Described as a mix of strategy and action gameplay, Toy Soldiers: War Chest is a tower defence title that allows players to take direct control of their turrets. Third in the series from Signal Studios, it further tweaks the gameplay while adding a number of new playable armies into the mix.

Depending on which version you buy, War Chest includes between four and eight themed playsets rather than the ‘war toy’ types previous series entries were limited to. This is the most significant change to the game’s formula, and means that you’ll be instructing your troops to open fire at Care Bears-aping Buddy Bears, or using lasers on WWI-era Germans. It sounds insane, but it’s an incredibly enjoyable twist on the formula. There’s something bizarrely entertaining about blasting clouds of fairies from the sky with a World War II-era flak cannon.

The basic gameplay is much as you’d expect if you’ve played any game in the genre. Towers are placed on the playfield, and these automatically attack waves of incoming of enemies to prevent them invading your base and thus achieving victory. Money earned lets you buy more towers or upgrade the ones you’ve got, and you’ll need to do these things often and with careful thought, as each wave is an increasingly difficult prospect.

The twist the franchise adds to the formula is the ability for players to jump in and control a single tower directly from battlefield-level view. This functionality returns in War Chest, and generally works pretty well. A turret you control will generally shoot further than an automated one, and you’ll definitely make smarter decisions than the daft AI when it comes to prioritising targets.

The downside of taking control, of course, is that you lose visibility of the wider battlefield. It’s a smart piece of quid-pro-quo game design. Aiming and shooting can be an uneven experience, however, with the anti-air weapons suffering the most, and feeling frustrating to use as a result.

Levels are constrained to a square shape but generally feature varied terrain including hills, trenches, and buildings. This helps keep things interesting and gives the numerous included layouts a genuine personality all their own, even though basic tiles and buildings are frequently repeated or thematically very similar. Many have very clever little design hooks to them too, which means you’ll have to think carefully about which turrets you place on what location to take best advantage of the landscape.

Toy Soldiers: War Chest review
Toy Soldiers: War Chest review
Toy Soldiers: War Chest review

Shooting things, beating levels, and generally being boss at the game will earn you a combination of currency and ‘blind boxes’ – booster packs that expand your range of turrets, items, and upgrades. A fun twist on the regular tower defence game, these boosters are specific to the playset you’re currently using.

As such, if you decide to switch playsets part-way through the campaign (which is identical regardless of army in use), your new non-upgraded army will be at a serious disadvantage. Whether or not this is a cynical way of motivating the player to spend cash money purchasing more boosters is up for speculation. Whatever the case, if you spend Uplay currency on a few boosters or grind long enough with one playset, you’ll find you’re earning enough in-game currency to support a booster habit for a second army anyway.

Very early in War Chest’s campaign, you’ll grow accustomed to your base taking fire too, as it presents a serious – and seriously uneven – challenge. The difficulty doesn’t so much climb as it does soar, plummet, and then soar again, seemingly at random and certainly following no pattern I’ve ever seen before.

As you negotiate this wildly variable difficulty curve, the poor AI of your turrets goes from being an annoyance to a serious problem. All too often, your happy little toys will be merrily shooting hordes of enemies that pose little threat to you, while at the same time totally ignoring masses streaming into your base behind them.

Toy Soldiers: War Chest review
It’s packed with visual glitches, lacks anti-aliasing, and generally feels like a budget product

Initially, this feels like Signal’s way of incentivising direct turret control, but by the later levels it’s impossible to rescue the situation entirely by yourself, because you’re defending multiple bases at once. On top of that, while there is some indication of which enemies will feature in upcoming waves, you never know which enemy base they’ll emerge from.

This means you’ll need to restart many levels soon after attempting them, because without enough warning, you can’t possibly get a turret built in the right place quickly enough to prevent early damage to your base. It feels cheap, and it’s duly frustrating.

I can’t emphasise what a harsh mistress War Chest is at times, and that means there’s also a whole tranche of gameplay many players may never see. In theory, killing lots of enemies generates power that unlocks special bonuses at three separate tiers. In practice, getting to these tiers is so hard that many will only ever hit the first.

Beyond the campaign there’s also an excellent weekly offering of levels that you can tackle to win extra boosters. The levels in this week’s set played quite differently to those I’d played in the campaign, making for a fun mix of quirky challenges. However, difficulty tuning is an issue here too: Thursday’s level dialled it up to over 9000, putting me in charge of four bases in the middle of the map that was attacked unrelentingly from all sides.

The presentation of War Chest is very much like that seen in the previous last-gen games, with no obvious bump in quality brought about by the new consoles. It’s packed with visual glitches, lacks anti-aliasing, and generally feels like a budget product.

It also hard-locked on me twice and regularly has trouble returning from a suspended state. Loading times are interminable, which is doubly annoying when what it’s loading doesn’t seem that grandiose. On top of that, the tutorial stalled on me a short way in, and couldn’t be completed.

On the upside, there’s a lot of game here for the price tag (NZ$30-50), so War Chest isn’t an awful purchase. Despite the serious name, it knows it’s a game too, and there’s definitely a lot of fun to be had playing war with disparate playsets – much as you might have done as a kid, perhaps. It’s just a shame that an obviously solid premise wasn’t given the love it deserves, and that such an inspired mix licenses wasn’t put to better use.