Available On: PC, PlayStation 4, Switch, Xbox One
Tactical strategy games have seen a resurgence in recent years, with excellent reboots and sequels for series like XCOM and Fire Emblem. But it’s pixel-perfect indie studio Chucklefish that has taken up the mantle of re-imagining the Advance War series (which had inspired Fire Emblem’s initial localization outside Japan).
Indie games have long filled the void of classic genres and gameplay styles left behind by bigger studios. Wargroove is the perfect example of an indie studio rebooting a beloved series while infusing their own story, with several modern improvements and an astonishing amount of content.
Wargroove is a turn-based tactical strategy game set in a high fantasy world of swords, spears, trebuchets, and dragons. The core gameplay and visual style is lifted directly from the Advance Wars series, which first launched in the US on the Game Boy Advance in 2001. Pixelated soldiers move across a top-down battlefield of rivers, mountains, and villages. Income (gold) is generated via captured villages, while new units and siege weapons are produced at a barracks.
Three different gameplay modes are available: arcade, campaign, and puzzle. The campaign follows the story of Queen Mercia as her kingdom of Cherrystone is invaded by the undead legions of Felheim. It’s a lengthy, meaty adventure full of varied objectives and maps, and a great teaching tool for gradually introducing each unit.
One mission tasked me with defending a central town over a certain number of turns, while enemies spawned around me. Side missions offer even more varied objects, such as entering a castle with a set number of units and freeing prisoners to join my ranks. Or racing to capture a hot-air balloon to stop a rampaging giant, or engaging in an all naval battle using unique merfolk and turtle units.
The story is also delightfully fun, striking the perfect YA tone that matches the colorful pixel art. War is still the central moving force, but allies make friends and crack jokes, and one particular recurring villain’s hell-bent aggressiveness is effectively played for laughs. There’s very little voice acting but all the characters come to life with fun scenes and strong writing that doesn’t slow the story down.
The Pups of War
Each unit has strengths and weakness directly tied to other units or tasks. Cavalry units are great at mowing down enemy archers and swordsman, as well as capturing villages, but fall quickly to spear units. Examining a unit shows exactly which units it’s strong and weak against, as well as how that unit achieves a critical hit. Instead of relying on random dice rolls, crits are guaranteed by placing your units in certain areas. Pikeman get a crit if they’re next to another pikeman, while Calvary get a critical hit if they move at least six spaces before they attack.
It’s a rewarding system that demands careful placement of units, and rarely feels unfair. Damage fluctuates slightly but you can generally see the average damage you’ll do before you commit to a move. The AI can be brutally effective at maximizing its own unit placement and critical hits. It doesn’t match the patience and baiting I can employ, but it’s often given a head-start on units and income, forcing a challenging battle. In the campaign the difficulty ramps up quickly and doesn’t let up.
I’m a veteran of many a turn-based tactical game. It’s one of my favorite genres, yet I still struggled on many of the later maps. Some of the battles last a little too long (the aforementioned central town defense took me two solid hours) and losing because of a single mistake is devastating. Thankfully you can create a custom checkpoint anywhere during a battle, although I was over a dozen hours into the game before I discovered that relatively hidden feature.
Puzzle mode is also quite challenging. Puzzle mode presents a single screen of units already in play, and it’s up to you to complete the objective in a single turn. It’s an interesting diversion that I found embarrassingly humbling.
The final mode is Arcade. In the Arcade mode you select a commander and battle through five symmetrical maps. Commanders are the leaders of every army. They’re extremely powerful units, but if they fall you lose the match. Many of the campaign maps force you to use your commander in risky situations, but they can also charge up their signature groove abilities. Queen Mercia can heal units around her, while her mentor Emeric can summon a defensive Elder Shield. My favorites were Koji’s summonable flying bombs and Nuru’s ability to summon new units right next to her. Since the campaign primarily focuses on Mercia and her allies, the arcade mode provides a fun way to see the other commanders in action.
Wargroove is rated E10+ by the ESRB for Fantasy Violence. Despite its war-torn story and constant unit battling, the pixel graphics don’t show any blood or death. Units fall down and disappear when defeated, while the dog units simply run away. The story is also easily palpable for younger audiences, reminding me of the tone of the How to Train Your Dragon series (although far less emotional).
Although Wargroove’s default difficulty is quite challenging, it always left me coming back for more. Importantly, you can easily alter individual settings like enemy health and damage to fine tune your own comfort levels (or for an even bigger challenge). Modern improvements like adjustable difficulty are a welcome addition. Lifting the classic gameplay of Advance Wars will create a solid foundation for any turn-based strategy game, but Wargroove goes well beyond a simple remake with a fun campaign, interesting world, and dozens of hours of gameplay.