In Tenderfoot Tactics, everything is being swallowed up by a magical fog, filling the air and transforming everyone into ghostly drones. It's a realm on the brink of annihilation, but it still feels very much alive. It's always in motion. The hills and clouds violently undulate, trees sprout up in front of you and reality is filled in as you press forward. It's a tactics game, ostensibly, but it's easy to forget that as you strike out into the confusing, vibrating open world.
You control a band of goblins and must free your fog-corrupted pals and end the mystical threat, but the only bit of direction that's initially offered is the hint that there's something to look at in the west. Shame there's no compass. The map's not much help, either. You have to rely on physical, static and poorly defined maps that turn up near settlements, which is easier said than done. I've yet to find one that's clear enough to be of any use.
With crap maps, no compass and generally no idea what you're doing, you might as well just pick a direction and move. That's what I did, and I only got wiped out by foggy goblins before discovering anything of note a few times in that first hour. The low level turn-based fights are simple, but it only takes a couple of hits for one of your goblins to fall. Thankfully, you can retry a failed fight, and if you think it's hopeless, you can always flee to the last place where you rested.
As your goblins level up and switch jobs—like Final Fantasy Tactics—you'll be able to last a lot longer, but the fights are still brisk compared to the likes of XCOM or BattleTech. Combat is deterministic, so you always know how much damage you're going to do, and you never have to worry about missing a shot. Eventually you'll unlock elemental powers, too, letting you reshape the little battlefields by setting fires and tearing chunks out of the earth.
The UI feels a bit placeholder, and the otherwise eye-catching art style does not lend itself to a genre where clarity is so important, but the diminutive maps and job system definitely make up for those shortcomings. The tactical scraps are very good, I'm pleased to say, but I'm not here to blather on about goblin fisticuffs.
Open worlds, particularly those with a fantastical bent, are always trying to egg you on to explore more, throwing distant mountains and giant temples in your way and screaming, "You can go and climb that thing!" Tenderfoot Tactics bucks that trend. You can see the suggestion of distant things, like a plume of smoke or the ominous silhouette of a gargantuan fortress, but it's like peering at some half-forgotten memory, where you kind of know there's something in that direction, but you don't know what you'll encounter on the journey.
These goblins are apparently accomplished sailors, too, and the moment they hit the water, a boat appears and quickly shoots off as if powered by rocket fuel. Tenderfoot Tactics has an undeniably relaxing vibe, but its nautical voyages are whiplash-fast. No leisurely sailing trips here, I'm afraid. I have no idea how large the world actually is, but it seems pretty vast, so being able to hit warp speed when you're on the water is a relief, despite being a tad jarring. And if you feel the need for speed when you're on land, just find a big hill and start sliding down it.
When I set off towards the first landmark I spotted, I was surprised to see an entire mountainous island rise out the ocean before I could reach my destination. Whole landmasses can catch you off guard. And when you don't really know where you're going in the first place, that's totally fine. It's a new place to explore. Maybe you'll find some onions, which goblins seem to enjoy.
Some guidance is provided through your avian pal, however, who accompanies you everywhere. When you zoom out to get a bird's eye view, you literally take control of a bird, letting you spy points of interest even further afield. This comes in particularly handy when you're stuck in a thick forest and every direction looks identical. Just put your bird on the job and you'll find a way to your destination. Probably.
Trees, by the way, are extremely spooky. Not the little trees that you'd find in an orchard, but the great big primeval bastards. Goblins are very wee and the trees are very large. In my experience, they also tend to be surrounded by foggy goblins, so you'll have to do a lot of weaving in and out if you want to avoid a brawl. The trees, and indeed most things in Tenderfoot Tactics, are ethereal, always just ever so slightly displaced. You can pass right through them. Massive, ominous ghost trees—just what you don't want to get surrounded by on a foggy night.
Landmarks and items you can gather will be represented by icons when spot them, either with your own eyes or your bird's, and you'll notice one at the start that isn't like the others. If you want to move things forward, you might consider heading there, but I recommend pottering around for a bit. Get into trouble. Get completely lost. Just sail across the ocean and watch the sky summon up bizarre clouds that look like celestial waveforms. Destinations are superfluous to a good odyssey.
I remember the first time I played GTA 5 and I could read the little business cards pinned to noticeboards. It was such a thrill that I had to bring people into my room and just point at this, frankly, mundane rubbish. It came out a whopping seven years ago and remains the open world other games strive to be. Unless they're RPGs, in which case they're probably hoping to one-up Skyrim or The Witcher 3. All of them, even the fantasy romps, put so much stock in realism, in the literal and tangible, placing us in worlds we could swear are real. Developers want to immerse us in these realms, and making them grounded and high fidelity has become the most popular method of achieving that. I'm not entirely sick of them, but I do crave something more abstract and hard to pin down. That's what Tenderfoot Tactics offers: a gorgeous mystery that looks like nothing else. It's singular and weird and well worth a trip.
Tenderfoot Tactics is out now on Steam.