily difficult, and how picking up items needs a button to be pressed. However, Tails of Iron’s biggest fault lies in is its overall structure. It has no clue on how to make its linear world interesting or how to make its limited combat deep.
I believe it tried to go too far with unnecessary concepts. Removing the exploration for a simpler setup and taking out the excessive equipment for a more direct approach, could have turned this into a strong action title with a clear focus. Unfortunately, by containing mechanics that this game clearly was not designed for, it stabs itself in the foot while trying to run a marathon. There are some lovely ideas within, such as the flask for regaining health and the nice combat moves, but with the amount of backtracking and repetition this journey includes, I got easily annoyed.
Gameplay Score: 4/10
Artistic popup book
If there is anything in this project I can wholeheartedly appreciate, it has to be the visuals. Starting with its menu being shown as pages inside a book with old writings and impressive drawings, it all adds to a clear fairytale tone. This is expanded upon further within the cutscenes with gorgeous visual effects, before we get to the marvellous look of the in-game presentation that utilises the same hand-drawn art. There are so many incredible details within the multilayered backgrounds that convey a sense of scope to this land, be it the city being rebuilt by the inhabitants, the lush forest waving in the wind or the sewers with an uncomfortable stench!
All of the areas look like something from a popup book, fitting its use of 2D backgrounds. There is a healthy variety of naturalistic and constructed locations to witness, and they truly come alive from how much there is to see in the backgrounds, such as the buildings with rats in them or creatures living their daily lives. Everything is akin to the old medieval art style that used sharp edges for tapestry and paintings, providing a mesmerising immersion throughout.
I also admire how creatively the developers utilised the small creatures’ perspective alongside its medieval setting. Frogs live in the swamp and have a scary shaman, and the rats use bugs as farm animals, giving every place their own distinct culture that is presented through visual means. There are even more details to commend, like how every piece of equipment is shown on your character and how the stiff puppet movements offer a theatrical atmosphere. The combat is also easy to enjoy, as every hit feels deadly and fierce, with some finishing moves being gruesome!
While the audio is not as strong, it is still praiseworthy. The creatures talk in their own tone, with the rats using scrambles of a flute, the king sounding like a goose, and the frogs burling harshly, which is a lovely touch! Similarly goes for the music that uses varied medieval melodies focusing on guitar, drums, and flutes, with every piece being pleasant to listen to. They do not convey enough diverse notes to become memorable, but add to the atmosphere of each place nonetheless. Although, a special mention needs to go to the narrator, as his beautiful voice offers a serious tone to convey how dire some events are, but also has enough personality to give the lighter moments something to chuckle over, making me easily enthralled by his performance.
Presentation Score: 8.5/10
Sorry, but we are fighting a war here!
Besides the redundant quests you can take on, there is the possibility to find items for rats around the world. Sadly, the shallow level design does this no favour. There is one optional fight you can partake in that is actually fun, but gives you such a powerful weapon that it can break the rest of the playthrough in half. The in-game achievements are also just there with nothing else to them, like normal achievements.
Extra Score: 2/10
I believe the best way to describe this project is style over substance. It is a clunky metroidvania with an awkward combat and structure, but one that has a magnificent charm and setting that is easy to get lost in. There are frustrations to be had with the uneven difficulty and forced backtracking, but there is just as much to admire in its visuals and entertaining ideas. If you are rather in it for the immersion than the interactivity, you might find Tails of Iron to be a nice time. Personally, I am going to replay Salt & Sanctuary before my next campaign.