Two of us at Kotaku—Luke and Brian—really dug the first Toy Soldiers game when it came out. And now, years later, they’re going to review the latest entry, Toy Soldiers: War Chest.

This is the first Toy Soldiers that is not a Microsoft exclusive. Published by Ubisoft, Toy Soldiers: War Chest is out on the Xbox One, PS4 (Brian played that), and PC (Luke played that). Both Luke and Brian played the Hall of Fame Edition (priced at US$29.99), which comes with the G.I. Joe, Cobra, He-Man, and Assassin’s Creed factions. Each faction, however, can be purchased separately for five bucks each.

Luke: I just looked it up, and the first Toy Soldiers game came out over five years ago. Five years! It feels like so much longer. Especially when you consider the fact that you and I might be the only two humans on earth who actually give a shit about these games.

Brian: I cannot believe it’s been five years. I really dug the first game. It might have been the most enjoyable gaming experience I had that year. Five years ago. Heh. Did you play any of the other titles in between now and then?

Luke: I did! I played the sequel, and I liked it a lot more. The first game felt a little stale after a while, the units and presentation kinda bogging you down, but Cold War was a lot more fun. I know you didn’t play the sequel, so what’s it like jumping straight from the first game to this one?

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Brian: It was startling in some ways. Kind of like in Back to the Future 2, when you’re walking around and it’s like, “Oh hey, Jaws 19.” But while the presentation is a little different in some regards, the basic mechanics were the same. Playing War Chest has made me want to go back and catch up with the ones I missed so far.

Luke: I don’t think you need to! That’s taken care of here by the number of factions available; the previous games were a bit more limited in scope, but the big selling point here is that War Chest combines all kinds of different toys, from the original WW1 forces to G.I. Joe figures to He-Man to... Assassin’s Creed. Which is dumb, and not at all in keeping with the tone of the game (in that nobody grew up with Ezio acton figures), but whatever, Ubisoft is publishing, so they’ve gotta stick something in somewhere.

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Not that it really matters; the factions have their slight differences in terms of tower abilities and heroes, but for the most part you’re playing the same game regardless of who you’re controlling. And initially, this was a bit of a disappointment. I was expecting a little more to have changed over the years, but the fundamentals feel exactly the same as the original Toy Soldiers.

Brian: The Assassin’s Creed thing really bothered me. I get it. Ubisoft published the title. But like you said, it’s not keeping with the tone of the game, but it’s done in such a way that it’s distracting. The regular factions are faux toys based on real ones, and the added DLC for War Chest is supposed to remind those who grew up in the 1980s of what it was like to play with He-Man or G.I. Joe. Assassin’s Creed did not exist then, so trying to shoehorn Ezio and co. into the game feels completely out of place. But people who didn’t grow up then, might not care and will happily enjoy the game with the added AC.

I kept feeling like there was a lost opportunity with Toy Soldiers: War Chest, that this should have been Toy Soldiers: G.I. Joe, full stop.

Luke: Well, that’s what the last game was, only without the G.I. Joe branding. It might have sounded cool in a press release to say YEAH G.I. JOE, but once that wore off it would have been a pretty similar experience. With the systems of the game so similar to its predecessors, it’s the variety of factions and hero units that’s the big deal here, so it would have sucked if it was just G.I. Joe.

But: GI Joe is the best faction.

Brian: So true. The other ones, save for Cobra, are pretty iffy! The He-Man one is probably the worst, just in terms of design. I grew up with loads of He-Man and the stuff I liked, such as the more fantasy type elements, are traded for lasers, which is understandable considering what type of game this is. My favorite-looking stages are the G.I. Joe survival ones (the Joe one as well as the Cobra one). The attention to detail shows they were made by people who loved these toys. That comes through. It’s exactly the nostalgia the game aims to tap. Either I wish there was more of this or this is just remember how many G.I. Joe toys and figures I had as a kid. Probably a bit of both.

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While the factions available to the players aren’t really hugely different (the animations for the AC faction, however, can be unnerving as they jitter about), I do agree about the range of enemies and characters.

Luke: What’d you think about how it all comes together? Part of the reason we both loved the original was that it got that balance between tower defence strategy and action sequences just right. War Chest does the same thing, only with all kinds of stuff added around the edges, like a deeper hero system, unlockable turret items, etc. This made things a little more interesting for me, but as the campaign wore on, I started to get a little bored by it all. It also felt a bit cheap keeping certain upgrades out of your hands and making them unlockable at random.

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Brian: The different factions do keep things interesting, but it feels like this is a jack-of-all-trades thing and that actually does more damage than good. The most charming thing about the first game was that it had a strong sense of a historical place. You were playing with toy soldiers, but like when you play with toys, you were transported into that world. It was World War I. And I’ve always wanted to play more WWI games, and that became added appeal. For this, because you are always jumping about, you don’t get that same sense of place. The world isn’t a moment in history but a child’s room. Nostalgia can be powerful stuff! (Making the Assassin’s Creed downloadable content stand out even more!) But because you are jumping about from different toy set to different toy set, I kind of felt like the game suffered. Certain boards, especially in the middle, were significantly more difficult for me than the later ones. I didn’t feel like the game was building towards anything. It was all a hodgepodge. Did you notice this? Or was this just me?

Luke: It’s more difficult as well when the game encourages you to switch factions mid-campaign, but they’re not as powerful as the ones you’d unlocked gear for.

Brian: Yeah, that’s bonkers.

Luke: You’re right about the first game, and that’s what I liked about the sequel as well. The original wasn’t just a fun game, it was a tragic play on the gung-ho militarism and carnage of the First World War, made palatable by the “toy” setting. The second game wasn’t anywhere near as serious, but it still had a heart. It was a game about the 80s, and by God did it play to that. By jumping around with all these different sides in a nonsense “story” mode, the heart of this game just doesn’t feel as solid, nor is it as fun.

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Brian: Exactly! You trade what made Toy Soldiers so good for a bunch of stuff. It’s like going from a really good restaurant that specializes in one dish to a buffet. There are things the game is happy to sell you, like different factions. But once you have a faction, why would you in the middle of the game switch to a weaker one that hasn’t been leveled up? Did you try that?

Luke: I did, I had the Germans unlocked real good, then switched to He-Man, and everything was woefully under-powered.

If it seems like all we’re banging on about here is the campaign, well, that’s because across the series it’s been the only thing worth playing. The variety and specific challenges you’re presented with in the story just aren’t there in single missions, so War Chest is living and dying on the strength of its campaign.

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Brian: I just went with G.I. Joe and then thought about switching over to another faction and, like you, saw how under-powered they were, so immediately switched back. Once I beat the campaign, I went back to the other factions, but didn’t really feel like going through the motions and leveling them all up and finishing the campaigns again. When I got the game, I bought the $30 version with all the DLC—as such, I got the G.I. Joe faction, the Cobra one, the He-man one, and the Assassin’s Creed one. But I don’t think I’ll ever use all those factions, so I ended up buying more than I needed. Uplay was down for me, so I didn’t get to fully experience online, but perhaps, I could see myself coming back to War Chest and playing online with these other factions. Or maybe, I’d just stick to the G.I. Joe one. I really don’t know.

If these added factions might not have been DLC or woven more into the main campaign, I think the game’s overarching mood or sense of place would have been strengthened. As for the main campaign, there were certain boards I loved, while others less so. One thing that was missing for me was the bosses: save for one, they didn’t really make me think, “Oh shit.” They were fairly easy to take down, and perhaps I’m applying experience I remembered from the first game.

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Luke: Yeah, I remember the bosses being more interesting in the other games, especially Cold War. But then, War Chest has a little more variety in terms of how you start a mission, so maybe that evens the score.

So, yeah. Toy Soldiers was a good game, as was its sequel, and this is in many ways the same game, so it’s cool. It’s just a shame that there wasn’t more to this; the older games weren’t exactly blockbuster successes, so for Ubisoft and Signal Studios to bring it back unchanged seems like a weird call. Like, why bring it back if all you were going to was stick some over-priced DLC alongside it?

Oh right, I just answered my own question.

Brian: Haha. Yes. It’s definitely a good game, complaints aside. I’m probably being too hard on it, because I liked the first game so much and had high expectations for this.

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There is a smart way to buy War Chest, and that’s being very picky about the DLC. What I liked about Toy Soldiers is that it could use playthings to explore worlds or time periods that other video games might not. For future Toy Soldiers titles, which I am looking forward to, I’d rather see, who knows, Toy Soldiers: Gettysburg or Toy Soldiers: Waterloo than another round of shoehorned DLC.

Luke: ...unless it’s Toy Soldiers: Crimea, with Light Brigade and Florence Nightingale DLC.

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