The release of Advance Wars in 2001 marked a watershed moment for Nintendo and its Western video game market. Its unprecedented popularity showed that challenging turn-based tactics games had an audience, paving the way for games like Fire Emblem to finally release outside of Japan. Despite its popularity, the last Advance Wars game to come out was Days of Ruin in 2008. Over a decade later, WarGroove has taken up the mantle and carries on the strategy franchise’s spirit.
World of WarGroove
In WarGroove, players follow Mercia, the newly crowned warrior-queen of Cherrystone. Mercia gets put to the test as the nation of Felheim sends its vast undead legions to invade her country. As she flees the oncoming hordes, a sinister plot unravels that threatens not only Cherrystone, but the entire continent of Aurania. Along the way she meets friends, makes enemies, and fends off attacks of all sorts.
If this seems like a generic fantasy-adventure plot, well, chances are it is. However, by no means is that a bad thing. WarGroove’s lore doesn’t get overly complex, which allows its strong cast of characters to shine. Whether it’s the implacable undead general Ragna or the conniving assassin Sedge, WarGroove offers a story that’s simple, yet engaging.
For the more enterprising player, the game does feature a surprisingly in-depth codex system that digs into the lore. Despite having a relatively small world, Chucklefish has gone to great lengths to flesh out WarGroove. The setting is a loving hodgepodge of different fantasy elements, from feudal Japan to nordic mythology.
What truly brings the game to life, however, is its absolutely gorgeous pixel art aesthetic. Like Advance Wars and Metal Slug, WarGroove’s colorful pixel art and vibrant animations capture an outlandish sense of fun.
The game’s visual style abides by cartoony logic, where giant alchemical balloons soar above skittering skeleton soldiers. WarGroove takes itself just seriously enough to give a sense of adventure, but allows plenty of room to have fun. This game does, after all, have a big lovable dog as a fearsome commander of loyal troops. And he is a good boy, yes he is.
Assembling Your Armies
The game boasts an astonishing number of diverse units, with each of the four warring factions bringing their own unique aesthetic. At their core, the armies functionally work the same, with visual flair serving as the only real distinguishing characteristic.
Most WarGroove games prioritize a mix of objectives and skirmishing, where your ultimate goal is to either eliminate the enemy commander or destroy their stronghold. Capturing certain buildings can either reward you with gold every turn or the ability to buy units for your army. Whittle your enemy units down until their health reaches 0; do that to the commander or stronghold and you win.
You fill your ranks with a wide array of options, from your standard foot soldier and pikemen to the more fantastical giants and dragons. Stronger units will be more expensive, but WarGroove’s design ensures that every opponent can be properly countered with the right composition (and strategy). Never does it feel like a match went unfairly because of poor design decisions. Mostly poor strategic ones.
Much of the strategy lies in how units interact, a relationship that WarGroove explores in rather interesting ways. Some share straightforward relationships, like pikemen being stronger than cavalry or ballistae being stronger than flying units. While clearly inspired by games like Advance Wars, WarGroove adds its own tweaks upon the genre in the form of commanders, WarGrooves, and critical hits.
True to their titles, commanders lead your armies into battle. However, far from being off the field, they are one of your most powerful units in play. Commanders can take several blows before going down, deal impressive amounts of damage, and generally be a pain in your enemy’s side.
Commanders truly shine with the Groove system. Each commander comes with their own unique Groove, a powerful ability that can be unleashed mid-game. Some are straightforward, like group heals or lifedraining one-hit-KOs. Others provide more tactical opportunities, like Greenfinger’s groove, which allows him to place down five giant trees in five different tiles to soak up damage and block enemy movement. Knowing when and where is the best time to activate your Groove can swing a crucial fight in your favor or allow you to clinch your victory.
Although a seemingly minor mechanic at first, critical hits are the game’s way of rewarding the especially insightful commander. Many units have a condition that must be met before a critical hit can be achieved, such as being positioned adjacent to another unit of the same type or having your health dip below 40%.
The critical hit system forces both sides to constantly be on the lookout, careful not to give their opponent an edge while trying to secure one for themselves. The result is a high-powered game of chess that can be just as frustrating as it is fun.
Tools of War
WarGroove ships with its main campaign, boasting over a dozen hours of satisfyingly challenging missions (some more than others). Every mission also comes with a unique spin that keeps players on their toes, while also introducing the huge unit roster. In one mission you’ll infiltrate a bandit camp and recruit prisoners of war, while in another you’ll beat a hasty retreat as fliers cover your back. The main campaign has been masterfully designed to be instructional as well as entertaining.
Aside from the campaign, there are the Arcade and Puzzle game modes. Arcade lets you take commanders through a gauntlet of 1v1 matches, while Puzzle features a host of challenge maps that you need to “win” in one turn. Small additions, but they bring much more depth to the game as a whole.
In addition to the content it ships with, WarGroove also provides players with tools to create their own maps and campaigns. The game’s online functionality will hopefully sport a healthy online scene that pits players in a fantastic battle of tactical wit. Otherwise, see if you can scrounge up a few friends to duke it out on the couch and see whose brain truly is the biggest.
While the in-depth strategy behind WarGroove‘s gameplay can get somewhat obtuse at times, it provides a tactical satisfaction that has been sorely lacking in contemporary video games. Chucklefish has managed to capture what made the Advance Wars franchise special while making a game that is uniquely their own.