Have you ever wanted to fight an undead horde led by a vampire general? Defend the forest against a legion of tree-people that have splintered off from their tree-people tribe? Send your very good boy and dog Commander off to lead an army to defeat incoming bandits? If you answered “yes” to any of these questions, enjoy strategy RPGs at all, or have even the slightest interest in playing a strategy game with all of the character of a Saturday morning cartoon, Chucklefish’s Wargroove may very well be for you.
Chucklefish has been very up-front about drawing inspiration for Wargroove from early 2000’s light tactical RPGs, such as Gameboy Advance’s Advance Wars. So much so that they mentioned it in their press kit. Chucklefish’s founder, Finn Brice said of the game, “We’ve always been big fans of the genre of light tactical games, but we felt that there haven’t been any games fulfilling that niche in nearly a decade.”
He’s not wrong; As a teen and young adult I was crazy about Advance Wars and never understood why they stopped being created. There was so much more that could be built upon in that genre, with those building blocks. Wargroove takes those building blocks and turns them into a completely nostalgic, yet somehow wholly unique experience that I’d recommend to anyone with a passing interest.
The core gameplay experience is that of a tactical RPG. Each side of the battle gets a full round to move, position, and set up their units, attacking or retreating as they see fit. The heart of the gameplay centers around your Commanders. In total there are 12, all with unique abilities and storylines to follow along with. There’s Mercia, the princess who is out to avenge her father’s death, despite everyone’s wishes for her to sit around and be more of a “princess.” Emeric, a mage who was friends with Mercia’s father, the king, who now has a goals of avenging the king while also looking after Mercia. Caesar is, as the game describes, “A magnificent and majestic Canine” whose mere bark can inspire confidence in his army, and yes, he is a very, very good boy.
Each of the 12 Commanders has a “Groove.” A unique power that becomes available after dishing out enough damage to the enemy. These powers can completely turn the tides of a fight. They may be defensive, healing several units at once, or offensive, attacking one or more enemies with a fierce attack. The variety in Grooves can completely change your style of play, causing you to be more cautious or aggressive, knowing what your Commander has in store to inspire their units after a few more rounds.
There are many different units to choose from, each with their own strengths, weaknesses, and critical hit scenarios. The Soldier, one of the more basic units, can perform a critical hit when next to the commander on the battlefield. The spearman, when next to another spearman. The archer, when stationary. The variety here lends to many different techniques and chances for the battle to be completely won or lost based on your decisions on who to deploy, how you arrange them, and how you manage your resources.
Every battlefield has at least one fort that you can use your increasing gold at to hire more troops, or heal the troops you have on the field. Each turn you get gold for every town you capture, adding another wrinkle to the gameplay. Should you move down and capture the town to secure more gold for more combat units or should you press on and attack the incoming battalion? The truth is, there’s never a right answer to that. Some battles, sitting back and building up your resources is the smart move, and you can decimate the incoming forces by overwhelming them with your defenses.
In one early battle, I was using this method, playing it much like I used to play Advance Wars and could not figure out why I would get 20-30 turns into the battle only to lose. Well, it turns out the enemy commander had the same plan as I did. When I switched my own style and went directly after the enemy commander with the few troops I had, I was able to overwhelm him quickly, in as few as 6 rounds. This game is deep. The gameplay is incredibly simple to pick up, but if you want to take the time, turn the difficulty up, and think through every decision, the game rewards you with some of the best turn-based mechanics I’ve seen in any game to date.
I mentioned Saturday morning cartoons earlier for good reason. The over-the-top but incredibly unique characters, bright, artistic environments, and silly but engaging story would fit right at home in a great cartoon (Only, with a little more death and violence.) I can’t say I was ever moved to tears or felt like I had developed a friendship with these characters the way that Fire Emblem managed, but this game is not that. What it did do is manage to keep a smile on my face from the beginning to the end, ready to see what was in store for my heroes next, ready to read every bit of text and lore, because the care and detail put into each line of text was incredible. The heart and humor are clear indicators that the team at Chucklefish really cared about this game and wanted to make something special, and it worked.
The sound is no exception to this care. The soundtrack is great. Epic, sweeping battle-tunes and quiet, heartfelt moments are all handled exceptionally, and I have already purchased the soundtrack (by Phonetic Hero) on Bandcamp and plan to add it to my “work music” playlist. The battle-sounds are also very well done, evoking nostalgia while also hitting the right “clicks” at just the right time to make each menu click have weight. I know I’m weird about sound, but this stuff matters (to me?) I would love to have fully voiced dialogue though.
Most of the dialogue is very “2005 JRPG” in that the character text might be saying “Mercia you can’t possibly be foolhardy enough to run into battle, you are the princess, afterall” but what you hear is “NO!!” I understand that this follows a lot of the gameplay from that era, but this is one of those elements that I would have prefered be a little more modernized.
There is so much more depth to be had in Wargroove. There’s an arcade mode where you can take the Commanders through sets of challenges and learn more about them along the way. There’s a puzzle mode where you’re dropped into a scenario and have to “solve” the situation with only one turn. There’s an in-game editor that allows you to create your own maps and scenarios, complete with your own cut-scenes and dialogue, along with a menu to download other creators’ maps and stories. Online multiplayer is also very easy to get into, but can be a frustrating experience if you’re new to the game and playing against people far more seasoned, but still very, very fun. All of these extras are deep, unique and challenging and with the custom campaigns and online play the length of this game can be extended well into hundreds, if not thousands, of hours.
I’m sure it’s clear by now, but I love Wargroove and find it incredibly worthy of a 9.0. I really think that even if you’re not a fan of the strategy RPG genre, there’s a good chance you could be sucked in by this one. That said, nothing is for everyone, and you need to take your own taste into consideration. If you’re looking for a dark, gritty, heat-of-the-battle experience, you’re looking in the wrong place. Otherwise, Wargroove’s heart, gameplay, depth and sound is a fantastic experience and a steal at $19.99 on PSN.