Whoever came up with the name Wargroove deserves an award for the most fitting title in gaming to date. It perfectly encapsulates the game’s distinct charm and style. Chucklefish’s first move into the strategy RPG market hits its stride on the very first beat, and with every shake of its pretty pixels, Wargroove stays in rhythm – all at the beat of its own war drum, despite all appearances. I disagree with the sentiments put out there by Fallout, another series which has dipped its toes into the waters of strategy gaming: war does change, and this time, it’s got some brand new moves.
Wargroove stands apart just enough from its inspiration to maintain creative legitimacy; while comparisons to Advanced Wars and Fire Emblem don’t necessarily devalue it, conflating Wargroove with its predecessors is fairly easy. There are a lot of glaring similarities on the surface, but if you’ve played all three of the aforementioned titles, you’ll instantly feel the difference, even throughout Wargroove’s starting tutorial levels. Strategy RPG fans are some of the pickiest people I have ever dealt with; Chucklefish has to have known what they were getting in to, and it’s obvious as soon as you hit the battlefield that they’ve gone into developing this game expecting the inevitable comparisons to its genre counterparts.
Still, my bias initially leads me to see Wargroove as a filler title; the game I play to tide me over while waiting for Fire Emblem Three Houses. Then again, I’m hot fanboy trash for anything Intelligent Systems puts out, so just about every game is holding me over until that arrives. It isn’t exactly fair to relegate Wargroove to the discount bin just because it isn’t what I’m used to, or what I prefer. And for as much as I love Fire Emblem, the series is far from perfect (trash begets mayflies, and boy do we swarm). What Wargroove does for me, from a fan’s perspective, is show me a new angle on the genre. It refreshes some of the older elements from titles I love and gives it an updated veneer that goes way past simple aesthetics.
Wargroove is Chucklefish’s best-looking game to date. I’ll hit you with another fairly baseless bias of mine: I loathe retro-styled art direction in modern games, even when it’s got the best intentions. I can get over it if the game is good, and I can deal with it if the style serves as some kind of statement… which is usually a stretch. But overall, I’ll openly admit that I pretty glibly pass over any indie titles that roll with the old 8-bit or 16-bit style. Tired art direction often foreshadows an equally wearying game, and there’s plenty of titles showing actual effort out there worthy of people’s time and money.
Wargroove is one of these exceptions, by sheer virtue of visual richness. The sprite work is exactly where this specific style should be if it’s going to be used in 2019. It’s downright beautiful during battle animations where the art direction is at it’s liveliest, and an actual evolution of that classic Advanced Wars style successfully takes its first steps out of the Gameboy Advance era primordial goo. Where other games tend to just flounder about leglessly in a pool of their own inspirations, Wargroove takes something familiar and breathes new life into it. It’s made my cynical ass a believer in the potential of this sort of look and feel. Perhaps the better mucky metaphor would compare Wargroove to its indie competition; where everyone else is happy to roll around in gimmicks, Chucklefish is taking that aesthetic out of the mire and polishing off all the crap that makes it old hat, enriching it through actual effort. The love and care put into even the smallest sprites is more than noticeable; it stands out as better than what even huge companies like Nintendo are putting out.
Granted, I guarantee this is that Stardew Valley profit getting put to work, but it’s nice to see a step up. Hot take: I always thought Stardew Valley was a little on the ugly side… but it’s what’s on the inside that counts, right? Wargroove is a glow up in every sense for Chucklefish. The portraits are stylized in the way that simultaneously screams “Tumblr nose” but gosh darn it, they’re adorable. It’s like looking at everything so many artists want to make, but can’t quite drum up. Every pretentious bone in my critical little body is telling me “this is how you do it”. How can anyone look at this and say “oh, that’s ugly”?:
That’s some talent, and it shows. You don’t have to be Michelangelo (or a Metal Slug sprite artist) to see the difference between Wargroove and it’s competition – and its predecessors.
The comparisons don’t stop at Wargroove’s visual presentation. If you so much as look at screenshots of Wargroove next to Advanced Wars, the similarities are striking. Actually getting into the game to see where those similarities end is vital, and something I think any fan of the genre owes themselves. As the ones purchasing these titles, we don’t owe them much of anything, but as someone who grew up playing these kinds of titles, I feel remiss to not give Chucklefish the proper credit for making Wargroove its own thing. They simply dropped the most original strategy RPG of the modern era… almost like how they rekindled that love players had for farming simulation, through Stardew Valley.
It’s the company’s second successful attempt at resuscitating a genre. Where Harvest Moon lives on as Story of Seasons (and Natsume’s current iteration under the original IP is a depressing cash grab), Stardew Valley gave the world a totally new take and brand new hope. Wargroove carries on its legacy, but in a way I feel is much more important. The dearth of games in this genre, in this style that is as easy to pick up and play as it is to sink hours into, needed someone with Chucklefish’s talent to step in and save the day. Which they did – again. No big deal.
Yeah, I’m sucking up hard. So? Let a reviewer be happy that a suffering genre found it’s helping hand. Not everyone has the patience for XCOM’s bullshit RNG or the time to drown ourselves in yet another Civ campaign. Wargroove fits the bill for light-and-deep, pretty-yet-comical, cute-yet-badass. It’s not some roided-out graphical powerhouse, but it hits harder than any most titles I’ve played and can still be brought out of the house if you have the Switch version. Whether you crave the gentle turn-by-turn ease of its predecessors or the complex management of modern SRPGs, Wargroove is here to itch that scratch for you.
One complaint I’ve regularly heard involves Wargroove’s lengthy tutorial sequence, which stretches out over a number of early maps. Given the amount of information provided – including units specialties, map information, menu navigation, etc. – it isn’t wholly out of the ordinary for this type of game, nor is it particularly frustrating. The pace at which you learn about organizing and mobilizing your troops on the field of battle is appropriate given the scenarios presented, and ease you in. Granted, this handholding takes you for a stroll before getting to Wargroove’s main narrative, and that stroll can take its time given the nature of the gameplay, none of it is without reward by the time you do get there, as you learn almost everything you need to know about navigating the path ahead. All of this warms you up to its colorful cast along the way and gives a decent backdrop for the wider lore around which Wargroove’s story orbits.
That story is, in-and-of-itself, not bad. When you ask fans of SRPGs what draws them to the genre, a lot of the time you’re going to hear “the story” – and that element in Wargroove is present and pleasant. From what I experienced, it’s about on par with your typical Fire Emblem story; I feel comfortable saying that, in terms of quality, Wargroove is a decently middle-of-the-road tale when compared to it’s genre counterparts. If we really wanna get specific, and place it on a sliding scale of quality defined by Fire Emblem’s narratives – with Fates: Revelations being the lowest of the low (by virtue of critical consensus), and Genealogy of the Holy War (as a matter of sheer breadth and complexity) being the highest, Wargroove is fittingly comparable to any of the GBA era titles. This is, of course, my opinion – which is to say one that holds said titles in pretty high regard, even if they’re not without their flaws.
The long and short of it (sans spoilers) is that Wargroove stands out, even in the shadows of its forebears. It presents a story that works well given the confines of the play style it’s working with. It stands up to the inevitable comparisons and deserves to be seen as it’s own standalone presence in the genre.
There are quirks to battle that did remind me of some things I dislike about turn-based strategy in general, but as of this review’s completion, it appears Chucklefish is preparing patches to help alleviate any minor grievances in Wargroove’s overall flow. There are pacing issues in regards to combat cutaways, first and foremost. As fun as they look, it gets old seeing the same animation over and over, and the method of skipping through gets a little tedious. The only other option as of now is to turn off animations altogether, which is alright for speeding things up but takes a tiny bit of soul out of each battle. The upcoming workaround for these issues holds a lot of promise, however. Almost everything we’ve heard from the game’s director, Tiyuri, is exactly what players want to hear. The interaction between developer and player is already established, and considering the game has already made back it’s development costs, it’s good to know Chucklefish actually appreciates player feedback.
This makes picking at the minor flaws and bugs that crop up here and there a bit moot. Nowadays, patches and bugfixes are part and parcel with any good game’s lifecycle. As of the very first iteration of Wargroove, we have a game that is as complete as it can be, with only quality-of-life issues keeping it from being pitch perfect. Absolutely nothing feels broken or rushed, and anything that requires a slight tweak is already being addressed. If we take this into consideration, I personally could not ask for more from the developers – and still they go above and beyond, reaching out to players for ideas about future downloadable content and more.
Even without the incoming extras, Wargroove has enough content to keep the game walking for years to come. The online multiplayer and mapmaking mode is exactly the kind of dream addition games like Fire Emblem should have been providing for years, but haven’t even dared to look into. If you count Fire Emblem Heroes’ Aether Raids, which as of now is a mire of depressingly, pay-to-win paint-by-numbers maps, then Wargroove is providing players an in-demand feature that has been sorely missing from the genre. Along with the additional character campaigns, it’s impossible to say Chucklefish hasn’t done its research into what fans want.
Wargroove is like stepping into a toy store expecting to buy a board game, but someone at the door surprises you with a free Lego set and an action figure. It gives you the kinds of options that we, as fussy fanboys, have always pined for… but probably don’t deserve. I’m looking at it from the approach of someone who was expecting the same kind of bare minimum we’ve gotten from other games. If you ask my nitpicky neckbeardy brethren, you’ll likely find a lot more complaints, because none of us can ever be just happy with something in regards to these games.
But you know what? I am happy. Very happy. I was so detached from the genre that Wargroove was barely on my radar before playing it – that’s how far I’ve drifted from strategy RPGs, despite my love for them. Maybe it’s because I’m hopelessly attached to Fire Emblem Heroes and everything about that title is an existential nightmare that I can’t wake up from. It might be the bitterness from that which makes what’s good in Wargroove taste so much sweeter. My opinion may be clouded by my own fog of war, but it really feels like Chucklefish has thrown us a torch to keep that creeping cold at bay. And as far as sparks of hope go, we’ve got a light that’s ready to burn for plenty of turns to come.