Wargroove has been, without a doubt, one of the most hotly anticipated indie games slated for the Nintendo Switch. Originally scheduled to debut early in the Switch’s life, repeated delays led to fans of the title (and its spiritual predecessor, Advance Wars) waiting over a year for the game to finally get a release date. During that wait, new details continued to emerge, helping build the anticipation and hype for this long-awaited tactical RPG.
But was the wait worth it? Does Wargroove live up the standard established by Nintendo and Intelligent Systems? And do the new features, such as the creative tools and online multiplayer, build enough on what came before it to really make Wargroove stand out?
Presentation and Story
Starting up Wargroove for the first time will likely bring a rush of emotion to anyone who loved the Advance Wars series. Wargroove’s design builds directly off the work of Intelligent Systems, with sprites, maps, controls, and gameplay all heavily lifted from its predecessor. Fans of Advance Wars will find the upgrade to a modern console even more delightful, as their fond memories of 16-bit spritework has been brought into the HD-enabled era, with sharp lines, excellent effects, and beautiful animation in the game’s opening and story. But even for those who never played the original series, Wargroove’s style and charm are apparent right from the get-go. This is a beautiful game that fully embraces its heritage, while not being shy about bringing a contemporary flair.
Wargroove is set in a fantasy world full of fire-breathing dragons, talking plants, shambling zombies, and armor-clad canines, all ready to follow your will into battle. When a tentative peace ends with the assassination of a beloved king, his daughter, the newly crowned Queen Marcia, must find a way to stop the invaders, enlisting the help from neighboring kingdoms to stop the undead hordes who threaten her homeland. Along the way, she’ll build up her army’s forces, learn the tactics required to win battle after battle, and gain the friendship of other talented commanders, ready to assist her on her quest.
If this sounds like a familiar storyline, you haven’t missed a thing. Wargroove’s plot does little to set itself apart from the standard fantasy fare. It fails to tread any new or innovative ground, nor does it ever dive particularly deep into its characters or themes. The story is simply a vehicle to get you from battle to battle – not so much an afterthought as it is an understanding of what the real draw this game holds for its potential fans – the tactical combat.
Fans of Advance Wars will rejoice to find all the familiar tactics available to them. Most of the units are direct analogs to what you may have found in the classic titles, simply reskinned to fit Wargroove’s fantasy setting. Knights take the place of tanks; trebuchet’s replace artillery; and flying harpies replace helicopters. With only a few simple variations, combat in Wargroove will play out in a remarkably similar manner. Players move their units across the map, being mindful of difficult terrain, bottlenecks, and enemy units, trying to control the battlefield and work their way to the enemy’s headquarters. By capturing towns along the way, you can increase the amount of gold your team receives each turn, allowing you to purchase and deploy more units out of your barracks.
Of course, capturing the enemy headquarters is just one possible objective in a given mission. As the story progresses, you may find yourself with varying goals from mission to mission. One mission may have you completing a specific alternate objective, such as rescuing civilians, protecting specific points on the map, or simply escaping in the face of a more menacing threat. This mission structure also comes with limitations on the kinds and number of units you may create – early on you’ll be introduced to new units in a steady manner, starting with simple ground units and building your way up to the air units towards the end. By the end of the game however, players will find themselves frequently having access to the whole host of possible soldiers, which becomes both a blessing and curse. As a blessing, it means you have the ability to plan and adapt your strategy as you see fit, building your army up to meet any challenge. As a curse, it means that you’ll often find yourself repeating the same strategies over and over, which can make battles feel repetitive over time.
That’s not to say that there isn’t a fair amount of nuance, however. Commander units come with powerful stats and the ability to wipe the floor with even the most powerful of standard enemies. As they rack up kills, your commanders will gain special abilities that can change the tide of battle. Marcia can heal surrounding units, restoring their health and combat powerful, while her faithful battle pup Caesar can cause adjacent units to take a second turn. Being mindful of your and the enemy commander’s special abilities can often be the key to victory. In addition to the commander skills, each standard unit also comes with a “critical hit” option, triggered by specific environmental factors or positioning. Spearmen deal extra damage when adjacent to other spearmen (forming a phalanx, of sorts), while harpies deal extra damage when standing in their natural mountain habitat. These little touches go a long way in making combat more strategic and in giving a sense of harmony between the setting and gameplay.
Even with those extra features, however, I frequently found myself becoming bored with missions halfway through. Even early on, missions can run up to 45 minutes or more in length, with most of that time coming from simply managing your defensive line and moving new units up to the battlefield. Because of how games like Advance Wars and Wargroove are structured – specifically the idea that the higher a unit’s health, the higher their attack power – battles can quickly become wars of attrition, with both sides jockeying for a good position without fully committing their resources to an attack. In many ways, combat in Wargroove is like World War I – a slow, unmoving meatgrinder – rather than the speed and decisiveness one might associate with World War II.
This problem is somewhat alleviated in the game’s alternative single player modes. First, the arcade mode features a collection of missions tailor made for each commander, providing a less time-consuming way to enjoy the game. Meanwhile, the puzzle mode places the player in specific tricky situations, forcing them to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat. Both these game modes offer a different twist on the standard formula, and are a nice change of pace from the slog of the main campaign. Multiplayer battles, meanwhile, will vary in quality depending both the map in question and on the skill of your opponent. It’s very easy for two cautious players to recreate the defensive meatgrinder, which can quickly suck the enjoyment out of competition.
Unfortunately (or perhaps fortunately) it appears this sluggish combat momentum can be chalked up to the level design of Wargroove more than anything else. While the ability to build more and more units is certainly a contributing factor, I found myself pleasantly surprised by the much better pacing found in some of the player generated content.
Wargroove comes with a comprehensive and powerful set of map and campaign building tools. In fact, it seems the entire single player campaign was built using the in-game editor. What this means, of course, is that Wargroove’s community is free to create experiences as or more robust than that made by developer Chucklefish. In my journey through the library of maps and campaigns, I found recreations of the original Advance Wars games (sans story), along with clever puzzle-oriented maps, side stories featuring Marcia and other commanders from the main campaign, homages to Indiana Jones, and even the first ten levels of the GBA’s Fire Emblem. This final campaign in particular solidified by opinion that stage design is what really makes or breaks the gameplay in Wargroove. A poorly designed level can quickly lead to slow, stuttering, and boring gameplay – while the tight, focused design lifted from Fire Emblem was much more enjoyable.
The tools used to create these excellent (and not-so-excellent) fan works are certainly robust, but can be a bit of a bear to operate. The translation from what was likely conceived as a “PC-first” design certainly show here, as menus can be cumbersome and unintuitive for console players. That being said, once you get a handle on things, you can truly create masterpieces. Most complicated of all is the campaign editor, in which you can not only customize individual maps and the location of missions on a variety of overworlds, but also the cutscenes that take place before each mission. Like the map editor, this cutscene editor can be a bit difficult to work with at first, but it only takes one tour through the list of user-made campaigns to see just what is possible with the tools Chucklefish has given you.
Technical Issues and Gripes
Beyond the learning curve of the editor tools, Wargroove comes with a few other quirks and glitches that can cause frustration for players. For example, there is no way to play user-created content directly from the library. Downloaded campaigns must be accessed from the same menu as the main campaign. Meanwhile, players must navigate to the multiplayer menu to access user-created maps, a process that left me scratching my head in frustration for a good 10-15 minutes before I finally went online and looked up a solution. Outside of that, a few other technical issues have arisen in my time with the game, most notably a tendency for the game to not save properly. Rather than reloading my save and finding myself on the world map, the game frequently backtracks my save to the last turn of the last mission I played, forcing me to replay the turn and manually skip over the cutscenes that follow.
With any luck, Chucklefish will patch these and other issues before too long, as they have shown a ready willingness to continue supporting this game post-launch.
Despite some complaints, there can be no denying that Wargroove is a game built on a solid foundation. While Chucklefish certainly weren’t the builders of that foundation – that credit goes to Intelligent Systems and Nintendo – the developers of Wargroove have gone a long way to creating a beautiful, multi-faceted toolbox for fans of tactical combat to enjoy. Between the myriad of built-in options – the single player campaign, arcade, and puzzle modes – and the user-generated content that will assuredly continue to stream into the game’s library, fans will likely find themselves coming back to Wargroove repeatably to see what new adventures may be in store.