Intelligent Systems has always been known for its strategy game IP, with Fire Emblem naturally being the most popular, but that esteemed series might never have made it West were it not for the more colourful and militaristic antics of the Advance Wars franchise. Unfortunately – despite its similarities to Fire Emblem and its high critical acclaim – Advance Wars never quite hit the same levels of popularity as its sibling and hasn’t received a new release since Days of Ruin on the DS, way back in 2008. In the void left behind, the responsibility of carrying on the series’ legacy has been left up to the fans, which is what brings us to the current eShop launch of Wargroove. As a spiritual successor to Nintendo’s popular series, Wargroove manages to satisfy in nearly every conceivable way, offering a diverse helping of high-quality single and multiplayer content that’s sure to keep fans entertained for dozens of hours.
Wargroove begins in the land of Aurania, where the peaceful Cherrystone Kingdom must always be on guard against the frozen, undead hordes of the Felheim Legion in the west. The story mostly follows Mercia, a princess-turned-queen who has the responsibility of the throne suddenly thrust upon her when an agent of Felheim assassinates her father King Mercival and instigates a fully-fledged invasion. Although it isn’t exactly a groundbreaking story, it’s absolutely packed with a diverse and colourful cast of memorable characters from a handful of different factions that manage to keep each mission engaging, even beyond the stellar gameplay.
These characters all have surprisingly deep backstories (accessible through a handy Codex, which is fleshed out as you play) which strike a nice balance between humour and more serious themes. Our favourite character is a Felheim commander introduced early on named Ragna; an extremely angry (and equally incompetent) zombie woman stitched together from pieces of great military leaders who is prone to temper tantrums when the Cherrystone army easily beats her. Characters like Ragna keep things interesting and stop the story from going stale, but we appreciate the effort the developers have placed in creating a world with such a rich and fleshed-out history; it’s tantalisingly easy to see how many future games could be set in this world.
Naturally, you’ll be spending the bulk of your time examining grid-like maps from a top-down perspective, painstakingly moving units around in a delicate dance for victory. Battles unfold in a turn-based manner, with the goal usually being to either seize the enemy stronghold or defeat the enemy commander, and play a bit like a much more in-depth version of Chess. There are dozens of different unit types that both teams can use, and they all have specific functions that make them extra effective against certain units and terribly weak against others. For example, a Knight can travel six spaces and hits harder than a typical swordsman, but is incapable of crossing mountain ranges and can’t capture villages or barracks. Organising a well-balanced team and distributing those units wisely across the field is utterly integral to your success; mistakes are usually not crippling, but they are costly, and too many ill-placed units or poorly thought out offensive runs can lead to a defeat all too quickly.
Another neat touch is that every unit has its own unique strength which allows it – under the right conditions – to inflict additional 'critical' damage on the enemy. For example, standard foot soldiers gain a boost when they're fighting next to their commander, while archers perform critical hits if they attack without moving in the same turn. Knights, on the other hand, only enable their 'critical' when they've moved a certain number of squares before attacking, while spearmen are more powerful when fighting in pairs. Because each unit's 'crit' is accessed in a different way, it makes things even more tactical. Add in commanders – your most adept units which have access to the titular 'Groove' powers that offer both offensive and defensive benefits – and things become even more interesting; these units are capable of taking down several 'standard' units on their own, but should they fall in battle, the game is over.
Though the goal is usually to defeat a certain enemy unit or location, a secondary goal that’s just as important lies in how many villages your team can capture along the way. Every map is scattered with a collection of neutral villages; once aligned with a team, these villages then generate a set amount of gold for the war effort which is spent on recruiting new units at an allied barracks. The more villages you take over, the more options you have to bring units onto the field in higher quality or quantity, and a good strategy for taking down an opponent can be found in crippling their income sources to effectively 'starve them out'.
A big part of what makes Wargroove so enjoyable is how there are different ‘levels’ to every battle that ensure you make every decision with the whole fight in mind. When a battle starts, do you recruit a bunch of cheap units that can fan out and take villages faster, or do you instead invest in just a few powerful units and try to rush the enemy before they get too entrenched? Once a few rounds have passed and each team has amassed its own collection of units and villages, it’s wise to shift focus to where you want to apply pressure and focus your resources. More diverse units start appearing on the field, so team composition becomes increasingly more important, along with thinking about the kind of tasks you want each unit to carry out. Through all this, there are no right or wrong answers – multiple strategies could all feasibly carry you to victory – and watching your gambles play out turn by turn, adapting as you go, ensures that you remain constantly engrossed. Battles can take anywhere from twenty minutes to over an hour (don’t worry, you can save and quit at any time), but it’s remarkable how easily the time seems to slide away when you get in the zone.
For those of you that manage to beat the campaign, there’s no shortage of other content on offer to keep you coming back, all of it offering up some variation on the core strategy gameplay. For example, as you progress the main story and encounter new commanders, new levels are unlocked in an Arcade Mode in which you run a gauntlet of five battles on random maps to see how far you can get. Not only does this allow you to better familiarise yourself with each commander’s unique skillset, but successfully completing the run unlocks extra goodies like new music tracks, concept art, and lore entries. Similarly, Puzzle mode tasks you with ‘solving’ levels by laying out specific scenarios and asking the player to achieve victory in one turn. This tests your knowledge of unit strengths and weaknesses, as well as how good you are at manoeuvring different terrain types and weather effects.
For the more creative ones out there, Wargroove also contains an amazingly extensive level editor that allows players to create their own maps and even their own campaigns, complete with cutscenes. The level building tools are a little bit hokey to begin with (and sadly don’t feature touch screen support), but are simple enough to master, allowing players a surprisingly high amount of creative control; it wouldn’t be a shock to learn that the developers used a version of these tools themselves when building the game. You can control placement of virtually any character or tile type in the game, arrange a soundtrack from unlocked music, set special rules for when victory is triggered, and so much more; the developers are functionally handing over the keys and challenging you to make a better game than they could.
Once you’ve finished a map or campaign, it can then be uploaded to the global server for distribution, and you can then download other player’s creations and try them out. As you’d expect, this adds a nearly infinite level of replayability to Wargroove long after the credits have rolled on the main campaign and other side content. Plus, the endless creativity of the internet never fails to impress, and already we’ve seen some surprisingly in-depth efforts that play with the core game mechanics in interesting ways.
Multiplayer naturally doesn’t just stop there, however, you can also play locally or online with up to four players, on either official maps or anything player-generated. As you’d expect, there’s full support for all control types, even for those who just want to use one controller and pass it back and forth between turns. Once more, this creates endless opportunity for replayability, and while there’s no ranking system to speak of, it’s still generally more fun to battle against human opponents than against the AI.
In terms of presentation, Wargroove goes for a rich, pixel-heavy art style that wouldn’t look out of place on the Game Boy Advance, characterized by chunky, colourful character sprites on the battle screen and more realistic and detailed ones during cutscenes. It’s not a particularly innovative look, but it absolutely nails the same level of charm and detail as the writing; a strategy game such as this is at its best when it goes with a simple art style, and Wargroove utilises one that helps to give it some memorable identity. In much the same thinking, the soundtrack is similarly charming, consisting of a series of soaring, fantasy-themed tracks that fit well with the setting. We wouldn’t say that Wargroove is a showstopper in its presentation, but it still does a great job nonetheless and comes close to exhibiting the same level of craft seen in GBA instalments of Fire Emblem and Advance Wars – which, we imagine, was the developer's intention from the start.
As far as strategy games are concerned on the Switch, Wargroove is one of the best titles you can find on the eShop. Extremely deep and diverse strategy gameplay, ridiculous amounts of replayability, and charming presentation all combine to make this one an easy recommendation to anybody looking for a deep and cerebral experience for their Switch. Advance Wars may only exist nowadays in our memories, but Wargroove stands as a worthy successor to the franchise; if Intelligent Systems does ever decide to revive its cult classic series, it’s going to have some stiff competition to contend with thanks to Chucklefish's efforts.