I've pretty much lost track of how many Souls-likes I have played over the last few years, but I've still managed to remain hooked due to their boundless potential. Tails of Iron is the most recent entry into the genre that I have been able to sample and it leaves a bold initial impression due to its deep and punishing combat and novel design choices. Recently, I was able to play through the game's opening hour and I had the opportunity to speak to its producer and designer Jack Bennett.
Things start off in a pretty harrowing way as protagonist and heir to the throne Redgi witnesses an attacking group of frogs slaughter almost the entirety of his rat kingdom. After falling in battle and waking up amongst the dead, Redgi then sets out to rescue his kidnapped brothers and seeks to get revenge on those responsible for the bloodshed. The rats here simply communicate in squeaks and there is no voice acting, but interestingly, Doug Cockle, voice actor for Geralt of Rivia is present to offer context through his narration.
The core action might be as punishingly difficult as the Souls series, but some pretty major deviations have been made. Firstly, there is no stamina meter and players are free to wave around their sword and hold up their shield to their heart's content. This doesn't mean that the game is any simpler though, as a poorly timed swing can leave you vulnerable to several punishing attacks. As the game takes place from a purely 2D perspective, you're also restricted in your movements and your positioning is an extra detail that you'll need to bear in mind. Having to defend yourself from two directions can be problematic, so you always want to stay on the move and ensure that your foes are placed directly before your shield.
In Tails of Iron, there are three basic attacks that enemies will unleash and these are well telegraphed through onscreen prompts. Red attacks cannot be blocked and must be dodge rolled through, yellow attacks can be parried to deal some additional damage and basic attacks can both be dodged and blocked. Personally, I was surprised by how vital parrying is here as in other Souls-likes (besides Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice) it's pretty much optional for more skilled players. The window to parry attacks is pretty generous though and after a few encounters, I was able to perform them flawlessly without too much thought.
Death is pretty much inevitable in Tails of Iron (I must have died about 10 times in the demo), but that doesn't mean it isn't going to sting when it happens. When you die all of your equipped gear is lost and you are forced to return back to the last bench that you rested on. If you haven't rested up in the last hour then it's tough luck, as the game doesn't have an auto-save function and it requires you to be patient and scout out a place to rest. This mechanic I felt helped to give the game a roguelike feel to it as each attempt I had to find and equip new gear to replace the ones that I had previously lost.
Speaking of equippable gear, Tails of Iron features a wealth of weapons and armour sets that lend themselves to different styles of play. Each item has two main stats: weight and effectiveness (either attack or defence depending on whether it's a weapon or armour) and you'll need to choose which to prioritise. Having heavier gear, for example, will mean that you won't be able to dodge or roll as much, but it will enable you to soak up more damage if you get hit. Conversely, having light gear will allow you to be much more nimble, but you're likely to crumble to dust pretty quickly if you get caught in the middle of a combo.
It may have only been lightly touched upon within the short demo I played, but I was pleased to see that light elements of crafting are present. Here you'll find materials out in the world that can be given to the chef to create new meals and improve your overall health. You'll also encounter blueprints that can be given to the smithy to create new armour and weapons. It wasn't made explicitly clear how these materials are found, but it's likely that they will be encountered by completing side quests and exploring off the beaten path.
Its central cast of rats and stunning storybook-like art style are two design choices that instantly seized my attention within Tails of Iron. The game really feels like a living and breathing storybook and its environments are painstakingly detailed despite their 2D nature. During the hands-on session, Jack Bennett revealed that background details such as trees and buildings are all individually layered to add a greater sense of depth. The rats, on the other hand, were inspired by the real-life pets of one of the members of the team. Sadly, these passed away during the three years of development, but adorably, a tribute to them can be found within the main menu.
Tails of Iron is really like no Souls-like I have played in the past and I mean that in a purely complimentary way. The combat system here has plenty of depth through its range of equippable gear and I found myself entranced by its gorgeous multi-layered 2D visuals. Its dreary storybook-like world is just one that I am itching to explore more of and I'm intrigued to see how much importance will be placed on crafting and side quests later down the road. Be sure to check back for our full thoughts when Tails of Iron launches on Nintendo Switch, PC, PS4, PS5, Xbox One, and Xbox Series on September 17, 2021.