For your first time jumping into Wargroove, it’s best to start with the main campaign. Here, you’ll be introduced to the game’s plot, main protagonist in Mercia, and you’ll learn the basic mechanics of the game. What Wargroove does remarkably well from the outset is that it eases new players into the game—as opposed to dumping walls of text and information onto the player—by starting encounters out small, building on map size and unit selection as the campaign progresses. Several hours in, I was still being introduced to new unit types and gameplay mechanics, so that by the campaign’s end, I would have all the necessary information to knowledgeably dig into some of the other modes and creation tools.
In essence, Wargroove is a grid-based, strategy RPG where two or more factions vie for control of the map, and win conditions have players either taking out the enemy commander or taking down the enemy’s main stronghold—whichever occurs first. Unit types range from infantry sword- and spearmen to ranged and air units, and each unit has a specialized purpose. Infantry units are able to capture villages and strongholds (which grant 100 gold per turn) while air units can cover vast distances and cross over bodies of water. Additionally, each unit type has its own critical hit requirements, and these are entirely based on the terrain. For example, spearmen land critical hits when adjacent to other spearmen, and mage units land critical hits when attacking from terrain with a high defensive rating. Since critical hits are guaranteed based on this structure, this makes troop placement crucial and takes randomness out of the equation.
Though my experience with series like Advance Wars is limited, Wargroove clearly takes inspiration from those games in the way each battle is instanced to that single encounter, meaning any units you purchase and use are only good for that battle. This makes sending troops into battle a much less personal affair than in a game like Fire Emblem, where you can really bond with your team’s heroes. When troops are defeated and die (unless it’s a battle pup unit, in which case they flee the battle rather than dying—kudos to Chucklefish on this feature), while the sting of that small defeat remains, it’s nothing like permanently losing a hero in Fire Emblem.
The closest thing to Fire Emblem heroes would be the commanders, which are the leaders of each faction, and each commander has its own unique ability called a Groove. Grooves power up over time during the course of a battle, and once a commander’s Groove has reached 100%, it can be unleashed. For example, Mercia’s Groove can heal allies over a certain radius, while Emeric’s Groove places a crystal which gives allied units a defensive buff over a certain radius. These Grooves add a nice touch and can truly turn the tide of a battle at a moment’s notice.
The campaign keeps things fresh by introducing new units and gameplay mechanics, even hours in. The story at play is light and fairly inconsequential, but it provides the narrative necessary to keep things moving and pushing the player into different battle conditions and scenarios. Most battles can be won within 30 minutes or so, but some encounters felt unreasonably long, some taking over an hour to complete. Couple this with a seemingly random difficulty spike midway through Act 2, and what you have is a frustrating proposition to either ramp down the game’s difficulty to win, or keep bashing your head against a battle and losing hours of progress. For the sake of getting through the campaign, I had to dial down the amount of damage my units would take so I could get through those difficulty spikes. It’s not ideal, but it does speak to the interesting and useful ways in which the player can modify their gameplay experience. Before each mission, you can hit the plus button to change difficulty modifiers including incoming damage percentage, gold earn ratio, and Groove charge speed. So, you can make the game a breeze, increase the difficulty for subsequent playthroughs, or come up with a mix thereof. The power does lie with the player, and that’s a nice power to have.
Beyond the main campaign, Wargroove has a bevy of other modes on offer. In Puzzle mode, you take on singular challenges, like having to defeat an enemy stronghold in a single turn, and Arcade mode lets you take on various scenarios using one of the four available factions, which can be unlocked during the main campaign. Fortunately, Arcade mode matches hit the sweet spot at around 20-30 minutes in length and don’t suffer from the sometimes long-winded nature to which some of the story missions fall victim. Wargroove also supports 2-4 player multiplayer, both online and local, and online multiplayer can be played asynchronously, meaning you can take turns with your opponent at your leisure. Unfortunately, I didn’t have time prior to the game’s release to try out any of the multiplayer options, but the concept is one that is sure to the give the game a long tail.
Perhaps the crown jewel of Wargroove is its creation tools. Players have full reign to create their own maps, custom campaigns, and even cutscenes, replete with custom text dialogue and fully-voiced sound effects. While the editing tools are a bit cumbersome to navigate, especially using a controller setup, it’s a fantastic concept, and one that will keep the game’s community alive and thriving. One glaring omission is the lack of touch controls (as this would inarguably streamline the creation process as well as general gameplay), but the game is navigable enough using Joy-Cons or a Pro controller. The PC community will likely have the edge here, due to more streamlined navigation and modding support slated for the future, so it’s only a matter of time before someone creates a true Advance Wars sequel within Wargroove.
The game’s pixel art style is charming, and beyond that, all the game’s character and environment art is beautifully designed. The game runs well in both handheld and while docked, but I did notice some performance and audio hiccups while docked that I never experienced while playing handheld—which was the mode in which I spent the most time playing Wargroove. While there is no mid-battle save feature—likely in place to prevent players from dishonest play—its omission is felt, especially during hour-plus-long encounters. That said, if you simply put the Switch to sleep mid-encounter, the game lends itself perfectly to shorter play bursts during commutes or breaks.
Wargroove is, without a doubt, the Switch’s first tentpole release of 2019. A worthy spiritual successor to the dormant Advance Wars franchise, Wargroove takes up the mantle of the generation’s best strategy RPG through its nuanced combat, near endless replayability, and suite of creation and sharing tools that will keep Wargroove’s community thriving for years to come. I sure hope this isn’t the last we see of this series, and I have a hunch that it won’t be.
Disclaimer: A review copy of Wargroove was provided by the game’s publisher.