With no sign of Nintendo's Advance Wars strategy series returning any time soon, a game that attempts to fill the void like Tiny Metal is easy to get excited about. Thankfully, developer Area 35 has delivered a game that captures the spirit of the works that inspired it, and one that feels right at home on PC and on the go with Switch.
By and large, this is simply a game where adorably rendered soldiers with little armored vehicles take turns moving across a gridded map to fight their enemies one turn at a time. A unit represents a small squad, and when two units meet, the squads exchange blows while you pray some of your soldiers and vehicles survive the shootout.
Though Tiny Metal props up dire circumstances as the backbone of its campaign, it's also a game with a shady arms dealer dressed as a circus clown, so you know it doesn't take itself too seriously at all times. Average soldiers are expressively animated, and every unit type has their own personality, accent, and enthusiasm for destruction. This silliness is at odds with the dialogue-heavy and po-faced cutscenes, yes, but it also grows into the defining attitude of the game as you become more entrenched in combat. That said, don't feel too bad for turning off the in-battle emotes, which quickly grow repetitive.
You're given plenty of options to consider during combat, with a range of ground troops and military vehicles that grows steadily from the start, each offering distinct capabilities. Average, run-of-the-mill riflemen can only survive encounters with similar troops, but they're also the best at capturing city buildings and military facilities in pursuit of resources. A squad of rocket-launcher-equipped Lancers can't travel very far per turn, or capture as quickly as infantry soldiers, but they're the only units on foot that can put a dent in armored machines, known as Metals. Metals are probably the most all-around useful unit to place on the board, but they're not as mobile as some of the recon vehicles that help unveil the fog of war, like Scouts, Radar units, or Fighter jets.
Most of this should be familiar to anyone who's put more than a few rounds into an Advance Wars game, but Tiny Metal also has some new tricks up its sleeve to keep battles interesting for veterans. Focus Fire is a maneuver that allows multiple units to combo attack a single target. The benefits are twofold: the enemy can only retaliate against one unit per attack, and your combined attack gives you a better chance of wiping the target out before they get the chance to fire back at all. The riskier move, Assault, allows you push enemies off of a specific square, but at the cost of the enemy being able to fire first. Tiny Metal also has a Hero unit system where a super-powerful version of a specific unit type can be summoned to wreak havoc, but only once per match. These tactical considerations keep matches lively and unpredictable, and help distinguish Tiny Metal from being a mere Advance Wars copycat.
Following the tutorial battles at the start, the difficulty gradually increases as tactical options grow more diverse, with new units and commands appearing at a steady rate throughout the six-hour campaign. With multiplayer on hold until next year, one-off skirmishes are the current best way to keep playing after the credits roll, though they take some getting used to. Skirmish mode offers over 50 challenging battles, often in either inordinately small playing fields, groupings of rough terrain, or situations where you are grossly outnumbered and outgunned by the enemy. These fights will definitely keep you busy, but the jump in difficulty from the last mission of the campaign to even just the first few skirmishes is a big one that's initially off-putting.
The PC version of Tiny Metal is notably better looking and allows you to use a mouse, but fans of Advance Wars will find that playing on the go with Switch completes the nostalgic experience. The only major flaws in portable mode are the tiny fonts used in some menus, and a marked decrease in resolution when the camera zooms in to watch two units attack each other. The PC version gets more graphical options, and an unlocked framerate, but Tiny Metal's throwback action feels at home on Nintendo's portable.
Newcomers to the turn-based strategy genre are likely to have a blast with Tiny Metal all the way through its campaign, though the endgame is no doubt a little restrictive. Old hands to this type of strategy game will find a campaign that wears its influences on its sleeve, but still admirably and respectfully fits right in with them. It’s the kind of game where you jump in just to take two or three more turns and suddenly an hour has passed, and you can’t rest until that pesky enemy gunship or tank fleet is down for good. Hopefully that can continue next year if the multiplayer patch comes as promised.