Review copy provided by developer
There are some games I hold immaculate fondness for, and the Advanced Wars games loom large among them. The original GBA Advance Wars and Black Hole Rising are two of my all-time favorite games, perfect packages of beautiful pixel art, charming characters, and taxing strategy that few games have matched. Wargroove certainly tries, as should be apparent from even a cursory look at its designs. There’s so much that’s familiar here, so much that looks good and sounds good and plays good, but there’s something missing, too. As solid as Wargroove appears on the surface, it makes some missteps that keep it from being the same kind of lasting legend in turn-based tactics.
The king of Cherrystone has died by an assassin’s hand, kicking off a conflict between the new queen, Mercia, and Valder, dark lord of Felheim. This war soon spirals out to encompass the entire continent, drawing in the rowdy Florans (yes, of Starbound lore) and the mighty Heavensong Empire. Alliances are formed and strained as Valder’s machinations push the factions into confused relations, but even once the heroes rally there are unexpected threats on the horizon. Only through use of careful tactics and management will Mercia and her forces face the true evil that menaces the world.
If you break that down, it’s going to sound extremely familiar to fans of the original Advance Wars. The battle between Orange Star and Blue Moon got out of hand, pushing Orange into conflict with the other two factions before aligning everyone against their true enemy. Wargroove follows this structure to a T, and almost to a fault, as most of the battles you fight feel awfully contrived in terms of plot. You get little cutscenes before and after each mission, and while they feature some very charming characters and creative designs, the scenarios themselves seem uninspiring for a would-be fantasy war epic.
Plot is only a loose motivation for the meat of the game, the turn-based battles. Here again the design is going to be immediately familiar to fans of Advance Wars. Played out on lush grid maps of fields, forests, and mountains, two armies take turns moving their adorable little units into clashes of steel and shot. Units are produced from barracks and select other structures in exchange for gold earned by holding neutral towns on the map. Each side has a stronghold and a hero unit (with some exceptions in the campaign), and destroying either earns the other side victory. Hero units are significantly more powerful than common units but still must be protected from heavy hits and swarming attacks to stave off defeat. As you progress through the campaign you’ll have more units available to use, but the arcade and multiplayer modes leave everything open from the start.
It hits all the right notes for fans of cutesy, pixelly strategy up front, complete with little scenes of units squaring off and whittling each other down. Your soldiers cheer victories, vanish into equally-adorable ghosts when beaten, and precious dogs are plentiful, both as common units for all factions and also as a commander. But the gameplay is missing something that Advance Wars didn’t miss, and there’s quite a few things that could be. For one, there’s literally no variation between factions or commanders, save for their special powers. Advance Wars had identical units for all factions but the unit stats and behaviors varied between commanders, and until now I didn’t realize how much of a difference that made for engagement. CO powers could also wildly swing battles, whereas the powers in Wargroove are much more muted and sometimes don’t seem worth losing a commander’s turn for.
The units themselves form a good mix of fantasy offerings, from footmen and spearmen to trebuchets, alchemists, golems, and more. There’s a good balance between unit power and cost, and there are sensible counters like spearmen wreaking havoc on cavalry. One particularly smart move is making critical hits deterministic, with every unit having a special condition to trigger crits that you can plan around. Capturing cities is a bit quirky, in that claimed cities must be attacked by any units and can defend themselves, and then can be retaken instantly by infantry of any kind. This ends up skewing most battles more towards siege units and faster infantry to lock down cities, though I can’t really say if this is an improvement or a step back from the familiar source material.
What might be the biggest issue is the difficulty, despite Chucklefish’s many swift efforts to address complaints on this point. Wargroove ramps up its challenge quickly in the campaign, to where you may hit roadblocks just a few missions in unless you lower the difficulty. But it’s not just a matter of tuning, it’s the way that missions are laid out. Maps in Advance Wars tended to be compact and built around big brawls over limited space. In contrast, Wargroove’s maps like to sprawl in all directions, which pads out the time needed to complete them. The missions where you must run gauntlets or explore territory feel much larger than they need to be, and wear out their welcome by the time they reach their climax. One particular side mission is a siege you must survive, and after several withering waves of enemies that I thought must be all they have left, my soldiers helpfully informed me that we were nearly halfway done.
A lot of games that take heavy inspiration from earlier titles don’t always catch all the details, and that feels very much like what happened with Wargroove. They captured the look, the feel, and the basic designs of Advance Wars, enough to give the appearance of that magic, but stumbled on the variety and pacing of the gameplay. That doesn’t make it a bad game by any means; getting anywhere near Advance Wars quality still leaves you with a good game. But while I’ve beaten those classics multiple times, I have yet to finish my first trip through Wargroove’s campaign. It just doesn’t have the same staying power, despite the excellent presentation and thoughtful mechanics. You should still give it a look for your turn-based jollies, but maybe dial your expectations down a few notches first.