Toy Soldiers has been kicking around for over a decade now, and gaming has changed a lot in that time. Back when it was first released on Xbox 360, Xbox Live (and console downloadable games) was a relatively new concept, and the tower defence genre was riding high. It was actually games just like this – quirky indie things that could never have found a boxed release publisher – that inspired me to start DigitallyDownloaded.net all those years ago. Unfortunately, a lot can change in a decade, and what Toy Soldiers offers is no longer in vogue. Toy Soldiers HD, meanwhile, doesn’t do nearly enough to revitalise it.
At its core, Toy Soldiers HD is a tower defence game. You strategically place a range of different defensive structures (howitzers, machine guns, mortars, etc) along a pathway, and then hope that your defences are enough to stop waves of enemies from travelling the path and reaching the exit (your base). If enough enemies dodge the bullets and get there it’s game over. Meanwhile, as you mow down your enemies, you earn cash which can be used to build and upgrade more defences. As waves become increasingly challenging, you need to make sure that your defences are keeping pace.
The tower defence genre was a big deal in the early days of mobile gaming, and it’s easy to understand why. It’s a very casual strategy genre, giving players an easy and accessible way to think about unit placement and tactics without getting into a 300-hour Civilization or Crusader Kings campaign, and without having to deal with the stress and micromanagement of a “proper” RTS.
But tower defence titles are also necessarily shallow, and what the genre did offer has been largely swallowed up by the more visceral thrills of a horde mode shooter, or more immediately entertaining and even more bite-sized casual play in the likes of Clash of Clans. Out of the box, Toy Soldiers feels like a relic of yesteryear and a reminder of why the tower defence genre has fallen so out of favour. It’s just not that engaging as a strategy title.
You are able to take direct control of your units in this game, which does offer some momentary thrills. Being able to jump on a plane to conduct a strafing attack, or get a ground-level perspective to fire away with a machine gun does manage to mitigate some of the arbitrary, artificial abstraction that comes from watching waves of enemies follow neat paths. Meanwhile, simple shooter controls and large numbers of enemies to cut through do give you some visceral thrills at first. You also can’t ignore this side of the game because directly defeating enemies builds up a “super” meter that allows you to unleash some devastating attacks that can be necessary to survive some enemy waves. As such, you must juggle the strategy with the action to ensure success. However, while you’re in control of individual units you will lose sight of the overall strategy, as it can be very easy to miss entire groups of enemies that are simply too small to spot from the limited perspective you have on ground level. This is especially true when playing in handheld mode and everything on-screen is tiny.
So Toy Soldiers HD doesn’t manage to provide a particularly interesting or original take on strategy gaming, and is too simplistic to work as an action game. That isn’t to say it’s easy, because as with most tower defence games, it can be very challenging. Right from the first level enemies have a lot of health and you never seem to have enough resources (or places to put defences) to stop at least a few slipping through. But bullet-soaking enemies are not a particularly engaging form of difficulty. There are a lot of levels, too, so you’ll get your money’s worth, but it doesn’t take long for the too-simple gameplay loop to make it all start feeling like a grind.
What Toy Soldiers HD does best is its presentation. The aesthetic quirk is right there in the title. This is a game of “toy soldiers” and, rather than watching military dudes charging across the battlefield, you’re instead looking at toy military dudes charging across plastic dioramas, as though a toybox has been brought to life.
Like just about every boy of my generation, I had a bunch of cheap plastic soldiers that my parents would pick up from dollar stores. This little reward would keep me quiet while they dragged me around for the weekly shop or whatever. And, like every boy of my generation, I enjoyed setting up little battlefields on tabletops or my bedroom floor, and then playing war. I always saw these things as fundamentally a strategic experience, and the games that I would play always involved rolling dice. Though in my youth I wasn’t much of a game developer and my “wargames” were basically “roll a 4-6 to kill the other dude”. It wasn’t of the strategic depth of Risk, let alone Warhammer. As an adult, I find letting kids indulge in this kind of contextless glorification of war to be a disturbing reflection on our society. However, the point is that my toybox very much looked like the dioramas being depicted in Toy Soldiers HD.
With that being said, I don’t think the developers pushed this as hard as they should, and the effect is often lost, particularly when you play it in handheld mode. While playing in handheld mode, the figures are so small and fluidly animated that they appear much like figures from a game 10+ years ago that has been brought to the Switch. When you play it on TV the aesthetic direction is clearer. However, I do think making the toy quality more explicit, like 3DO did back on the PSOne and N64 with Army Men, would have served Toy Soldiers HD better.
The best way to play Toy Soldiers HD is also the best way to play dollar store plastic warfare: with a friend in multiplayer. In this mode, you need to send waves of enemies to attack your opponent while also defending your territory, and it makes for some fast, furious activity. That is, when it works. Online dropouts were incredibly frequent (I recommend playing with friends that aren’t inclined to rage quit mid-battle), and split-screen is a bit too messy, as it cuts the already cramped visual environment in half for each player. There are also some incredibly long loading times on the Switch version, which does tend to kill momentum when you’re looking to play games with a friend. These technical issues mean that I can’t see this game being a high-rotation multiplayer experience, though the underlying mechanics are actually quite sound for some simple, amusing competitive play.
Perhaps the most appropriate way to describe the Toy Soldiers HD experience in 2023 is “quaint”. Essentially, you’re playing a defunct and superseded genre, blended with ancient action mechanics, more than 10 years old. There has been no meaningful effort to do much more than upscale the visuals. Therefore, what you’ve got here is something that has its charms, but is archaic on every level. Toy Soldiers was never good enough to be a “classic”, so you don’t even get to enjoy the retro nostalgia that comes from early-era PS3/Xbox 360 games now. It’s just dated.