There’s a fine line between homage and complete rip-off, and Wargroove bends that line as hard and as often as it can. Chucklefish’s new strategy game is a carbon copy of the Advance Wars formula, right down to the commander reactions on the attack animation screens. But that formula is so lovingly recreated and reiterated, it’s hard to fault Wargroove to sticking with what works, especially while Nintendo refuses to resurrect a strategy series that had only limited exposure in the west.
The biggest difference that Wargroove introduces is its setting and theme, leaning heavily into a fantasy shtick. The game’s story campaign follows Mercia, the new queen of Cherrystone, as it comes under attack from the legion of Fellheim. Seeking vengeance for the death of her father and wanting to stop Fellheim from acquiring a powerful, world-ending weapon known as Requiem, Mercia and her followers must trek across the continent of Aurenia, seeking aid from their allies in Heavensong. If that sounds like fairly generic fantasy gobbledygook, that’s because it is, but Wargroove never takes itself too seriously. Its lore is lighthearted, its characters are memorable and relatable, and each story beat is just an excuse to familiarize players with its complex strategy system.
Really, the campaign functions mostly as an extended tutorial that unlocks more parts of the game. Every mission will introduce you to more unit types, which you can then employ in future missions. Not all mission objectives are the same, either. While most of them will task you with either taking out the enemy commander or destroying the enemy stronghold, some of them add twists to the base gameplay to keep things interesting. One sees Emeric, Mercia’s wizard mentor, traveling from pond to pond, contacting the queen’s dead father from beyond the grave, all while fighting off increasing waves of undead with just a small troop of soldiers. Another finds Mercia’s dog, Cesar, storming a castle to free civilian prisoners, who then join your ranks as fighters. These missions provide just enough variation that they will make you employ new tactics and rethink how you approach the game’s basic strategy of capturing villages, building more units, and eventually overwhelming the enemy.
My personal favorite mode is Arcade, where you’ll play through different scenarios as a specific commander. Arcade really lets you hone your skills as a tactician and focus on Wargroove’s excellently balanced combat mechanics. As with Advance Wars, players take turns moving their units across the map. You can capture villages to earn gold, which you then spend on building more units or healing the ones you already have on the board. Destroying enemy villages will cripple their economy and stop them from producing more units, but it also takes a few turns and will result in your attacking unit taking some damage. Likewise, if you attack an enemy unit and don’t take them out in one turn, they will damage your unit. The more health a unit has, the more damage they’ll do, so you have to be smart about when to attack and when to back down. It’s all stressfully satisfying, and figuring out when to deploy what units and how to wisely spend your gold can create an addictive gameplay loop. When you win, you actually feel victorious, while losing can provide a devastating moment of reflection.
The depth in strategy extends to knowing your unit types inside and out. Wargroove’s 19 unit types are a mix of land, sea, and air combat, and each unit has its strengths and weaknesses. Pikemen, for example, are fairly cheap, heavy-duty infantry units that will take less damage from more offensive units like knights, but they can only move a few spaces each turn, meaning they’re not the best invaders. On the flipside, knights can travel large expanses of the board and pack a punch, but you can sink a lot of gold into them only to see them get taken out in one or two turns if you aren’t careful. It’s a complex mixture of chess and rock-paper-scissors, where some air units can attack ground units, but some sea units can attack air units, and so on. Losing 1,200 gold on a powerful emberwing dragon just because you moved it one square too close to a ballista is a lesson you won’t soon forget.
One place where Wargroove sets itself apart is with its commanders. There are a total of 13 commanders in Wargroove, and each has their own “Groove” move that needs to be powered up before players can use it. Every Groove is different, which gives selecting a commander a key component of your strategy. Mercia, for instance, can heal herself and other friendly units within a certain area, while Koji can unleash powerful bombs that players control as their own separate units, giving him a bit of range. The trade-off to using these commanders in battle is that losing them will result in losing the match, so knowing when to employ them is a key strategy, and getting them cornered and narrowly escaping makes for some of the tensest moments Wargroove has to offer.
Not every aspect of the combat is perfectly balanced and perfectly executed. Wargroove lets you see what each enemy unit’s movement and attack range is, but I found that to be somewhat unreliable, at times putting my units on the receiving end of attacks the game pretty much guaranteed me weren’t possible. There isn’t an “undo” button either, which can be kind of annoying when you accidentally pick “wait” when you mean to pick “attack.” The animations that follow each attack are also way too long and severely slow the pacing of a match. You can choose to only show your attack animations, or skip them altogether (which is what I ended up doing), but taking out these visual elements ends up stripping the gameplay of a lot of its character and charm. Still, these are pretty minor overall complaints when every other aspect of the game is so complex, robust, and enjoyable.
Wargroove isn’t just about destroying the enemy. It’s also about creating new maps and campaigns in which you can destroy your enemy. Wargroove’s map creator is robust, and you can pretty much make any kind of map you want as long as it uses assets that already appear in the game. Do you want a mostly naval-focused battle with two continents on either side? Make it. Maybe you’d like a giant castle interior with not a lot of terrain variation. Go for it. Or maybe you like meticulously placing mountains and forested regions for a more drawn out, defensive battle. You can do that, too. The possibilities are pretty much infinite, and it’ll be exciting to see what other players come up with throughout the game’s life, as you can share your maps and download those created by other players. Using custom maps, you can even build your own campaign and create your own cutscenes. The creative potential in such a small package is astounding and easily one of the game’s main selling points.
As far as multiplayer goes, Chucklefish recently promoted cross-platform online play to launch with the game. Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to test that out with my review copy. There’s also plenty of local multiplayer to keep you busy if you don’t feel like going to battle online, and the fact that you only need one controller makes it possible to play anywhere with friends, especially on the Switch version that I played. Still, if multiplayer is the main draw for you, you might want to wait to see how the servers are after launch. But if you’re like me, there’s already enough single-player content to keep you busy.
Chucklefish may have straight-up jacked Advance Wars’ formula for Wargroove, but at least they made something great with it. If you’ve been jonesing for a portable follow-up to Nintendo’s sadly forgotten strategy series, playing Wargroove on the Switch will satisfy your cravings.
Wargroove might be the least original game I’ve played in a long time, but it offers fans of the Advance Wars series something we’ve been lacking for a while. Thankfully, Wargroove does add enough subtle variations on Advance Wars’ formula to create its own niche, and multiplayer is much easier than convincing your other friend with a Game Boy Advance to buy their own copy. Even if you’re playing alone, there’s plenty to see and do, as long as you’re willing to learn some hard lessons along the way.
E10+ - Everyone 10+
|Wargroove is available on PlayStation 4, Xbox One, Nintendo Switch, PC. Primary version reviewed was for Nintendo Switch. Review code was provided by Chucklefish for the benefit of this review. EGM reviews games on a scale of one to five stars.|