Turn-based strategy games, to some, are the very definition of niche. If you’ve no experience with the genre, you might have visions of some complex, impenetrable Dungeons and Dragons sort of experience, involving a couple of 2,086-sided dice or something.
Advance Wars, for many of us, was the series that made these sorts of games palatable for the masses; easy to pick up and welcomingly cartoony but surprisingly deep once you got into it.
A true cult classic series, it’s a crying shame that there hasn’t been an Advance Wars release since 2008s Days of Ruin. For many fans experiencing withdrawal symptoms, Wargroove has been a beacon of hope. This indie title from Chucklefish was revealed in early 2017 and heavily delayed.
Now it’s finally arrived on Switch, Xbox One, and PC (PS4 release coming later), but does it live up to the hype as a spiritual successor to Advance Wars? Heck yes it does, and here’s why.
Now, I’m not one to be super snarky, but I’ve got to kick things off with the huge, obvious elephant in the room: Wargroove is actually a current release. It’s here, it’s now, it’s a thing.
It’s always an incredible shame when a cult classic franchise disappears off the radar and that’s been exactly the case with Advance Wars. Nobody said there won’t ever be another Advance Wars (Nintendo, if you’re listening, it’d fit the Switch like a glove), but… well, nobody’s said anything else about the series in a decade either.
Kudos to Chucklefish for doing what Nintendo didn't: listening to the fans’ cries and delivering.
Stories tend to be a tricky concept in these sorts of games, doesn’t it? The fact is, however you try to dress it up, it all boils down to the fact that somebody’s invading somebody else. As the protagonist, you’re usually the good guy, so you tend to have someone encroaching on your land and threatening to take your family, homes, and UberEats delivery drivers for themselves.
You monsters! How will my McDonald’s delivery get to me now? HOW?
At its heart, Wargroove is the by-the-numbers story of the Cherrystone Kingdom, which is being invaded by the dastardly demonic hordes of the Felheim Legion. What the game does so brilliantly on top of this, though, is provide all of the major players with deep and interesting backstories.
It also collates these stories in a handy-dandy Codex you can check out at any time, which automatically updates as you progress.
Now, yes, your choice of Commanding Officer changed a lot about your gameplan in Advance Wars. When playing as the sharpshooter Grit, for instance, your ranged units would be more powerful and have more range, at the cost of the strength of your close-combat units. For the muscle-bound Max, the reverse was true.
This is all well and good, but Wargroove takes an additional, Fire Emblem-esque step further: the leader of your army appears as a unit on the battlefield. They’re super powerful and able to turn the tide of battle by themselves if used correctly; but if they’re defeated you instantly lose.
This adds a whole new element of strategy (should I commit them? When? Where?) that Advance Wars never really had.
Another neat little wrinkle Wargroove has over Intelligent Systems’s series is its critical hit mechanic. Of course, Advance Wars’ units were designed to have strengths and weaknesses against others (Bombers, for instance, were devastating against ground and naval units, but defenseless against Fighters and some other air units), but Wargroove takes the concept much further.
Critical hits don’t occur by chance but are triggered when specific units fulfill their own particular condition. If archers are able to attack before moving, they’ll deal critical damage, as will vanilla foot soldiers who engage the enemy while within a certain distance of their superior.
It’s a fantastic idea and yet another layer to the sweet, sweet strategic onion that is Wargroove.
As you’d expect of a game of its type, Wargroove’s biggest draw is its campaign mode. This is the main meat of the package, particularly for those who’ll be playing alone. However, there’s so much more to dive into besides.
Arcade Mode is unlike anything Advance Wars really offered. It presents you with a series of different quick-fire missions, a unique experience for each of the selectable commanders. In their review, Wccftech hit the bullseye when they said that the name 'Arcade Mode' is to be taken literally; the experience is almost like the arcade mode of a fighting game “complete with dialogues between commanders and short ending sequences.”
The unlockables you earn here, which I won’t go into, also serve to further enhance the fleshed-out feeling that pervades Wargroove’s world and characters.
Advance Wars players will be more than familiar with the whole notion of creating custom stages. The map editor of later releases let you place terrain, buildings, and units freely, via a convenient touchscreen interface. It was neat, but there wasn’t a lot you could really do with them.
Wargroove takes this ball and runs it to the end zone. Here, you can create custom stages using an extensive toolkit, similar to the one Chucklefish used to build the game itself. Budding developers are going to be thrilled with it.
Not only that, but there’s also a Super Mario Maker-esque sharing platform, allowing you to share your creations with the community and enjoy the best of what others have come up with.
Speaking of budding developers, some of us aren’t going to be satisfied with just a map editor. I, for one, found that mode to be a bit of a throwaway novelty in Advance Wars.
As I say, the ability to share your work and try out the (presumably dastardly, if Super Mario Maker is any indication) creations of others gives the whole thing more of a draw. The real big-ticket item here, though, is the fact that you can take your creativity much further.
Wargroove lets you build not just individual stages, but whole campaigns, complete with special victory conditions for battles and even custom cutscenes!
As we’ve seen, then, Wargroove is an accessible-yet-deep strategy title. It wants to challenge players, but it doesn’t want to bog them down in over-complex mechanics. It’s the good ol’ fashioned ‘easy to pick up, hard to master’ approach, which is often the best way to go about things.
If you’re one of those players who wants to delve headfirst into all the tactical intricacies the game has to offer, Puzzle Mode will probably be for you. Here, you’ll be thrown into pre-set scenarios, battle situations with a simple objective: win in a single turn.
To succeed here, you’ll need to utilize every possible ounce of strategy the mechanics offer. Do you think you’re a true armchair general? Hop into Puzzle Mode and prove it!
Yes, Advance Wars did dabble in online play with the most recent installment, Days of Ruin, but it wasn’t the greatest experience. Yet again, Wargroove has another ace up its sleeve in this regard: cross-play.
That’s right. Players on PC, Xbox One, and Switch (PS4 may add the functionality too, but Sony has been finicky with that in the past) will be able to play together. This is a rare thing for an indie title and it’s a fantastic touch.
Aside from that, players will have much more choice of gameplay options, with competitive and co-op skirmishes and rule customization available online (not to mention locally).
While I’m a huge fan of competitive Pokémon, I’ve got to admit that the sheer amount of RNG can really get to you. What with untimely critical hits, random freezes or paralysis, flinches and such… it’s enough to ruin your entire day.
There’s none of this sort of thing in Wargroove. Where Advance Wars would offer you a range of potential damage that each attack could do, Wargroove just gives it to you straight. That opposing unit will not survive with a single HP point unless it’s "supposed" to. As we’ve also seen, critical hits will only (and always) trigger when specific conditions are met.
As a result, true masters of the game will always know the exact damage they’ll be doing to opponents, with the HP of the attacker and defender factored in. You’re going to be playing for a long time to master all of these intricacies.
In short, this is a worthy spiritual successor to Advance Wars in every way. If you enjoyed that franchise, you will not regret hopping on board. Did I mention the armored dog units and how super furry they are?