The Advance Wars series is one that I remember fondly for introducing me to the world of strategy games. When Nintendo first iced the franchise, I was deeply disappointed. But the more I thought about it over the years, the more I was okay with letting it go.
I think the fundamental reason why its sibling franchise Fire Emblem took off but Advance Wars didn’t was that the former was built around characters with names, faces, and a progression from beginning-to-end (assuming they didn’t die). The latter used nameless soldiers and disposable units. After a few iterations, Nintendo hit a wall with what they could do in digital version of Chess, ultimately pushing forward with a gritty tonal shift that failed to appease existing or new players while adding little to the tired tactics that had worn out its welcome.
With time and advents of game design on its side, the creators of Wargroove leveraged the modern design trope of hero units as a means of adding personality and emotional weight to the moment-to-moment tactics without going full-RPG. It may not seem like much, but it makes a tangible difference towards my enjoyment of the game.
Nintendo and Intelligent Systems sort of scratched the surface of this in their last Advance Wars outing. Commanders could ride in a vehicle, which would then give said vehicle a stat boost. Though it sort of had the same gameplay benefits of a hero unit, you were still essentially managing yet another Chess piece on the board, just a really strong one.
Wargroove takes the hero unit concept a step further. In the game’s campaign mode, you gain the ability to fight with whomever the main protagonist is of each level. Once you get past the prologue, you control Mercia, a powerful sword-weilding knight. She’s can almost singlehandedly wipe out a group of soldiers on her own, but don’t get too reckless. If she or any hero unit you command in battle dies, you lose the game.
What really sets hero units apart are their Grooves, which basically amounts to their Ultimates. Once fully charged, they can pull off a unique ability. Mercia can heal any characters within range, while the character after her can shield those around him. For me, the combination of being able to control the characters in-battle that are pivotal to the story, while also having access to powers that are unique to them, add that touch of humanity that I always felt Advance Wars lacked. It won’t ever have the same emotional weight as the characters in Fire Emblem in the sense that the Wargroove heroes won’t level up or evolve over time, but I much prefer having heroes to be invested in versus pieces to move on a battlefield.
There are more aspects of the Wargroove experience that make it differ from the Advance Wars source material that it heavily cribs from. Most of it are modern conveniences or tweaks in the margins that make Wargroove a bit more of a streamlined experience. For me though, the seemingly-minor change of adding hero units breathes some new life into a formula I though had gone stale over a decade ago. It’s not necessarily enough to completely mitigate the challenges inherent to the Advance Wars formula, such as a lack of progression and battles that can grow long in the tooth, but it’s s tangible improvement nevertheless.
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