For fans, few things are more frustrating than when a favorite franchise goes into hibernation. Metroid series fans, for example, famously had to go seven years between installments (ignoring Federation Force, of course). Well, fans of the Advance Wars series have it even worse, as it’s been ten years and counting since Advance Wars: Days of Ruin came out on the Nintendo DS. Thankfully, the fans at Chucklefish decided enough was enough and created the Advance Wars successor that we all deserve: Wargroove.
In Wargroove, a royal assassination triggers an invasion of the peaceful kingdom of Cherrystone. The new queen, Mercia, her royal advisor, Emeric, and her loyal pup, Caesar, must travel far beyond their borders, recruiting allies to retaliate against the undead Felheim empire. But behind the scenes, a shadowy figure is manipulating events for their own gain in a way that could spell the end of the world!
Wargroove wears its Advance Wars inspiration on its sleeve with cartoony pixel art graphics and a lighthearted tone, but pushes the formula forward with innovations that all but ensure that this turn-based strategy game will become a classic in its own right. The graphics far exceed anything that the Game Boy Advance was capable of, while still reminding us of that simpler time. Everything from the character portraits to the maps and cutscenes all feature stunning pixel art. It’s astounding how much charm and personality Chucklefish has managed to put into every single character sprite. Every unit, from our heroes to a lowly swordsman, are beautifully animated as they run across the field and die in a puff of smoke.
If you’ve ever played a grid-based strategy game, such as Fire Emblem or Final Fantasy Tactics, then you will be right at home with Wargroove. While the dormant Advance Wars series heavily inspired the overall aesthetic and basic gameplay, it’s given a medieval twist rather than being a parody of modern warfare. Using your daily allotment of gold (which can be significantly increased by capturing villages) you build land, air, and sea forces to corner and defeat the other side. Whether you create a massive battalion of pikemen every turn or save up for a mighty dragon is entirely up to you.
And let’s not forget about the puppies! The dogs of war are literally unleashed with battlepups being an essential unit on the field. No doggos were hurt in the making of this game as, unlike the human troops, the pups simply run away when attacked. Add to that Caesar, one of the most lovable video game canines since Dogmeat, and you have a title that wears its love of dogs on its sleeve!
Unfortunately, the only real difference between the four available factions is the character design. They all have the same basic unit types that inflict the same level of damage. I feel that this was a missed opportunity to further differentiate the factions with specific units, powers, and abilities. As it is, the only reason to play as a particular faction is that you like their aesthetic and hero units.
There is a range of missions including destroying the enemy stronghold, killing the enemy commander, saving villagers, and surviving wave after wave of reinforcements. Chucklefish has done a remarkable job balancing the battles, as even the most powerful units can be easily taken down by the right combination of troops. Every single unit has a useful purpose and specialty. Having trouble seeing through the fog of war? Send a battlepup up to a hill to scout the area. Aerial troops decimating your forces? A priest can take them out in one hit. Each battle becomes a delicate balance of offense and defense, making sure that you can counter your enemy’s strategy while still advancing your own.
Wargroove isn’t just an homage, as there are many new features that elevate it above previous similar titles. First is the addition of playable commanders. Unlike Advance Wars, here your commander is in the middle of the action. They are your strongest unit, a real force to be reckoned with on the field. If they die, you get an instant defeat, so be careful that they don’t end up surrounded in a skirmish. Each commander has a special move, called a groove, that can dramatically shift the tide of the battle. Whether you’re Mercia, who can heal the HP of her troops around her, or the evil vampire Sigrid, who can instantly drain a unit of all HP to replenish her own, learning how to best utilize your groove is the key to triumph.
Weather conditions can also play a huge part in your strategy. Every day, there’s one of three weather states: sunny, favorable winds, or extreme weather. Each impacts the attack and movement range of your troops. You can see the weather forecast at the top of the screen, so be sure to take note of what is to come. Being a bit bolder the day before favorable winds can lead to victory, while retreating before extreme weather can prevent a devastating defeat.
There is one major pitfall in Wargroove, and that’s its difficulty. You’re going to lose. A lot. Everything starts out with a smooth difficulty curve, clearly introducing new units and mechanics as Mercia flees from Cherrystone. But soon, all pretense of a tutorial is thrown out the window as you are given troops that you have no idea how to use. You’re just expected to figure it out. This is especially noticeable in the naval battles, where new water-based units completely change up the gameplay and strategies without giving the player a proper heads up. It’s literally sink or swim.
This high difficulty wouldn’t be a problem except that some missions in Wargroove can take upwards of an hour to complete. Even if you are perfectly executing your strategy, you are still almost always one wrong move away from defeat. To mitigate this, the difficulty setting is customizable, making the battles much easier to complete. However, as the developers set the default setting on hard, this can feel like you’re cheating yourself out of the intended experience.
The somewhat clumsy interface doesn’t help, either. It’s easy to accidentally end your turn or move a unit that you didn’t mean to command. Put your hero in the wrong spot and WHAM; you’ve lost a ton of playtime. A single checkpoint per battle helps mitigate this issue, but you can still end up in a no-win scenario. I will admit to occasionally rage-quitting, but never for long. No matter how many times I lost or how frustrated I felt, I would always come back for more. In Wargroove, even losing is fun.
If you feel like a break from the story campaign, there are other single player modes available to you after the first few missions. There is a fantastic arcade mode — a series of one-on-one battles against the AI, not unlike a fighting game. If you lose one battle, you have to start back at the beginning. To unlock all of the commanders in this mode, you need to complete the main campaign, collecting as many S-ranks as you can along the way. There might even be a few hidden characters!
Then there is the puzzle mode. If you love brain teasers, you’re going to enjoy bashing your head against your controller because these puzzles are as hard as the main campaign itself. In each puzzle, you are given a map with pre-placed troops. Your job is to defeat the map’s conditions in a single turn. Sometimes, this can mean knocking off the enemy commander or their base, other times it means getting a villager to safety. I hope that Chucklefish plans to add more puzzles in the future because these brain teasers were mind-bending, infuriating fun.
And the additional content doesn’t end there. Chucklefish has loaded Wargroove with massive amounts of lore, found in the game’s codex. There, you will discover detailed biographical details of every hero and unit, information about the various factions, damage charts, explanations of grooves, and more. You have to play through all of the modes, getting high rankings to unlock all of these secrets, but it’s well worth the effort. Add to that a music player, a concept art gallery, and much more, and you have a remarkable amount of extra content loaded into an already bursting package.
Wargroove’s soundtrack is a flat-out masterpiece. Every single faction and commander has their own theme, giving each battle its own audible flavor. I often found myself humming the songs from the game without even realizing it; they are that catchy! Matching the quality of the soundtrack is the voice acting. While the dialogue isn’t fully voiced, each character has a number of stock lines that perfectly communicate their personality and emotional state. The acting here is top notch, making me wish that all of the dialogue in the campaign could be voiced.
The real replay value of Wargroove doesn’t come from the official DLC (although it is packed with a new campaign and commanders), but from the multiplayer community. Governed by an invisible ranking system, online multiplayer makes it easy to quickly match with an opponent at your approximate skill level. You also have the option to create your own room and give the code to others; multiplayer supports up to four players, so if you want to stage the war to end all wars with your friends, you’re welcome to do so!
Chucklefish has also opened the door to community creations, ranging from new maps to entirely new missions with cutscenes and dialogue. Having sampled some of these offerings, it’s safe to say that there will be an everflowing stream of content created by passionate fans. This content ranges in quality, of course, but it’s easy to find the cream of the crop with community rankings and a featured section. Community creations range from the ridiculous (a football map where you only use dogs) to the epic (fan-made campaigns approaching the size of the original).
Wargroove might look like a simple throwback to classic turn-based strategy games of old, but looks can be deceiving. Underneath the charming graphics, engaging story, engrossing sound design, and bountiful extras, you will find an expertly-balanced experience that can measure up to anything else in its genre today. Chucklefish has truly “advanced” the Advance Wars formula and made something that has risen above what inspired it. Given that incredible achievement, I would be surprised if they decide to sit on their laurels. With just a few minor tweaks to the interface and difficulty, Wargroove could be one of the greatest strategy games ever made. As it is, it’s still a major contender for one of the best games of 2019.