It’s now been eleven whole years since we’ve had a new Advance Wars game, with Nintendo seemingly happy to let its successful SRPG series slide into oblivion since 2008’s Dark Conflict on the DS, disregarding the pleas of fans whilst instead turning its attention to the more story-oriented and emotional action of Fire Emblem. However, developer Area 35 stepped in and delivered us the rather good Tiny Metal back in 2017, an Advance Wars clone which came within clawing distance of that series’ greatness. Now, the studio is back with a sequel, Tiny Metal: Full Metal Rumble.
If you’ve played any Advance War game (or indeed the first Tiny Metal) you’ll immediately feel at home with Tiny Metal: Full Metal Rumble’s top-down, grid-based set-up, taking it in turns with your enemy to attempt to outmanoeuvre one other; flanking, using terrain to your advantage and deciding when to push your troops forward or pull back in the struggle to win out across a generous and challenging campaign mode. Just like the first game, you’ll need to quickly get to grips with which of your troops and vehicles do what if you’re to stand any chance, and there’s an impressive list to get your head around here.
Alongside your common riflemen and lancers – foot soldiers who are essential in seizing assets but very fragile in the face of enemy fire – you'll march into battle armed with surface-to-air Vipers, ground-pounding Strikers, assault helicopters, rapidly-moving scout vehicles, radar trucks which increase your visual range, the titular hard-hitting "metals" (tanks to you and me) and more – all of which are very thoughtfully summarised in the game’s “Metalpedia” section.
Moving across the various warzones on offer, you’ll need to capture buildings with your ground forces to give yourself defensive and offensive boons as well as the capabilities to create and deploy a steady stream of units in order to control the map and crush each and every one your tiny enemies – or grab their HQ for a quick and sneaky victory. Comms towers still give you the option to unleash a hero unit onto the field, which will cost you some hard-earned credits but can be invaluable in turning the tide of a tough battle, whilst factories and city blocks allow you to heal wounded troops. Overall, the rounds here play out in very much the same way as they did in 2017’s effort, but now come with a few key additions which lift this game beyond what Area 35 achieved with its first swing at the genre.
Indeed, in comparison to its predecessor, Tiny Metal: Full Metal Rumble arrives feeling much more fully-formed; multiplayer mode is present and correct from the get-go here and the moment-to-moment gameplay benefits from the addition of a number of important tactical systems, including the ability to transport your ground troops inside vehicles, restock ammo, supply fuel to units and make use of special commander powers (all ripped wholesale from Advance Wars, but we’re not complaining).
Commander powers are activated once you’ve accrued a certain amount of power in a round and, once activated, will do a number of things – such as increase troop defences or attacks for a turn or perhaps knock 50 percent off the time it takes to grab control of a building. Troop transport makes it much easier to get your riflemen and lancers into important areas or structures as quickly as you can in order to grab the upper hand against your crafty opponents, and it really adds to the options you’ve got on the field. There’s also now a fully rotatable camera to let you get a better angle on the action; a not insignificant quality of life improvement.
Enemy AI has also received an upgrade and its fighters now avail of every rule in the playbook, they’ll often surprise you with flanking manoeuvres as well as continuously making clever use of the likes of the returning focus fire and assault options – such as pushing forward and dropping back, making use of buildings and terrain to shelter attacking units and generally being a massive (but very welcome) pain in the backside.
This is all great news but there are, as usual, a few nagging complaints to get through. The campaign gets off to a janky start with the first ten missions essentially a very long tutorial, which is fine in and of itself, but unfortunately vital information about troop types, vehicles and tactical options is fed to the player in a haphazard and confusingly slow way, so newcomers especially may find they’re getting their ass kicked for the first four or five missions before the game decides to let them know crucial information that could have saved some serious bother. We also encountered a strange bug which sees you unable to skip the creation of new units at your factories; instead, you’ll need to hit pause and end your turn from the menu there, a small issue and something we assume will be very quickly patched out post-launch.
The story also suffers because of this slow start and erratically jumps around to different characters for the first few hours in such a way that you’ll probably to struggle to know who anyone is (or why you’re fighting) until it settles down and starts to get into a much more satisfying groove. Indeed, it actually goes on to become quite an interesting tale, with a handful of great characters and just enough mystery about it – which we won’t spoil here – to keep you interested until the very end.
All of these early teething problems are well worth bearing with however, because once you’re out of the tutorials you’ll find a game that’s absolutely stuffed to the gills with content, offering robust multiplayer and skirmish modes alongside a generous campaign which took us upwards of twenty hours to plough through. Battles here are constantly engaging and tense affairs that require your full attention and provide non-stop shocks and surprises along the way, with the AI time and time again bringing its A-game to the table in its attempts to thwart your advances. It's genuinely thrilling and addictive stuff and any doubts we had due to that slow start were soon forgotten in the maelstrom.
In terms of performance, things are pretty much buttery smooth in both handheld and docked modes on Switch; we did notice a few tiny stutters when enemy units are exploded to pieces during combat as well as the odd input delay when there’s a lot of turns happening very quickly, but they don't affect the flow of gameplay in any way. Besides these little niggles the game plays and looks fantastic, with a nice variety of battle locales and big colourful chunky units making things very easy to follow if you’re enjoying the action in portable mode – which is exactly where this type of game is at its best; an almost endlessly entertaining, tactical travelling companion. Voice acting can be a bit of a mixed bag but it’s nothing too offensive and you can always switch to Japanese if you’re finding it particularly annoying. Indeed, the overall presentation is very slick across the board here, with smart-looking menus and a delightful little mission map that you can drive a variety of tiny vehicles around to find secrets between missions.
Tiny Metal: Full Metal Rumble surpasses both its predecessor and the recent Wargroove to become the number one Advance Wars clone available on Switch right now. Indeed, it may be fair to say that this time around Area 35 has beaten Advance Wars at its own game with a super-tight and generous SRPG that takes the best from the greats it emulates and wraps them up in a much more modern and satisfying package. Battles here are challenging, tense and highly replayable affairs, new tactical options add even more depth to proceedings and the story, once it gets going, will keep you locked in until the fight is done. Long-suffering Advance Wars fans take note, this one really is pretty much essential.