WarGroove review – was Advance Wars ever that good in the first place?

Wargroove is an almost pixel perfect recreation of Advance Wars, a game I loved back in the days of the Game Boy Advance. So why am I not enjoying it? I’ve had code for weeks, and night after night I keep skipping over the game in favour of playing something, anything else. And I think it might be something to do with Luke Skywalker neurons.

WarGroove might share 90% of its DNA with Advance Wars, but the handful of differences are important. For one, your commander actually joins the field as a powerful unit here, although if they snuff it, then it’s game over, prompting a level restart. Another change is that you can heal troops when they’re standing next to villages by paying cash. But the biggest change is that the modern tanks of Advance Wars have been swapped for a medieval fantasy setting, where you’re fighting vampires and skeletons.

And it’s this last change that kicked in the old Luke Skywalker neurons, or rather, the Fire Emblem neurons. I’ll explain.

In 2016, a neuroscience study looking at associative memory found that when subjects were shown pictures of celebrities, certain neurons lit up – but so did other neurons associated with people linked to that celebrity:

If, for example, one of the subjects was shown different pictures of Luke Skywalker, a similar set of neurons fired up for each picture. But a photo of Skywalker also triggered neurons associated with the memories of similar characters like Yoda, Darth Vader, and Han Solo.

Sarah Sloat, Inverse

And so, when playing WarGroove, my Advance Wars neurons were flashing like mad, but the medieval fantasy setting was also causing my Fire Emblem neurons to light up. And all the way through, I couldn’t help but keep thinking, “Yeah, but this isn’t anywhere near as good as Fire Emblem.”

For one thing, there’s a massive focus on attacking in WarGroove. Your attack is linked to your unit’s energy levels, so, for example, if you attack an enemy unit while you’re at 100% strength, you might whittle them down to 40%, which means that they counterattack with just 40% of their strength. As you can imagine, this makes defensive strategies all but useless – whoever attacks first has a massive advantage. This leads to battles where you warily circle the enemy, staying just out of range until you have an opportunity to swoop in and make the first attack.

The different units have different strengths and weaknesses – for example, Spearmen are very handy against Cavalry, while Mages are one of the only units that can attack flying creatures. But really, all of these advantages and disadvantages are sort of pointless, because there’s always a big advantage to attacking first, even if your unit isn’t the ‘right’ one to counter the enemy unit. And indeed, it’s very tricky to actually coordinate your troops so that the ‘right’ ones attack the enemy unit that they’re strong against, since you’ll often be faced with a mixture of enemy types that have different weaknesses.

In short, WarGroove often feels like a war of attrition. You spend most rounds just throwing units at the enemy, while replenishing lost units by spending gold to recruit more at your barracks. You earn gold each turn from the number of villages you hold, and you can also heal troops in the field by spending gold when they’re next to a village. But this depletes the village’s defences, and it’s also very expensive – economically, it makes more sense to just recruit a new unit and leave the injured unit to their fate, perhaps using them as a human shield to protect another unit at full strength.

And it’s for this reason that the battles in WarGroove often feel futile. Unlike in, say, Fire Emblem, it’s impossible to get attached to any of your units – they’re simply there to be fed into the slaughter. And the relative lack of defensive options means that the game feels unbalanced – your only real options for defence are to build a catapult or recruit an archer to target enemies at long range, but these units are expensive and difficult to deploy effectively.

It’s not all bad, though. For a start, the pixel-art graphics are wonderful, and just ooze personality. I particularly liked the dog commander, Caesar, who is a Very Good Boy indeed. And there are some wonderful little animated cut scenes with cute dialogue. Still, this can’t detract from the fact that I just didn’t have very much fun playing WarGroove.

I gave it a chance. I played around 8-9 hours of the campaign, spaced over a few weeks. I kept diving back into the game after a break, thinking that a gap between sessions might give me a chance to look at the game with fresh eyes. But every time I just found my will to keep on playing gradually drain away as the battles dragged on. Partly, this is due to the absurdly big maps on the later levels. Your units can only move a few squares at a time, and each one has to be moved individually, so it’s very time consuming to position them all. Plus, on the bigger maps, even getting your newly recruited troops from the barracks to the front line can take several turns. I turned off the (admittedly cute) battle animations and set the movement speed to fast, but even then I found that some levels could take an hour or more. It’s fair to say that they drag on for far too long, the initial excitement turning to resignation as you patiently funnel your troops forward. (I will say, however, that I haven’t sampled the multiplayer mode, so if fighting against fellow humans is your thing, then this could well play very differently.)

All of this has made me wonder: was the original Advance Wars actually any good in the first place? I certainly remember enjoying it at the time, but perhaps there’s a reason why Intelligent Systems has abandoned the series in favour of creating Fire Emblem games. Maybe, ultimately, it’s just a little dull and simplistic. I’m tempted to go back and play the first Advance Wars again to see whether it holds up. But maybe it’s better to merely hold onto those rose-tinted memories.

WarGroove was developed by Chucklefish and is available on PC, Switch, Xbox One and PS4. We reviewed the PC version.

Disclosure statement: Review code for WarGroove was provided by Evolve PR. A Most Agreeable Pastime operates as an independent site, and all opinions expressed are those of the author.