From the outset, anyone
who owned any form of the Game Boy Advance or Nintendo DS will likely know of the collectively seminal turn-based series Advance Wars and Fire Emblem. The latter is still a Nintendo radar title, with a major installment, Fire Emblem: Three Houses, planned for release on Nintendo Switch a bit later this year, but Advance Wars hasn’t really been seen since 2008’s Advance Wars: Days of Ruin on DS.
Stardew Valley publisher, Chucklefish Limited, is no stranger to pixel nostalgia, teaming up with Eric Barone who looked to the Harvest Moon series as inspiration for his critically acclaimed release. Wargroove, which is developed by Chucklefish, is the studio’s latest effort (they released another pixel-art action-adventure title in Starbound in 2016), and if you haven’t worked it out yet, Wargroove wears its Advance Wars and Fire Emblem inspiration on its sleeves, hence my intro. From the early goings on of the game, there’s a fairly even split between both sources, however, as you break from the game’s tutorial, the setup and subsequent gameplay is pure Advance Wars with extra-credit Chucklefish additions. And there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that.
If you’ve played any of the turn-based tactics type games of yesteryear, the foundation for your journey here is fairly familiar: as Mercia, heir-apparent to the kingdom of Cherrystone, you’re forced to flee your kingdom after your father, the king, has been assassinated to regroup. Regroup in these instances means learn how to manage units, how units work in different map conditions and how to manage an ever-depleting war kitty by invading neutral towns and stealing all their gold for your own coffers.
I mean, all’s fair in love and war.
As you progress across the map and complete missions new paths become available to you, with a main story path as well as optional side missions. These can reward you with new units, new information and other additional gameplay and lore notes. Each map you engage in conflict features various types of terrain or weather for you to think tactically about, and each of your units has a unit it’s weak against, and another it’s strong against. There are units with shorter movement range, larger movement range, and while we’re on the word, units that can only attack while ranged.
Most of this is, of course, par for the tactical turn-based videogame course. Where Wargroove excels is in its throwback presentation, impressive score and overall polish. The game is also available across all platforms, though many will argue as an Advance Wars spiritual successor it’s most at home on Nintendo Switch where portability adds to the playability because, honestly, some of the game’s missions are an absolute grinding chokehold of a challenge. So being able to take the game on-the-go with you at least gives you a fighting chance as far as time-investment goes, but it’s also in this space it falls short of nostalgic perfection.
Depending on the mission and your exposure to its nuance, as well as your full understanding of the rock, paper, scissors combat versus working towards a quick Stronghold takedown, or just playing to build, build and build, Wargroove can really take a chunk of time. This is problematic mid-game for two reasons: the steep learning curve with no example of tactical ideas on how to face some of those curves and two, the time investment on some of the maps where you have to kind of learn those concepts on your own (or trial limited ways in which to combat more resourceful AI), means failing them is a straight-up map restart. And as a turn-based game, the slog to get back to that crunch point is both annoying and frustrating all at once. When you’ve gotten to Turn 37 on a map because everything else you’ve tried simply isn’t working, and then get oh-so-close to Success, only to succumb to defeat, wanting to go through an hour of early repeated motions just feels like a chore.
Dialogue and even battle animations can be skipped, sort of (sped up, really) but it really lets the game down that you can’t have a mid-mission save option. Maybe Chucklefish could have thought about adding something like: once you hit a milestone moment in a mission the game gives you a chance to restart from a specific point or restart back to the beginning of the mission. Either way, it’s not an option and, honestly, genuinely lets the game down. And that’s not a point about it being too hard by any measure, I love challenging tactical games, but when they begin to feel laborious then the game itself has done disservice to the player.
On the whole, however, players who don’t mind the long game, and have a soft spot for the turn-based tactics games of old will find a lot of value here, even beyond its charm. There’s also multiplayer and a map editor with all the tools required to upload and share those creations, which is a massive added bonus to the basic product, and at less than 5GB to download, but with how much you get out of it, it’s hard not to recommend it. Just be ready for an intensive investment in time through its swift learning curve. This fledgling developer-publisher is on the right path to making a nostalgia-based name for itself if it stays this course.