It's been almost ten years since we last had an entry in Intelligent Systems' superb Advance Wars series, but don't let that depress you - we now have the next best thing in the form of Tiny Metal, the debut game from Japanese studio Area35. This is unashamedly a clone of the aforementioned Nintendo franchise and the nuts and bolts of its tactical, turn-based gameplay is lifted almost wholesale from the Advance Wars playbook. Despite its derivative nature, Tiny Metal hits all the right notes and throws in a few surprises of its own to liven up the blueprint.
In Tiny Metal, you control an army made up of different unit types, each with their own inherent strengths and weaknesses. Foot soldiers are weak, but they're the only ones who can capture enemy cities (which in turn generate revenue for you to spend on new units), while Metals (tanks in the game's parlance) boast incredible destructive power but have limited movement range. Helicopter gunships can fly over obstacles and pack powerful weapons, but can be dealt with effectively by mobile missile launchers, which - as you might imagine - are weak when under direct fire from other ground-based opponents. For every unit, there's another against which it is painfully weak, creating a wonderfully balanced system where there's always a solution for the issue at hand, no matter how dire things may be on the battlefield.
The game's campaign mode places you in the boots of Nathan Gries, a lieutenant in the Artemisian army. When a plane carrying the Artemisian monarch is shot down, the blame is quickly directed at the island nation of Zipang, triggering armed conflict. Like all good narratives, the plot to Tiny Metal rarely sticks to the predicted path and very early on Gries' loyalties to his nation are tested by a series of unexpected twists and turns. It's a surprisingly engaging storyline which is brought to life by excellent writing, emotive Japanese voice acting and good character artwork.
Your mission objective is usually to destroy the enemy army or capture their HQ, and successful control of the battlefield is almost always a case of intelligent resource management. You can't build units without owning the structures which create them, so your first task is often to locate a factory and capture it with your foot soldiers. You earn cash based on the number of buildings your own, making those a prime target also. All the while you're expanding your sphere of influence on the map, you have to deal with incoming threats from a rival general who has the same militaristic ambitions as you.
In addition to the keeping in mind the strengths and weaknesses of each of your units, you also need to take into account variables such as terrain, relative unit health and - most important of all - opportunities for combining your military power. Units in dense woodland or cities benefit from a defensive bonus, while positioning your forces on higher ground makes their attacks more effective. Very early on, the game's protagonist states emphatically that striking first is of the utmost importance; attacks which you initiate allow you to open the exchange of fire and deal the first blow, meaning that the enemy unit's response will consequently be less powerful. In some cases, you can wipe out a weaker unit without giving them chance to retaliate.
"Focus Fire" - one of the few features created for Tiny Metal rather than borrowed from Advance Wars - is by far the most effective means of dominating the battlefield, but it requires some forward-planning to master. Using this system, you can combine the attacking power of your units and take down stronger enemies in one fell swoop. Instead of selecting "attack" you pick "lock on" and select the enemy unit. From that point, you can add more weight to the eventual attack by locking on with other units, before picking the final unit and issuing them the "Focus Fire" command. The ensuing barrage should be enough to take the enemy down, but you need to plan accordingly; any units which are locked-on will not attack until the Focus Fire command is executed, and if you don't have any units which can be given that command at the end of your turn, it passes without any of your locked-on troops firing a single shot. Such wastefulness can be the difference between triumph and retreat.
Other wrinkles to the system include the "Assault" option, which is handy for pushing enemy units out of structures they're either trying to capture or preventing you from capturing. Assault carries risk, as it allows the enemy to fire first – however, should your unit survive the blow, they will push the enemy one square back on the map and assume their position. Your units grow in proficiency as the battle rolls on, with each move, attack and capture attempt boosting their experience and making them more effective - which gives you a reason to keep them alive for as long as possible. Certain structures are capable of healing damaged units, and you can call in "Hero Units" at certain times by using communication buildings dotted around the map. These are variants of the standard units and have special abilities which make them prized members of your burgeoning army.
Visually, the game uses a 3D engine despite presenting the action in a rigid, grid-based format, just like the original Advance Wars series. The default perspective is almost isometric, but you can use the shoulder buttons to toggle to a more traditional viewpoint, as well as zooming right in for a good look at those stylish 3D models. Attacks switch to a short cutscene which shows each unit opening fire, and these can be turned off entirely if you find them time-consuming. We'd also recommend you switch off the unit voices, which quickly become annoying; there's only so many times one can hear the same phrase uttered in a dodgy Scottish accent before you want to really hurt someone. Alternatively, you can switch the unit voices to Japanese to match the voice work heard during the narrative sequences, if you so wish.
The main campaign is generous in size and will offer even a skilled player around 15 to 20 hours of gameplay, and there's also a Skirmish option which offers a series of challenges - each rated by difficulty - to tackle when you're done with the main story. The most exciting element is the Multiplayer mode, which sadly isn't available at the time of writing. It promises to bring both local and online 1v1 multiplayer, which - barring some major disaster - will drastically enhance the game's playability. The Switch's portable nature should make this an ideal tactical time-waster when you're out and about, assuming you can find a willing opponent. Speaking of portability, it's worth noting that the game allows you to save your progress at any point in an active mission and exit out to the main menu - a prime consideration when you're playing in short bursts. Pleasingly, it only takes a few seconds to both save and load your progress. The only fly in the ointment from a technical perspective is that performance can become sluggish in handheld mode when there are a lot of units on-screen at once; animations become choppy and inputs become ever-so-slightly delayed, but it's not a common occurrence and doesn't impact your overall enjoyment (we also imagine it will be dealt with in a future update).
Tiny Metal has the core mechanics nailed down brilliantly, even if it has cribbed much of its structure from the famous Advance Wars franchise. Upon this handsome foundation Area35 has crafted a tactical wargame which is every bit as compelling, addictive and challenging as its inspiration, while adding in a storyline of surprising drama and complexity. The robust single-player campaign - twinned with some great one-off maps in the Skirmish mode - is worth the price of admission alone, but when the multiplayer mode arrives (presumably at some point next year) the game will become even more essential. Isaac Newton once attributed his remarkable discoveries in the realms of mathematics, astrology and theology to the fact that he was "standing on the shoulders of giants"; his outstanding work was only possible because of the geniuses that came before him. The same could be said of Tiny Metal; it may be light on original ideas, but it's a towering achievement regardless.