Advance Wars gets a dark re-imagining

Often, being a student means not having the budget to buy the newest video games. Although the most current games are hot, new, and fun, they do not always outshine their previously released peers. Older games are still fun, and many still love to play them. One such example is an under appreciated classic released for the Nintendo DS, “Advance Wars: Days of Ruin.”

“Advance Wars: Days of Ruin” is the fourth game in the “Advance Wars” series released in the United States. The games are turn-based strategy games with up to four players battling to destroy all enemy units or capture the opponents’ headquarters (HQ). The first three games are a lighter fare than other war games with their anime-style graphics, overall cheerfulness of the commanders sending soldiers to battle, and general humor. “Days of Ruin,” however, is much darker with the setting taking place after meteors impact Earth and cause worldwide devastation.

The story begins with a young commanding officer (CO), Will, escaping the ruins of the Rubinelle military academy after the meteors strike. Will is rescued from The Beast, a rogue sergeant who leads a group of bandits, by Captain Brenner and Lin of the Rubinelle 12th Battalion, also known as Brenner’s Wolves. He assists them in helping the survivors of the meteor strikes. Later, Will discovers an amnesiac who knows detailed military information, but little else. He calls her Isabella because she does not know her name. During their journey, the battalion encounters more sinister machinations, such as a disease that consists of plants growing inside humans while slowly killing them, some remnants of the Rubinelle army continuing a war with Lazuria, and a mad scientist who is performing disturbing experiments on all of the characters for some twisted end.

The story is engaging with considerable character development. The characters are engaging enough that the player cares about them and wants to see a happy ending for them. They may not be fully three-dimensional at times, but are still interesting and encourage the player to stay invested in the story. The villains in the story are truly awful people. They are compelling characters in their own right, but their evil actions remove any hint of sympathy from the player and help encourage the player to see the story through just to see them defeated. The story is not flawless, however, with some plot holes. For example, the factories that produce units are said to be automated and produce drones. When looking at the unit, it is obvious that it has a human operator, and the factories can produce human infantry. Also, the plant disease is referred to as a virus even though viruses do not act that way. This last point can be forgiven because the connotations of “virus” differ from person to person and can be interchangeable with “disease” for some.

For gameplay, “Days of Ruin” shines underneath the dust-choked sky of its world. The map is made up a square grid with each square containing different terrain, such as plains, forests, mountains, cities, factories, ocean, and so on. There are three types of units: ground, sea, and air units and they are produced at factories, harbors, and airports respectively. Each type has direct-attack – units that must be next to an enemy to attack – and indirect-attack – units that must attack from a distance and not adjacent – units. Each unit has a specific use and a counter to it. Infantry and bikes can capture cities but are weak to vehicles. Submarines are deadly to every sea unit but cruisers can easily destroy them. Anti-tank indirect units inflict heavy damage to tanks but are bested by units with machine guns. Many other examples exist which allow complex strategies to form. Of course, the most common strategy is to build up and attack the enemy, but if the player is not careful, a well-placed counter can upset this strategy and cause the player a small, or major, setback. The player has to remain alert, aware, and flexible with his or her strategies.

As such, this game can be very challenging. Hundreds of maps are available for the player to duke it out with the computer, or online with other players on the DS’s Wi-Fi network. Each map is unique, so a preferred strategy for one map may fail utterly on another. The campaign is also challenging. Most missions require the player to destroy all enemy units or capture the enemy HQ, but each has a variation. The early missions teach the player how to do certain things in the game. Once those missions are over, the player hits the ground running and has to carefully plan how to defeat the enemy or else face defeat. Fortunately, each campaign mission offers a tactics session where the friendly CO’s, and occasionally enemy CO’s, break the fourth wall and help the player with tips on how to win the mission. Each campaign mission is ranked on speed, power, and technique. Speed is graded on how many turns it takes to beat the level, the lower the better. Power depends on how many enemy units are destroyed, the higher the better. Technique is how many of the player’s units are destroyed, the fewer the better. In addition to story missions, the campaign has training missions where the player must defeat an enemy CO on a map that favors the enemy CO. With the points of Speed, Power, and Technique added up, the rank can go from C, the lowest, to S, the highest.

CO’s have special abilities that help the player’s soldiers. Once placed inside a unit, the CO has an area of effect that boosts the attack and defense of the units around it. CO powers help the player and, when used correcly, can turn the tide of a battle. The energy meter for CO powers builds up slowly and the CO’s unit cannot be destroyed or else the energy meter is reset. It is somewhat difficult to build up the CO power’s energy meter as it is only filled up when units attack in the CO’s area of influence. Some CO’s are more powerful than others, but these CO’s are “bosses” in the campaign which explains their greater strength. Each CO’s power and boosts are unique, so unique strategies develop on how and when to use these powers and even what units to place CO’s in in order to maximize the power’s effectiveness.
“Days of Ruin” also offers the ability to design custom maps that can be shared online with others. CO’s can have their color palettes changed as well. With the ability to download or create new maps, and striving to obtain the maximum ranks for campaign missions, the replay value for “Days of Ruin” is high.

“Advance Wars: Days of Ruin” is a strong departure from predecessors. It is dark with a strong emphasis on characters, but it does this well. The story is compelling, and this is further enhanced with its strong and engaging gameplay. The missions and maps are challenging without feeling cheap. The CO’s are diverse enough that the game is well-balanced, except for certain CO’s that are intentionally overpowered to serve as “bosses.” Overall, if you are a fan of strategy games and manage to find a copy, give it a try. You will not regret it.

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