Tales of War

First posted on May 22, 2012 in Games

Day 23. Your opponent has moved his rocket unit into position to fire on your tanks across the river. You carefully arrange your units out of reach, strategically placing them into an advantageous position for the next move. Ever-so-slowly, you advance your front line and bolster your defences, forever locked in a trade-off between dealing damage versus taking it in return.

Every decision you make will dictate whether you win or lose. Taking advantage of map chokepoints (and, if there aren't any, creating artificial chokepoints), choosing the right units to build, sacrificing the few to save the many, knowing when to change tactics, when to fall back and defend, or when to rush in and overwhelm the enemy. And again, there's the ever-present trade-off between losing your own units and taking theirs.

Day 45, it starts raining. Fog of war rolls in - an additional layer of strategy is added. Not only do you need to know your enemy's attack range, you need to know their vision range. You stop watching the fight and start listening to the subtle audio cues of the battle. There's a heavy tank near their HQ, a sub circling around to take out your battleships. You need to anticipate the enemy - know what they're doing before you know what they've done. Being proactive is the key, as in fog of war, you don't have enough time to react if you weren't already prepared.

You start rolling your tanks forward. You blasted their recon units, so you know that they can't see you. Your rockets are perfectly safe on the road, and your infantry will be unharmed crossing that river. You are in the same situation as they are - at least for now - you can't see where they are. However, you have placed yourself in a superior tactical position. Your opponent fumbles to create units to see in the fog - who see themselves staring down the barrels of your tank division.

The next day comes around, and you use your trump card: a single recon unit, driving deep into their base. It will be trapped and will be sacrificed, but its job has already been done - its huge visual range has cut a path of light in the fog - you can see everything. Your tanks move in and clean up the enemy. You park on their bases to halt their production. Your APC delivers a mech infantry onto their HQ. Two days later, it's over. Your enemy has been crushed and humiliated.

And then you are taken to the results screen. If you didn't already figure it out, this somewhat cheesy and overly dramatic story is about Advance Wars, one of my favourite game series. Specifically, the latest game in the series, Advance Wars: Dark Conflict (known as Days of Ruin outside the Europe region).

Advance Wars is a turn-based tactical strategy game, with a top-down 2D view of the battlefield. Gameplay happens in "days": on each "day", you move all your units around the map, attacking enemy units, setting up traps, creating new units, and so on. After you've moved all your units, you end your turn and your opponent does the same thing.

Advance Wars is different to most other turn-based strategy games that I see from Japan, which usually have RPG elements: examples being Fire Emblem, Final Fantasy Tactics, and Disgaea, among others. The games rely heavily on the RPG elements for gameplay - your characters fight, gain experience and level up, learn spells and new moves, and so on. In this manner the combat mechanics in the Pokémon games are very much in the turn-based RPG category.

In turn-based RPGs, the difficulty curve is almost always controlled by increasing the strength of the opponents. This is very easy to see in Pokémon, where a difficult boss can be beaten by simply spending some time grinding your Pokémon and increasing their strength. While the effect of levels is more subtle in other turn-based RPGs, the curve is controlled in the same way - perhaps with item drops and extra powers as well as the standard levelling system.

In contrast, Advance Wars does not have persistent levels outside of the current game that you're playing. Instead, the play style is much more "western", if you will. The units have no identity; they are tools that help you complete your task. Funds you earn and units you create in one game are lost after the game is complete. This is more in line with western strategy games like Civilization.

In this way, a game of Advance Wars feels more like a game of chess than a battle in any turn-based RPG. It's much more complex than chess: variable size maps with different layouts and terrain, health systems, unit strengths and weaknesses, fog of war and stealth units, number of units moved per turn, building new units, and so on. Chess is a masterpiece in its simplicity of design compared to the immense tactical depth of its strategy - comparing Advance Wars to the ancient game is one of the highest praises I can give it.

Instead of increasing unit levels as a difficulty curve (as they don't exist), Advance Wars instead increases the tactical difficulty of the battles as you proceed through the game. In this way it stimulates your mind while you play, and the campaign steadily introduces you to this curve to allow you to get a handle on the tactics before needing to employ the more advanced strategies.

The more you play the game, the more you understand when to sacrifice a unit to lure your enemy into a trap, or what units to build and at what time for maximum effectiveness. A strong army of units can be demolished by a much smaller group of forces, if the correct tactics are employed and your opponent does not employ countermeasures. The strength trade-off is the most important part of Advance Wars, and is the reason I specifically mentioned Dark Conflict, as it contains a number of balance changes and alterations to gameplay mechanics to make this even more important than in previous games in the series.

Advance Wars has a bit of an odd history for a Japanese game series. It actually seems to be much more popular in the western region than it ever was in its country of origin. And this is quite disturbing for me, as I fear that this fantastic series may never see another game release.

One of the stories I love to tell is about the release of Dark Conflict on the DS in 2008. Like all Nintendo games, it was developed in their native language of Japanese. Nothing wrong with that, but what followed is all kinds of wrong. First of all, Nintendo of Japan gave their American (NOA) and European (NOE) divisions copies of the game to translate, separately. The two divisions then went and translated the game - resulting in two different translations of the exact same game. This is why the subtitles are different in the two regions.

Now, this isn't unusual for the series. The previous entry in the series, Advance Wars: Dual Strike, also had regional differences, but not as much as Dark Conflict did, which had character name changes, unit name changes, significant dialogue changes, and so on. However this isn't the end of the story. After the two games were released in the west, the game stalled in Japan. After several delays, it was cancelled. A completed game, developed in Japanese, which was successfully translated and released twice in the west, didn't get a Japanese release. (It was eventually released in Japan in 2013, five years after the other regions. However it's only available as a "platimum status" reward from Club Nintendo, so it's not easily available to most people.)

This is where I start to worry. What happens to a game series that's more popular in a different region than the developers? If a new Advance Wars released in the west, it would sell. It would also sell in Japan, but figures would probably be lower. With that fact, is Nintendo going to ignore the western region and never work on another Advance Wars game? I sincerely hope that's not the case.

Article changelog
  • 2012-05-22 - Initial post
  • 2015-09-14 - AW4 was made available in Japan in 2013 as a Club Nintendo reward