I love when video games shuck off normalcy and embrace ideas that might be considered avant-garde. Non-traditional storytelling, heavily stylized graphics, and experimental gameplay are great because they shift what is considered the norm, and lead to further innovations and other inspiration. Tenderfoot Tactics is such a game. It looks minimalist in screenshots, but its art style is one that needs to be seen in motion to fully appreciate. And it turns out to be a pretty good game, too.
Tenderfoot Tactics is a turn-based tactical role-playing game where you lead a party of goblins across a mysterious archipelago in search of answers. A fog has blanketed the land, eating everything it touches. Your band of goblins must use their newfound abilities—granted by a friendly spirit—and find the source of the fog, and put a stop to it. I think “minimal” is the best way to describe it—from its presentation to its story—but sometimes less is more.
“Minimal” may be accurate, but it’s not the whole picture, even visually. Tenderfoot Tactics’ visual style is remarkable. You have the option to play in “crunchy” mode—a pixelated, retro-aesthetic that reminds me of the rotoscoped game Another World—silky smooth animations, but pixelation abounds. Smooth graphics are what you’ve seen the most in screenshots, where the characters and world look like watercolor paintings with an earthy pastel palette. Moving through the world, whether in the overworld view or on food, the landscape undulates and writhes as if you’re on some sort of hallucinogenic.
If you’re not familiar with turn-based tactics or similar games, you might have a bit of a learning curve. There isn’t really a detailed tutorial—most instructions are given as tool tips. Most of the rest of the game isn’t explained at all, and there isn’t any hand holding, making it a difficulty entry-point into the genre. But if you’ve played real-time tactics or turn-based role-playing games, you’ll be familiar with the setup.
Mechanically, Tenderfoot Tactics can be considered minimal. Each character can move and attack during their turn. Attacks don’t have a damage range or a hit percentage. You are given the ability to set your goblins before a fight, and determine their move order. Facing matters—if you attack from the side or back of an enemy, you will do more damage, or take more damage if you are caught in the same situation. There are ranged and melee attack options. Goblins have special abilities too, depending on their “class”—some can heal, or do damage magic. Eventually, as your party grows in level they’ll be able to specialize into a few advanced classes. These advanced classes change their appearance, and open up options for more powerful abilities.
Battles take place on small patches of terrain that are divided by grid squares. Terrain elevation plays a role for line of sight and traversal. Terrain is deformable, which some abilities allow you to do—like open the ground up so your enemies fall and take damage. Grass and trees play a tactical role as well—trees can create cover, and grass can burn, hurting those goblins standing in it until the fire is out, or they leave the space.
Between battles, you can move through the archipelago at your own pace—exploring curiosities, finding new resting places, and interacting with gods you might come across. If you zoom out, you get a literal bird’s eye view. You control a bird as it guides your goblins forward. If you get too close to those goblins affected by the fog—you’ll get a fight.
The story of Tenderfoot Tactics is told in an extremely cryptic style. You’ll meet other goblins, and towering gods who bestow their help—or try to stop you. Its apocalyptic setting mixed with its art style makes for an acutely bleak atmosphere. It helps provide the feeling of “what’s done is done” and makes your goblin adventurer’s journey feel that much more insurmountable.
Tenderfoot Tactics has gear and other loot to acquire. Most of the time you’ll be given loot after fights, but sometimes you’ll find it in the world itself. Gear is minimal, too. Each piece has either a buff to health, a buff to damage, or sometimes both. Legendary items exist, but usually with only an extra affix along with damage and health buffs.
Minimal is perhaps the first impression of Tenderfoot Tactics, but it has enough depth to have keep me going for its length. Its tactical gameplay is not complicated, but its simplicity betrays its depth. It’s a sometimes strange, often bleak game set in an acid tripping world—and I thought it was great.
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