As Chucklefish’s strategy game arrives on PlayStation 4, GameCentral returns to see how post-launch patches have changed the experience.
Reviewing online-only games has become an almost impossible task nowadays. You can review what the game is at launch but what it becomes months and years down the line is impossible to predict, for anything from Rainbow Six Siege to Sea Of Thieves. But it isn’t just big-budget games as a service titles that can be radically changed after release. When Wargroove came out in February it was an ambitious but flawed Advance Wars clone that just need a few tweaks to reach its full potential. Well, now it’s got them.
Although the PlayStation 4 version is out new this week it’s the Switch version we’ve been playing again, since it’s not the move to a new console that has brought the changes but rather a patch that was released sometime after launch. We haven’t had a proper chance to play the game again since it came out, but we’d heard the patch had addressed many of the problems we had with the original – and now we can see that that’s true.
Wargroove developer Chucklefish, the London team behind Starbound and publisher of Stardew Valley, have never tried to hide the great debt their game owes to Advance Wars – Nintendo’s long-lost turn-based strategy franchise and sister series to Fire Emblem. Wargroove is openly presented as a homage, but while many aspects are all but identical it does have some unique ideas of its own. Although some of them only really come into their own now the patch is out.
Wargroove’s setting is a fairly standard Tolkien-esque fantasy world, whose story starts with the assassination of the king of Cherrystone Kingdom and an invasion of undead creatures. This isn’t Fire Emblem though, so while there are little story skits before and after a mission they’re rarely more than a minute long and there’s no levelling up or inter-personal relationships to deal with.
Instead you get straight into the action, which on a basic level is as simple as choosing where you want your unit to go and what you want it to do when it gets there (usually attack, but certain units can also perform feats like healing). Everyone moves around on a square grid and can only move a certain number of squares per turn. Units also have a wide range of different specialities, from weak ground troops that are the only ones that can capture buildings to cavalry, anti-air units, and artillery.
All of this is explained clearly and succinctly in the opening missions and is very similar to Advance Wars. Even most of the units work in the same way, including the fact that while opposing armies look very different most of their troops are functionally the same. But there is a big difference between the two games in the way they handle their commanders.
In Advance Wars commanders (or COs as they were called) were off-screen presences who controlled each faction’s special ability. In Wargroove though each commander appears on-screen as a super powerful unit that can take on several ordinary enemies in a row without much trouble, especially as they slowly regenerate health each turn. They also build up a ‘groove’ special ability, which can range from healing nearby units to creating a new one on the spot.
This isn’t necessarily better or worse than Advance Wars’ approach, but it is different and that alone is worthwhile in terms of the new tactics it demands, especially as many missions can be won by defeating the enemy commander.
Wargroove features a substantial story campaign, which in turns unlock an Arcade mode for each commander, each of which involves several unique scenarios, and a Puzzle mode which challenges you to complete levels in a certain way or with particular limitations. There’s also an in-game map and campaign editor you can share with people. Most vitally, there’s also local and online competitive and co-op play, with a new post-patch option that allows you to add computer-controlled players and a bunch of new maps we haven’t seen before.
What hasn’t changed since the release, understandably, is the retro 2D artwork, which we still don’t really like all that much. As with everything else it’s clearly trying to mimic Advance Wars but most of the sprites are fairly ugly and, more importantly, can be difficult to recognise in a pinch. Although – and this is one of the most important patch changes – the info screen is a lot easier to read now, so there’s no confusion as to who anyone is or what they’re weak or strong against.
There’s also the issue of map size, which very quickly expands beyond that of anything in Advance Wars. That’s not necessarily a good thing though as the tight, almost chess-like machinations are lost and instead replaced with sprawling battles that start to go on for just a bit too long. That’s still the case but you can now create a single checkpoint whenever you want, so if you die right at the end you don’t have to restart everything from scratch – which is a huge relief and we can’t believe no one saw that as an issue prior to release.
The patch also brings other changes, including multiple new difficultly levels to make things as easy or hard as you like (although the super easy ones do limit your rewards) and various quality of life extras to help skip battles, cut scenes, and other interruptions if you’re fed up of seeing them – as well as a new movement option to generally speed up travel time.
The end result is a significantly better game than was first released and while there are still issues around the size of some maps, and the less than brisk pacing this inspires, Wargroove has now become the game it was always meant to be.
In Short: The best Advance Wars game never made, whose post-launch update smooths out the rough edges and creates a strategy game that’s more accessible and fun than ever.
Pros: Extremely accessible and deep strategy action. Lengthy story content and lots of additional modes and options. Local multiplayer and online cross-play adds enormous longevity.
Cons: The size of the levels is still very big, negatively affecting the pacing of some stages. Art style is an acquired taste.
Formats: Xbox One, PlayStation 4, Nintendo Switch, and PC
Release Date: 23rd July 2019 (PS4)
Age Rating: 7
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