By Jaime Skelton (MissyS)
Chucklefish has made a noticeable impact in the indie gaming scene since it first emerged with its pet project, Starbound. Despite some justifiable criticism for its development schedule for the sci-fi sandbox, Chucklefish has been a steady developer and publisher of high quality retro-styled games. Their latest video game offering is Wargroove, a top-down strategy game in the style of Advance Wars and similar war-based RPGs. While the title seems to hold up well against critical scrutiny, it might not be in the way you’d expect.
A little personal background before we begin for context of my review. My first exposure to the strategy RPG genre was Shining Force on the SEGA Genesis. It was, coincidentally, the first video game I ever beat on my own, and left a huge emotional impact on me (I might have gotten a little too immersed in the story.) Yet oddly, I haven’t really felt pulled to other turn-based strategy games in the years since. This means I knew I was going to be ‘rusty’ and in for a challenge as I acclimated to the genre again. At times, the difficulty surprised me – and others in the Wargroove community too. We’ll come back to that later.
The ‘primary’ story mode – or at least, the first most players will throw themselves into – is the single player story campaign. The story itself is fairly vanilla, following the adventures of a newly crowned Queen as she seeks to bring about an end to war and general evils while simultaneously ending up in way too many skirmishes along the way. Each story is divided into Acts, Missions, and the occasional Side Mission. Each mission is a battle, complete with dialogue and cutscenes, and it’s key to note that there is no ‘progression’ from battle to battle in the traditional sense. There is no permanent army or roster of characters behind you to select from, no carryover from one battle to the next.
Each battle begins with a pre-selected set of units, bases, and Commander for each army, and an objective to complete in order to win the battle. The objective is usually to eliminate the enemy commander or their Stronghold, but there will be special missions that ask you to defend villagers, escort units to a specific point on the map, and so on. Completing the battle will allow you to continue, and you will earn a ranking based on your performance. You can fail, of course, or choose to restart your mission, even adjusting the difficulty sliders if you want an easier (or harder) pass through a specific mission. Without being too encyclopedic, here is a brief overview of the various elements of battle.
Map & Terrain: Each map has been specifically created for each mission, and features a variety of terrain. Terrain boasts different defensive effects, from the high defense but low mobility of the mountains to the reverse on rivers. Some units benefit specifically from certain terrain squares, while others are limited in which terrain they can cross. The map can also be affected by weather, which has further effects on battle.
Commander: With some mission exceptions, at the head of each army is a Commander, an ultra-powerful story unit. These units take a lot less damage, deal a lot more damage, and most importantly, have their own unique ability or ‘Groove’. Our main heroine’s Groove, for instance, is a large healing aura. Groove is charged over time as well as by actions taken by the commander in battle. Understanding each Commander’s Groove is key to success in most battles. The downside to these units? If yours falls, it’s mission failed.
Army Units: There are over a dozen units for each faction, each with their own movement rules, strengths, and weaknesses. Each unit also can ‘critical’ their attack, which causes bonus damage when certain conditions are met. Units range from basic infantry (Soldiers, Spearmen) to advanced ground units, siege weapons, air units, and ocean units. The types of units that are available to you are expanded throughout the story. While there’s plenty to learn and remember with these units, there is a handy in-game Codex you can reference at any time. Wargroove also keeps it simple in that the units are identical (except for appearance and lore) across each faction.
Villages and Barracks: Across each map are strategically scattered points of interest that you can claim and hold. Villages offer gold each round, which can be used to recruit units and use some units’ special abilities. Barracks (and their air and water varieties) can be used to recruit new units to the battlefield. Strongholds act as a key point of defense when they exist, meaning that like your commander, if they fall, it’s mission over.
Fog of War: Some maps utilize a ‘fog of war’ system. While you can see the terrain tiles on the map, you are limited to what you can see around your units and bases (with some units and tiles having better vision than others). This is used less often than expected, and it’s important to note that the AI ignores fog of war.
So how does combat (at a normal, default difficulty setting) play out during the story campaign? At the start, it’s relatively easy. The first two Acts are forgiving, and serve more as a gentle introduction of game mechanics and early units. Hit Act 3, though, and the mentality of battles shifts. You’ll find forums and Discord full of advice seeking for acts 3 and 4 because they offer such curve-ball challenges. At first, I thought this was just a difficulty spike, a hard learning curve that was ramping up suddenly. But the more I experimented, and read, and experimented again, and read even more, I learned what was really happening: Wargroove‘s battles were becoming increasingly gimmicky. As several people have said in the community, “It’s Advance Wars.”
What does that mean, exactly? It means that the game is not designed to challenge you with fair, straightforward fights. No, Wargroove‘s design is to throw you into unfair fights so that you can weasel your way through them, not overpower them. Eventually, you simply can’t win by building an army and forging through to the objective. You must plot and scheme. You must abuse the AI. You must bait units, divert attention, and make clever use of what you have, even if RNG plays against you. Usually this also involves some heavy abuse of the wagon, a highly mobile unit that can carry ground units swiftly from one point to another.
On one hand, it’s hard to fault Wargroove for this style of strategy gameplay. Clever battle tactics are just as much a part of strategy gaming as straightforward army battles. But after burning hours on stages only to realize that it was all a matter of cheap tricks, I lost my interest in the campaign. It’s not wrong, perse, but it’s not a design decision I favor.
There are two additional single player modes: Arcade and Puzzle. Arcade Mode is a series of 1v1 challenges for each character with their own side-story, although be warned: if you enter Arcade mode before you finish the campaign story, there are spoilers ahead. I found the battles more straight forward in Arcade mode, but played a little less of them once I realized I’d be spoiled story-wise.
Puzzle Mode, on the other hand, is a little more unique. These are pre-made challenges on small maps with a simple goal: win in one turn. Okay, that maybe isn’t as simple as it sounds. It takes a lot of experimentation and thought to figure out how to get the right units to the right place and dealing damage in the right order in order to win. This mode, however, was genuinely my favorite of the three single player options.
In all three modes you can also earn stars, which will let you unlock special things in the game’s gallery and jukebox. Lore and other side-goodies are available as you complete modes and missions, too. While the story is a bit bland, the Codex itself offers a much richer experience in terms of backstory and context. Of course, there’s also spoilers in the Codex. There wasn’t a lot of thought into preventing spoilers from being seen early game.
If Wargroove was only single-player (with some local co-op), and the review came to an end here, I’d have to give it a score slightly above average. But Chucklefish added immense value to the game with its multiplayer modes, more importantly, its vast editor that has turned Wargroove into its own creative community ala Super Mario Maker for strategy games with Custom Content. Yes, players can create custom maps and custom campaigns, and then share them for the community to play on in one to four player melees.
Players have full control when creating a map, able to adjust its size, tile type, terrain, decorative tiles, unit placement, commander placement, base placement, and battle conditions – all with a simple and intuitive interface. The map can also be adjusted to allow players to choose their own commander (or not), down to restricting what commanders are available to each player. Income level, initial gold, teams, AI style, and player color can all be set and customized by the creator. The creator can also set events to be triggered by a variety of conditions, which can initiate new actions.
Even more impressive – Wargroove‘s editor comes with a robust cutscene creator. Here, players can set the scene, weather, music, and ambience from the game’s existing assets. Then players can place events, including visual effects, narration, actor movement, music changes – to name a few – along a timeline to create a custom scene. Elements including props and actors can be placed on a ‘grid slot’ for the scene itself.
Put all of these things together, and each map or campaign allows creators to make their own custom content that can offer impressive stories, battles, and scenarios not available in the main game. And this is where Wargroove shines. Just one week after launch the community was already showcasing incredible campaigns, challenging maps – even a recreation of The Puppy Bowl. And that’s just what was initially highlighted by Chucklefish! There’s also now slot machine battles, pixel art maps, lane rushing, capture the flag . . . you get the idea. Just like Super Mario Maker, Wargroove has offered powerful and easy to use tools to create amazing things.
That’s not to say that the editor isn’t without its limits. There’s plenty to nit pick on what it lacks, but these are more issues of quality of life (custom sprites or actors, certain conditions, easier control of certain elements in cutscenes, etc). In time, Chucklefish may add and tweak these elements to support their enthusiastic and creative community. Even if they don’t, it’s clear there’s a lot to see and experience in its current state.
Final Verdict: Great (4/5)
I’ll reiterate my point from above: as a single-player only game, Wargroove would have been a good, but overall average, game. Story told better through side lore than the main scenario, issues with the AI, lack of unit diversity between factions, and a gimmicky underdog theme in each Mission detract from the game experience.
The addition of custom content built using an incredibly robust editing engine, however, has helped Wargroove find its rhythm. While Chucklefish may have failed to deliver a gripping strategy RPG, the Wargroove community is delivering in a wealth of diversity and creativity that many will value far more than the campaign itself. If the developer continues to put its support behind this side of Wargroove, the title will last for a long time to come.
Note: A game key was provided for review purposes.