It feels like every form of media consumption these days - from TV shows and movies, to video games and even music - has taken a turn to harken back to the days when I was a kid. Sure, my demographic is the primary consumer of goods these days, but I can’t help but feel the shadowy hand of pandering in the attempts to sell me something simply because it plays upon some childhood memory. Such is the case with Toy Soldiers: War Chest.
Toy Soldiers: War Chest offers little variation from previous entries where the gameplay is concerned. Throughout the title’s 12 campaign missions, your primary goal will be to protect your army’s toy box by building turrets, upgrading and repairing them, and occasionally taking control of them to ensure maximum slaughter of the opposing forces. Each army has their own version of the four basic turrets - anti-infantry, anti-armor, anti- air, and artillery - with their own particular upgrades that affect a turret’s range, damage, and health. The Cobra anti-infantry turret, for instance, gets an anti-armor missile as its third damage upgrade while the Phantom turret gets an automated defense drone that will shoot at passing soldiers (useful while you’re reloading). These slight differences help give each army their own strategies and tactics, to some degree, though they largely get lost among the tedium of each level.
Upgrades to the various turrets can be acquired via purchasing toy boxes (using in-game money earned for completing levels) that contain random upgrades parts or by buying the upgrades directly. There’s a weird microtransaction element built into this game where you can pay to buy some amount of in-game currency in order to acquire these boxes and/or upgrades quicker, but boxes are also earned when you level up your army’s hero (i.e., the Darklord, He-Man, Cobra Commander, etc) and you’ll certainly earn enough in-game currency by playing through the game’s campaign. Though that is not the easiest task to undertake; not due to difficulty, but due to a rapidly waning interest in finishing.
To be fair, for a tower defense game, the campaign missions offer up some occasionally interesting scenarios. In one of the levels you start with only one spot where you can build a turret and a tank. If you commander the tank, you can start whittling away at the enemy turrets (and forces) so you can eventually build your own emplacements, or you can blast away using your one turret. The latter takes much longer but is potentially safer as you have a limited time in the tank and once that gets used up or the tank is destroyed, you have to wait three minutes until you can use it again.
When I was first faced with this level I thought the game finally was doing something new-ish with the usual tower defense setup. However, once I cleared away a couple enemy emplacements, it was back to the usual “build a turret here, upgrade, fight off the waves” routine. There is so much that Signal Studios could have done with some of these levels if they doubled down on the initial setup/scenario in which you find yourself and reduced the number of waves you face (as any level tends to drag when you’re on wave 14 of 28). That drag really starts to set in around the fifth level and just grows exponentially from there.
The lack of any real innovation from what’s been done previously with these games is my biggest issue with this title. Once the initial shock/surprise of the scenario in which you’re placed wears off, you’re doing the same things over and over again. Build turret, hop in turret to kill enemies because it’s faster, upgrade turret, build different turret to counter latest wave, rinse, repeat. In the original release of the game, that move was something that felt innovative to the genre. It gave you something more active to do while waiting for the creeps to advance within killing range. On its third go, it feels like a tired and trite part of the genre.
As far as the “nostalgia factor” goes, that same lack of innovation in gameplay extends to the inclusion of the He-Man, Cobra, and GI Joe armies. In fact, it feels like they were only included in this game to help sell it to gamers of my generation. After the initial “I can play with He-Man again?!” feeling wears off, it quickly becomes apparent that these packs (which will cost you $5 a pop or $15 for all of them) are little more than reskins of existing content. The He-Man hero plays similarly to the Darklord hero, Cobra’s turrets are just a slight altering of the Phantom’s, and GI Joe’s bombing run is nothing new. There was an opportunity for Signal and Ubisoft to do something with these licenses and create alternate armies that really made you feel like you were playing with these cherished childhood toys again. Instead, they are little more than another attempt to wrest a few more bucks out of us all.
While the game has its issues, the cooperative gameplay makes up for a fair amount of its shortcomings. The tedium of dredging through yet another wave of enemies is a little better with company, and having another person to man a turret helps move things along a little quicker. Best of all, when you play with a friend, they get to bring their army (with all of its particular turrets and upgrades) to the game. So, if you want to be Cobra and team up with He-Man, you can. This is perhaps the one instance where I got that feeling of playing with my toys again as a kid; reliving those moments when I would bring over my GI Joe, M.A.S.K., or Robo Force figures over to a friend’s house and enact impossible battles betwixt them and some foe.
How that all works out in-game is that any player can use any open turret spot to build one of his/her army’s turrets. Aside from allowing for some mash-ups, it also provides some tactical benefits as one army’s turrets may cover up some weaknesses that are found within another’s arsenal. For instance, I may build Cobra’s anti-infantry turret in one spot because it has a pretty good rate of fire and can be upgraded to use an anti-tank missile, while my co-op partner will build He-Man’s anti-armor turret in another spot because it fires faster than Cobra’s.
Any player can upgrade and take control of any player’s turrets and each player earns their own pool of money to spend from killing foes, thus allowing players to work together to maximize their defenses rather than compete for resources. Each player also earns in-game currency and toy boxes for their army, so everyone walks away with something at the end of it all. The only downside I came across is that the hero figure (i.e., Duke, Cobra Commander, He-Man, Darklord, etc) you can summon after directly killing so many enemy troops is only accessible to the host player. The second player cannot bring forth their champion, unfortunately.
While the first couple iterations of the Toy Soldiers franchise were refreshing takes on the genre, Toy Soldiers: War Chest feels more like an attempt to prey upon the wallets of a particular generation of gamers. There isn’t anything technically wrong or grossly flawed with the overall gameplay, it just doesn’t feel like there’s much there or anything particularly outstanding to keep me coming back for more. Amidst all of that, though, it does manage to have its rare moments where seeing He-Man drop onto the battlefield and shout, “BY THE POWER OF GRAYSKULL!” brings a smile to my face. Watching him fight alongside the canon of Cobra or GI Joe makes the smile increase just a little more.