Aiming to do for the Advance Wars and Fire Emblem crowd what Stardew Valley did for the Harvest Moon faithful, Wargroove is Chucklefish’s dive into turn-based strategy. It has the bright primary colours, cheery personalities and cross-platform support needed to establish a following. But is that enough?
The gentIe introduction to Wargroove’s systems is deceiving. The technicolour pixel art and bouncy sprites are underpinned by a solid strategic foundation. As Princess Mercia of Cherrystone, your role is to cross the land and avenge your father’s death by taking on the various undead hordes and other suitably fantastic enemies led by numerous over-the-top villains. Along for the ride are your bestest doggo friend Caesar and trusted advisor Emeric, who are just two of the other commanders of the armies you’ll be directing in each battle.
Every encounter takes place on a 2D map, which splits your units and the enemy’s across a grid. The objective of most missions is to either take out the enemy commander or their stronghold. If you lose either of your own, it’s game over. Basic units span fast-moving knights and more ponderous pikemen, ranged archers and healing alchemists who also pack a considerable punch. Progression will see more heavy-hitters such as golems and trebuchets become available to bolster your melee and ranged attacks. Purchasing these units requires you to capture towns on the map which not only provide a hundred gold each turn you own them, but also offer the ability to heal your troops in exchange for that same gold. Strategy is therefore a careful balancing act between pushing forward to take on the opposition, buffing your armies, and protecting your only means of income.
The first few hours will see you getting to grips with the interface which somehow manages to be simultaneously accessible and clunky. It’s easy to find out where a unit can move to and attack at any given point, but it takes time to get used to the difference between right and left-clicking on the map (the latter is used if you want to end your turn, which feels alien). Similarly, you’ll need to learn which units are effective and weak against different enemies. Dogs, for instance, won’t last long against knights, but spearmen can take out horse-riding foes with ease. Wargroove doesn’t make it easy for you to work out which is more suitable in any given situation, since it instead presents a selection of unit portraits under “effective” and “vulnerable” and lets you attempt to decipher which pixellated picture relates to which unit. For a game which is otherwise strategically solid, this is a bizarre design decision.
When you do manage to get your head around each unit’s quirks, you will begin to enjoy yourself far more. Each battleground comprises different types of terrain, such as water, forest, mountain, and so on. Different defense bonuses or penalties are awarded to units depending on their terrain, adding a further layer of planning to take into consideration. Then there are the commanders themselves, a single superpowered unit which has its own special ability, or Groove. Once fully charged, you can unleash it and potentially turn the tide of battle, by inspiring friendly units in range to take another turn in the case of Caesar, or perhaps by using Emeric to confer an area of protection around your army. There are twelve different commanders to get to grips with, but you will find their powers being used sparingly — mainly due to the instafail scenario you’ll hit if they die in battle.
It should be said that the game’s AI is great. Really great. Almost too good at times. If that seems like an odd comment, it’s because the computer plays so cautiously; battles which are a foregone conclusion can often end up dragging out for an hour despite your superior numbers. There is very little left to chance on any board; random events aren’t there for you or your foe to take advantage of and shake up proceedings, it’s just you, your units and your commander’s Groove against each other. After a good fifteen to twenty hours of this spread over colourful but ultimately similar variations of each map, Wargroove feels like an odd game. It is compelling without always being fun. The martial music rouses you into battle and the positioning of your armies gives you the feeling of being a general poring over a map in a tent, but the minute-to-minute gameplay can feel ponderous and one wrong move will be capitalised on by the enemy. The computer almost never slips up in this regard, which makes map features like fog of war feel vastly unfair when you are suddenly pounced upon by a half dozen unseen units and forty minutes of your life are reset. Multiplayer is a little fairer in this regard, but still ends up being a war of attrition in most battles as you edge back and forth with your units, waiting to strike while your opponent does the same. Online play is supported, as well as up to four playing locally,
So, much like chess, slow, methodical and painstaking progress is the key to Wargroove. Some players will adore that, while others will yearn for something more interesting to keep them engaged. The animations for each attack are great until you’ve seen them for the fifth time and realise that they take up a significant portion of the playing experience. Bizarrely, while you can hold the right mouse button in game to speed up enemy turns, you can’t skip animations in the same way, only reduce the time they take to play out to about three seconds. At that point, you’re going to want to turn them off completely, even if Caesar rolling around or chasing his tail during his attacks is goddamn adorable, and having other doggos run away rather than dying is undeniably cute. Unlike Fire Emblem there are no instadeaths for your commanders and no extraneous plots to keep you tied to your favourites. It’s just smashing bundles of troops against each other until one of you wins. In that respect, it feels less fraught than Intelligent Systems’ series but also a little more freeing to play, even if your investment isn’t quite the same.
Outside of the main campaign, things are more interesting. An Arcade mode lets you play through five scenarios with the same commander on a mission which is even more vague than the main storyline, but gives you ample opportunity to experiment. Your commander has far more leeway to get stuck in, with the downside being that you can only unlock further commanders for this mode as you progress through the main campaign. Finally, a Puzzle mode offers up the strategic equivalent of a newspaper chess scenario and asks you to win in a certain number of moves. Alongside the side missions accompanying the campaign (which are often more interesting than the standard path quests), there’s a lot of content in Wargroove which caters for almost every type of strategy player.
And of course, if you don’t like the campaign or its story, you can build your own. Chucklefish has included a map editor which is frankly superb. It covers everything you could possibly need to build storylines of your own — in fact, every level designed for the campaign used the exact same tools that they hand you here for free, right down to the ability to add cheesy dialogue for that extra authenticity.
So, all told, Wargroove is a mostly positive bag of strategic fun, with the caveat that while it will scratch an itch for someone after an Advance Wars-style game, it may not fully satisfy. It plays the nostalgia card early, often and well, while the level of polish and love that imbues every facet implies a development team which has a deep respect for the strategy series they are emulating. And with a bundle of extras heaped on top and the whole package being sold at a very generous price, any criticisms are minor rather than major. Set aside a few hours for a session, get out the doggie treats and lead your pups to battle.
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