Platforms: Switch (reviewed), PC, Xbox One, and (soon) PS4
On the surface you’d be forgiven for thinking that Wargroove is either a brand new entry in the Advance Wars franchise or a direct spiritual successor from that same development team but it’s actually not. Instead, Wargroove is created by Chucklefish, the same team behind Starbound and who published Stardew Valley, which certainly explains the exquisite pixel art.
But Wargroove is so much more than its surface similarities. Sure, the turn-based strategy elements are there and the brief cinematic attacks similar to Fire Emblem and Advance Wars check their boxes, but there’s a ton of other moving parts. In addition to the roughly 12-hour long campaign full of long and complex battles there’s an Arcade mode packed full of fun skirmishes and clever puzzles as well as local and online multiplayer, plus an insanely detailed map and campaign creation system complete with a shared marketplace to download user content for free.
Tale of Two Armies
While the main campaign starts out with some interesting role reversals and surprisingly tight writing, once the first Act is over and you’re dropped into the meat of the story it’s far less compelling. There just isn’t a whole lot intrigue between the warring factions and other than giving you a reason to fight the bad guys, it fails at delivering much notable drama.
One big reason for that is mostly a pacing issue. Some of the campaign missions are extremely long, as in they can take an hour or more to finish even on standard difficulty settings, which is often a major problem since there are no checkpoints during missions at all. This means if you sink an hour into a mission, nearly finish, but end up getting defeated you have to replay the entire thing again. That’s enormously frustrating.
Wargroove’s turn-based dynamics are a much better fit for shorter missions that clock in at more like 20 or 30 minutes. I appreciated how involved and diverse the campaign missions were, but between the poor pacing and difficulty spikes it was often more of a chore. But thankfully the Arcade mode has a ton of fun, shorter missions to play through, the multiplayer is designed to be quicker if you’d like, and all the custom content ensures there is anything but a lack of things to do in Wargroove.
Ultimately the campaign is really there to just teach you how to play before you move on to other things so if you can at least get through the first missions of Act 2 then you should be good to go.
Without question Wargroove’s strongest facet is the compelling tactical combat. At first glance it looks and plays a whole lot like Advance Wars or Fire Emblem. Most matches pit two armies against one another (sometimes more than two) as each side takes turns moving units across the grid-like map. Each unit has a different way of attacking, different strengths, and different weaknesses.
They also have different required conditions to land critical hits. Instead of just randomly dishing out critical hits with no rhyme or reason, everything can be tactically orchestrated in Wargroove. One of my few gripes about the moment-to-moment gameplay is that it’s very difficult to tell which enemies a unit is strong or weak against because the icons in their description are very low resolution and hard to decipher. Listing names or something too would help a lot.
For example, some units need to flank an enemy to score a critical hit, while others may just need to be standing next to the same unit type to land a critical hit. It adds an extra layer of strategy to everything, especially when you consider terrain advantages.
Similar to other turn-based strategy games in most cases you also need to deal with units retaliating after they’ve been hit. So instead of seeing a percentage chance of landing an attack like in XCOM or Mutant Year Zero, Wargroove shows you exactly what percentage of damage you will do and receive as a result of the attack.
The early portion of matches is usually all about positioning as you and your opponent capture villages to provide income to put towards more powerful units as the match goes on. In an interesting decision all unit types are exactly the same regardless of which commander you pick. That means everyone has basic infantry, a pikeman or some equivalent, a battle dog or some equivalent, cavalry or some equivalent, and so on.
The differences between commanders and their armies are purely cosmetic -- except for one key thing. Each commander has a special power, called a Wargroove naturally, that lets them do something special after building it up. Examples include summoning new units from the ground, healing adjacent allies, or even buffing damage resistance. Some of them can get really flashy too.
Endless Amounts of Content
Once you’re done plodding through the Campaign and seeing what the Arcade mode has to offer you start to get into the real meat and potatoes of Wargroove. You can do both local and online multiplayer and if you pick online there is a great asynchronous feature. This means you don’t have to be online all the time for the whole duration of your match. Instead, you can make your move then close the game and check back to see if it’s your next turn later, which feels like such an amazing addition for the Switch version specifically. And since there is cross-platform multiplayer between Switch, PC, and Xbox One there will be tons of people to play with. You can even have multiple matches running this way.
On top of that is the absolutely ridiculous level editor that lets you create (or download) your own custom single maps or entire campaigns. That’s right -- you can string together your own story complete with dialogue, cutscenes, and custom win conditions across multiple maps and battles. Anything you saw in the base Campaign can be duplicated in the level editor because that’s the same set of tools the team at Chucklefish used to craft the game itself.
Pretty wild, right?