Wargroove’s brain-teasing tactics and impressive level editor make it the Advance Wars successor fans have been waiting for.
Someone at Chucklefish clearly got tired of waiting for Nintendo to bring back Advance Wars, because Wargroove’s turn-based tactics combat is as close to a modern, fantasy-themed revival as you’ll find. But this isn’t a game that relies only on its gorgeous pixel-art nostalgia to win your love: Wargroove is a challenging and extremely fun tactics game, with great multiplayer options and a level editor strong enough to make an entire tactics game of your own.
Instead of controlling a party of bespoke heroes like in a Fire Emblem game, Wargroove gives you a unique commander and has you summon waves of disposable units mid-battle. Obviously you’ll still want to play smart and keep your troops alive, but removing that fear of losing someone with a name and a face to perma-death or having to worry about getting your favorite characters kills to level them up makes for a lighter and snappier tactical flavor.
Every unit type feels useful in one situation or another, with their utility depending heavily on the layout of the map and the enemies in front of you. Wargroove’s four factions are visually distinct in cool ways, but they all have access to the same troops – the exception being commanders, who each have a unique ability called a Groove. The basic units have others they’re weak and strong against, and it’s a satisfyingly tricky task to successfully adapt to what your opponent is doing.
Crits are determined by positioning, not luck, making movement more nuanced then just marching forward.
If a map is spread out, I would usually invest in faster units like Cavalry to cover more ground, but that comes with the risk that the enemy could counter with relatively cheap Pikemen. If they were buying lots of air units, I could try to counter with Shamans (one of my favorites thanks to their ability to heal) or Ballistas to shoot them down. I also love that each unit has a flavorful condition for dealing critical hits that’s determined by positioning, not luck, making movement more than just marching forward. For example, Pikeman crit when standing next to each other, while the adorable Battlepups have to surround an enemy as a pack.
The battle animations for all of these units are super cool, too – direct successors to those in Advance Wars – with lots of little details depending on the terrain or the combatants (like the doggos “running away” instead of dying, thank goodness). They do get old eventually, though – and frustratingly, you have to hold the button to skip them for about half the length of the animation itself. I ended up turning them off entirely to avoid that frustration, but I wish there was an inbetween option just to speed them up.
Wargroove’s dozen-plus-hour campaign is expansive and a lot of fun, but has some problems with overly long missions that can sometimes take an hour or more to beat. Not every mission is that long, but the ones that are definitely drag when they can feel won or lost long before they end. It wouldn’t be nearly as big of an issue if you could save mid-mission (you can quit and pick back up where you were later, but not create saves to load after a loss, presumably to prevent save-scumming) as losing toward the end of an hour-long match is far more frustrating than it is challenging.
Thankfully, Wargroove’s campaign has adaptable difficulty options – far more granular than the simple easy/normal/hard settings of its Arcade mode – that let you scale damage taken, money made, and Groove ability charge time up or down, individually and a little bit at a time. If you’re having trouble with a specific mission you could just increase your money a bit, or if you’ve beaten the campaign already you could make things harder for an extra challenge. I ended up playing a the latter half of Wargroove with my damage taken at just under 100%, not because it was too hard – though there are undoubtedly some very tough missions – but just to make sure I didn’t lose at the last second of a mission again, which just isn’t fun.
Wargroove’s AI is surprisingly smart, which is good but can also occasionally make all-but-won matches drag on.
Wargroove’s surprisingly smart AI deserves some of the blame there, but “competent AI” is a pretty good problem to have in the long run. It’s not going to crush an experienced player or anything, but it definitely kept me on my toes more than most do. Unlike a lot of other tactics games, it wouldn’t easily get baited into my traps as I danced around just outside its attack range. It would also prioritize weakening my strong units (lower health also means lower damage output in Wargroove) and cleverly retreat its damaged ones. I just wish the latter tactic didn’t result in it dragging out all-but-won matches occasionally as I chased an enemy commander into the corner of the map.
The campaign’s light-hearted war story is cute and funny, but about as deep as a puddle. It’s a fairly straightforward tale peppered with goofy moments and even a pop culture reference here and there – early on a character says an undead horde “will be back, and in greater numbers” as a hat tip to Star Wars. Its cast of amusing characters range from an excessively shouty villain to a small child piloting a large battle puppet to a dang dog in armor leading troops – his name is Caesar and he is a very good boy – but they aren’t much more than vehicles for jokes and fights.
Meanwhile, there’s no leveling or out-of-match progression beyond unlocking new missions, which makes the draw trying to get the highest rank you can on each level instead. But you don’t even get to choose which commanders you bring into battle despite your traveling party growing as you go, and I frequently wished I had that added control. The end result is an enjoyable but fairly thin campaign. Still, it’s one with mid-mission secrets and unlockables I’ve yet to find, and I am looking forward to diving back in to track them down.
Savoring the Trimmings
By contrast, the fast and fun Arcade mode feels better suited to Wargroove’s strengths. In it, you pick one of the campaign’s unlockable commanders and play through five fights with some even lighter story to string them together. The key difference here is that the maps are always mirrored and often much smaller, keeping the odds even and the matches to the more enjoyable 20- to 30-minute mark. The varied maps are randomly selected from a few dozen hand-crafted options, making quickly building a strategy for each an exciting brain teaser, though that’s diminished after a while once you start to see the same ones again.
Asynchronous multiplayer on custom maps across platforms makes for an impressive set of online options.
Arcade is good preparation for a similar setup in PvP, too, and Wargroove’s options are pretty much the gold standard for multiplayer turn-based strategy games. Local play with up to four players works well enough, especially for co-op maps, but the online options are what’s really impressive: Wargroove has cross-play for PC, Switch, and Xbox One, including map sharing – though, surprising no one, Chucklefish says there will be no cross-platform support for the PS4 version when it launches there later this year. And while you can take turns back and forth like normal, it also allows for seamless asynchronous play. That means you can leave and come back whenever it’s your turn, potentially managing multiple matches at once. Simply put, that rules.
The included Puzzle mode is also a highlight, though one that kept me coming back to it less than the others. Each puzzle drops you into a small fight already in progress and gives you a single turn to accomplish some goal: kill the enemy commander, get a unit from point A to point B, etc. They can be super challenging to work out, and often forced me think about my movement in new ways that I could then take with me into other modes.
But what really gives Wargroove its legs is its staggeringly powerful editor. It’s a fairly simple tool to learn that enables you to make pretty much any map you can dream up. Placing objects and painting on terrain does feel better suited to a mouse, but its UI is easier to navigate with a controller, which means it’s generally easy and fast to use on any platform as a result. There are a couple annoyingly absent features, however, like a simple undo button.
PC mods will no doubt result in some truly amazing custom maps, but the editor is impressive even without them.
Bigger than that, Wargroove also lets you create and share fully detailed campaigns, complete with your own cutscenes, optional side-quests, and even flippin’ co-op if you want it. It’s basically “Advance Wars Maker,” especially when you think about the custom sprites and other mods that will no doubt arrive for the PC version – I doubt it will take long before someone literally remakes Advance Wars with a mod, and Chucklefish currently has plans to let PC players share those modded maps like regular ones. But even without mods on the other platforms, whether you want to make a simple PvP map, a one-off co-op level, or a whole new story mode, Wargroove gives you built-in and accessible to use tools to do so.
It’s super simple to share and download custom creations across all three platforms, too. There’s a featured tab to highlight some of the top ones, though it’s not totally clear how stuff gets selected to go there. The biggest thing that custom browser needs a better differentiate good levels or denote difficulty, similar to what we see in Super Mario Maker, but there’s at least a “Report” button for the inevitable deluge of dong levels sure to be uploaded after launch.