Advance Wars may not be as widely or affectionately recognized as Mario and Zelda, but Intelligent Systems' deep, intensely replayable portable strategy series has nevertheless emerged in recent years as one of the mainstay franchises in Nintendo's stable. All three previous games--the first two on the Game Boy Advance and 2005's Dual Strike on the DS--have taken place in the same sunny world of color-coded military hardware, spunky prepubescent generals, and factions with delightfully goofy names like Black Hole and Orange Star. In fact, this incongruous mixture of happy-go-lucky attitude and large-scale warfare has become Advance Wars' most recognizable hallmark--well, that and the series' exceptionally well-balanced turn-based tactical gameplay.
As much as we've enjoyed those past games, we were always a little unsettled by their whimsical take on wholesale slaughter. For fans like us, Nintendo has taken Advance Wars in a new thematic and stylistic direction with its latest iteration, Days of Ruin. Gone are the doe-eyed commanding officers with spiky hairstyles (well, mostly). In their place, Intelligent Systems has devised an entirely new, darker setting and storyline, as well as a more realistic depiction of warfare against which the series' beloved strategy gameplay will be set. True to its subtitle, Days of Ruin imagines an industrial civilization that has just narrowly survived a global meteor shower, which has leveled much of the landscape and brought about numerous other natural disasters in its wake. Most of the global population is dead, and those left behind are forced to endure inhospitable conditions, as well as a distinct shortage of food and other essential supplies. Obviously, not a good day for anyone.
Prior to the disaster, two nations called Rubinelle and Lazuria were locked in total warfare with each other. Predictably, the end of the world and the deaths of billions have just about wiped the slate clean; the conflict is over because there's not enough left of the two nations to continue waging it. The campaign's storyline follows one small, intrepid band of survivors: a single unit of Rubinelle's army led by a valiant and noble-hearted commanding officer named Brenner. Early in the story, Brenner and his taciturn, no-nonsense second-in-command, Lin, encounter a feisty, spiky-haired military cadet named Will along with a mysterious, willowy little girl named Isabella, an amnesiac who possesses a disturbing amount of accurate military knowledge. (OK, the developers had to put some of that in here--it's a Japanese-developed game, after all.) Naturally, what Isabella knows and how or why she knows it will be central to the development of the storyline.
As you might expect, it's not all roses out in the postapocalyptic wasteland. The world is crawling with opportunists and psychopaths who are out to take advantage of the situation. For example, there's the Beast, a former military commander gone rogue (and insane) who's storming his way across the landscape just to spill blood. Of course, the Beast is just the first of your worries--there are other bad guys flitting around in the shadows, less reckless but more sinister. And even your supposed allies won't always be on your side. Early on, for example, there's a self-appointed, self-promoting mayor whose people Brenner can't help but aid. Yet through his influence over his people, the mayor uses Brenner's help for his own purposes and attempts to swindle and betray the very soldiers who have just saved his life. If all the marauding raiders and petty infighting weren't bad enough, a horrifying new virus is sweeping the populace. This virus causes plants to take root within and grow from infected people's bodies, sapping their strength and quickly killing them. The writing here may not be the work of Shakespeare, but about a dozen missions in, we appreciated the relative depth of the characters and the various threads of the plot so far.
To convey these grim conditions, Days of Ruin makes use of a more realistic art style than the previous Advance Wars games. Though the aesthetic is still decidedly mangalike, you don't get as many gigantic eyes and flamboyant hairstyles as past entries (excepting a couple of the younger members of the cast). The mostly grim-faced characters act out the storyline in static dialogue scenes before and after missions, which are set against hand-rendered backgrounds, depicting the various wastelands and high-tech facilities of the storyline. The game's battlefield graphics haven't changed that much--there's only so much you can do with tiny tank and battleship icons only a few pixels big--but the landscape tile sets and overall color palette at least look a bit more desolate. The up-close battle animations, however, are drastically different in their depictions of realistically proportioned vehicles, hardware, and soldiers, which look more reminiscent of an adult graphic novel than the kid-friendly happy soldiers of the past. War is hell, and it actually sort of looks that way now.
We'll be taking a closer look at other aspects of Days of Ruin in the days leading up to its release next week. Though the fundamental gameplay is unchanged, there's a lot new here. There are new units, of course, plus the commanding officers and their previously overwhelming CO powers have been revamped. Oh yeah, and online play! Diehard AW fans will probably be interested to hear about that one. Come back tomorrow for more on Days of Ruin.