WAR GROOVE – a video game review by author Marie Vibbert!

Back when my husband and I were dating, playing a game where we took turns on the keyboard was an easy compromise to one of us hogging the computer all night playing Psychonauts.

(Still sorry, honey. But I had to get all the achievement badges!)

This year is our 19th year of wedded bliss, and while 2020 has been a dumpster fire wrapped inside a Sharknado, we’ve found solace in a new turn-based game on the Nintendo Switch, which has sucked away many hours of quarantine doldrums.

WarGroove is a modern (released in 2019) turn-based tactical game with a retro feel, available on Nintendo Switch, Xbox, and all your laptops via Steam. We found it on the Switch marketplace for ten bucks and liked how the previews looked like “Land of Legends” a turn-based tactics game we had played to death in the early 2000’s which was based loosely on Nintendo’s “Advance Wars” for the Game Boy that came out in 1988. So, think war game with low graphics constraints, top-down, grid-like, and pixelly.

Squat, big-headed characters tromp around a playing map full of little trees and mountains, bright green grass and bright blue water, reminiscent of so many top-down games from the 16-bit days. However, WarGroove has added lush anime-style title cards, and has animated attacks that use more detailed character renderings in a sort of “zoom in” on the action. (When you get obsessed and want to go faster, you can turn off the animations.) The maps are varied, with watery maps and desert maps and snowy maps, all with terrain types that speed units up or slow them down, including nigh-impenetrable walls (better get the flying bombs) and bridges that create choke points (good for pikemen!)

You build and move your fantasy warriors across a simple, grid-controlled map. Your team will have different units with attack, defense, and movement stats. Capture towns to earn income. Capture a barracks to recruit more units. Keep checking to see if you can afford dragons yet.

You can either play through a story mode, where you’ll be given computer-controlled opponents, or simply play head-to-head. We adored Land of Legends head-to-head play, back in the day. I’d be the orcs and Brian would be the gnomes and we’d take bases and rack up points to buy the really cool units to take each other out.

We wanted WarGroove to re-create those dueling dates, but WarGroove is a much more complicated game. In addition to there being more types of units, there are special “Commander” units. These are like your king in chess. If a commander dies, you lose. Some maps also include a “Stronghold” which is a building that, if destroyed, you lose, too. So you have two instant-loss units!  Also, the Commander units each had a special “Groove” action that they could do once it was charged up. Different commanders charged faster, and the grooves were all powerful. One commander can heal a huge circle of units with her groove. Another can make a new unit appear next to him. This added an extra level of strategy to the game than just gobbling up territory and churning out units. 

This meant there was stuff to learn to use the units successfully.  Hence, we struggled with playing head-to-head (“arcade mode”) right out of the box.  We thought perhaps the game was not for us and we would continue looking for something to fill that Land of Legends niche in our hearts.

Then the pandemic hit, and I had lots of free time, and I decided to play the “Campaign Mode” and see what the story was about.

300 hours of gameplay later, I’m glad I did. 

You start out as a vampire, breaking into the king’s castle and killing him. She does this easily and it’s a good first level to teach you how to move. I also in general liked that there were occasional boards from the “bad” side. You get to play through the bad guys defeating your ally, for example, and then he joins you to fight him. 

Now the princess, Mercia, discovers her father has died, and takes up her sword to avenge him! You switch immediately to playing Mercia chasing an invading force of undead, then escorting helpless “villager” characters safely across the map.

I get irritated at long cut scenes, but I found the writing witty and fun.  One of the villains, Ragna, is over-the-top impatient and angry, most of her dialog in all caps like, “UGH THIS IS LAME!” And there’s a running gag with three bandits discussing their careers.

You get to play a variety of characters, who have relationships and attitudes toward each other. (Loved the late-game level where two older characters battle as a romantic ‘remember when we battled together when we were young?”) 

The auto-generated minion units come in a variety of skin tones, which I appreciated, though I think it could have been more diverse. 

We downloaded the Outlaws expansion which had its own story, and a quite good one!  This expansion is a cooperative-play campaign where one player can be the Outlaw leader and the other player controls his talented twin children.  I particularly loved listening to the outlaws argue that the shining hero is a pampered member of the ruling class holding them down. (Even better that the game never contradicts this.)

The Outlaws expansion was free and includes two really cool new units: a burglar who takes money from other team’s bases and a rifleman who can hit units all the way across the map (but has to ‘reload’ every third round to make up for the advantage.)

The real trick of the game is lining up units. The Harpy is a flying unit who can attack most land units without retaliation, but the Witch character has a huge bonus against her and can almost always one-blow her. But the Alchemist can one-blow the witch. Dogs and Pikemen get a bonus if they are lined up with each other. Sea units can’t attack air units and vice-versa, except for those few that can. 

Someone who is more strategic (or plays more than one round every few days) would probably not get the full eight-month adventure we did.  Also, we discovered the “Save Checkpoint” option on the LAST STAGE. After failing it eight times.  We are smart, I’m saying.

There’s a Puzzle Mode, where you are given a map of specific characters and a one-turn goal. And there’s a map editor so you can make your own stages!  After completing two campaigns and half the puzzle levels, we’re next looking into creating mini campaigns for each other with the editor – you can even make cut scenes, posing characters and giving them dialog!  I’ve never seen a game provide tools for its own fanfic.  Oh yes, Valder the lord of the undead is getting a romance with Ryota, prince of the desert people. And I’m getting several hours of goofing off. 

If you’re looking for a $10 game to play with your loved ones, you can do a lot worse than this delightful retro adventure. 

Marie Vibbert is a computer programmer from Cleveland, Ohio. She is an organizer for the Cleveland Game Developers group. She is a member of the Cleveland science fiction writing workshop, The Cajun Sushi Hamsters from Hell, attended Clarion in 2013, and joined SFWA in 2014. Marie is also a member of SFPA.

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