Turn-based tactics and strategy games have had a renaissance over the past 20 years since the release of Final Fantasy Tactics. More recently, it seems like fans of the genre and its mechanics live in a golden age with games like Fire Emblem, XCOM, The Banner Saga, and many others gaining mainstream popularity. One franchise that hasn't returned since 2008 is Nintendo and Intelligent System's Advance Wars, the popular turn-based strategy games on the Game Boy Advance and DS that were colorful, fun, and surprisingly deep as war simulators. Developer Risky Lab, two part-timers working on their first game long-distance over four years, took the torch from Nintendo by making a heavily Advance Wars-inspired mobile game in Warbits. For better and for worse, not everything translated over.
Developer: Risky Lab
Released: April 14, 2016 (iOS)
MSRP: $3.99, $2.99 (Launch discount)
Played: Completed single-player campaign in 5 hours, played 20 multiplayer matches
If you've played Advance Wars, the mechanics of Warbits will feel immediately familiar. You play a robotic army of ground and air units ranging from light infantry to artillery to dropships and bombers trying to destroy the opposing army across varied maps. During your military campaign of conquest, you'll capture cities, factories, and airports across levels to gain economic advantages and pump out more offensive units to destroy your enemies. Levels are broken out on rectangular grids and you'll take turns moving your units on the battlefields' terrains, which can provide defensive advantages depending on where your units land. Across the 20 mission single-player campaign, the game does a good job of tutorializing how the different units work, including ammo, range, and terrain types, and how fog of war and vision ranges impact your next move. However, this tutorial holds your hand for perhaps too long, making the single player mode feel too easy overall. The single-player missions don't get challenging until the final few levels.
The graphics and sound evoke the cartoon-like spirit of the game's premise: the robots play a war simulation tool to settle everyday decisions and disputes. The campaign's in-between mission dialogue is light-hearted and jovial, fitting with the game's tone. The armies are named, but the characters themselves aren't very fleshed out and the story is thin. By contrast, the Advance Wars series' stories included interesting interpersonal relationships between its characters, and later titles in that franchise even played with this, as some commanding officer pairs could team up and gain unit bonuses. Additionally, while it's possible to mute or unmute both the background music and sound effects, there's no individual volume control for either, which is a shame because the sound effects play way too loudly over the playful level music. These are minor gripes, but still disappointing considering the inspiration.
The multiplayer aspect of Warbits is the game's main selling point, and potentially ground-breaking for strategy games on the mobile platform. Like Advance Wars, Warbits offers many multiplayer levels. There are 29 1v1 maps and an additional 11 maps for 4-player or 2v2 games. The game's servers work well across both iPhones and iPads and help players complete asynchronous matches without any hitching or lag. Warbits enforces a 48-hour move limit between turns. If other players don't play their turns before the timer runs out, the game will end. This is a huge improvement over many other multiplayer mobile games. If you've played mobile strategy games like Hero Academy, Outwitters, or Clash of Clans, you know some matches drag on if your opponent doesn't stay on top of their notifications. In addition, Risky Labs implemented a unique hashtag system for Tag Match custom multiplayer lobbies to keep players engaged. Only want to play with your friends? Start your own hashtag. Have no friends? Join one of the suggested public tags to play against the world or against (hard) AI bots locally. What's neat about this system is that the game tracks stats and creates leaderboards based on the hashtags, so if you're involved with multiple games at once, it is easy to jump in and jump out of your various matches. As of this writing, the lobbies seem full of players and the community around this game seems interested in sticking with it.
What Warbits lacks is a sense of progression or replayability beyond its multiplayer. Performing well in the game's single-player mode earns you medals based on speed, power, and efficiency, but there's no incentive to earn them. There are no character or other unlocks tied to medal progress, and Game Center achievements hardly seem enough. There are no challenge maps and there are no options for creating your own multiplayer level scenarios beyond turning fog of war on and off and unit powers. Speaking of powers, because the Warbits characters lack depth, there are neither commanding officers nor CO powers to unleash during key points in battle. In both single-player and multiplayer modes, the developers cleverly compensated for the lack of CO powers by applying separate power-up boosters that effectively have the same effects as the powers did. For example, you can give your ranged units 25% more firepower and more range, or increased defense across units for one turn. Without the context of many unique COs or CO powers to choose from (like Advance Wars offers in a challenging yet meaningful way), the tactical elements of some matches seem shallow, as you can only have one booster active. At least the option is present for people who like to play with or without these power-ups on.
Given the small size of the development team and the game's cost ($2.99 at launch, $3.99 afterwards), Warbits is worth playing, if only to support this style of strategy game on iPhones and iPads. The iOS app store is filled with quick cash-ins and bad turn-based strategy games that try to milk players with in-app purchases (the maligned but still popular Clash of Clans and Clash Royale come to mind), but Warbits proudly wears its influence on its sleeve and takes the high road, even if it isn't perfect. Nintendo should hire the Risky Lab guys to revive Advance Wars, or better yet, to expand on the promising ideas Warbits offers. It's a style of strategy game we need to see more of on mobile platforms.