Crispy Gamer

Advance Wars: Days of Ruin (DS)

Quite the ominous subtitle for a Nintendo game, no?

The Advance Wars series has always skillfully danced around its inherently morbid subject matter. No matter how dark or strange it got, it always populated the game with goofball characters, pinned a forgettable narrative on it, and wrapped up the whole thing in a chipper, Technicolor package.

These characters weren?t at war.

They were at ?war.?

But Days of Ruin takes a stride -- and brace yourself, because it?s a somewhat depressing stride -- towards embracing the series? darker themes. The game opens with an earth-scorching nuclear war. A lone survivor, an androgynous man-boy named Will, is rescued by the game?s good guys, led by the square-jawed Captain Brenner.

From this point forward, the game?s windy cut scenes -- these characters can jaw for a minute or longer, which means -- bonus! -- you?ll have to do lots of reading -- function as a series of semi-believable, semi-entertaining excuses to launch the game?s turn-based battles.

Though I cannot recall a single narrative point from the earlier games (blame that flaking, non-stick frying pan I keep meaning to replace), the moment when Brenner asks the fat mayor of a peaceful outpost to take in Will is truly memorable. Minor spoiler alert: The mayor refuses to shelter Will on the grounds that his people are already starving, all while a member of the mayor?s outpost calls Brenner a ?warmonger? and tells him to buzz off. I understood the fat mayor?s point of view; he?s simply trying to do right by his people. But I also felt awful that Brenner, who seems only interested in doing good, has to endure being labeled a warmonger. To Days of Ruin?s great credit, there?s more moral and ethical gravity in this one small scene than in all the previous Advance Wars games put together.

Intelligent Systems wisely took the ?ain?t broke/don?t fix it? tack with the gameplay, preserving the core turn-based strategy elements that made the first three games successful, while adding enough new twists to justify the sequel. In other words, Days of Ruin basically tweaks the already near-perfect Advance Wars formula. What?s new? I found new maps, new characters and a few new troop types here, including the incredibly stubborn War Tank. Commanding Officer Powers, aka "CO Powers," from previous games have been nixed this time around. (I, for one, am not sad to see them go.) Wi-Fi multiplayer and map creation haven't changed much from the previous game in the series, Dual Strike. Probably the most significant evolution is the fact that your troops now level-up with each successive kill. When one of your tanks takes out an enemy tank, it'll get a very tiny Roman numeral "I" pinned on it and enjoy a small offensive and defensive stat boost. Another kill earns it a "II." A third kill promotes it to Veteran status -- the highest level -- and earns it a small "Vet" label.

None of these additions cause any tectonic-caliber shifts in the gameplay department. As always, you're still usually overmatched, trying to use your troops and the surrounding terrain to gain the upper hand against the opposing army.

The graphics are still by no means gorgeous. They haven?t changed much since the game launched on the Game Boy Advance in 2001, but they are crisp, clean and most importantly functional and easy to read. While there are some subtle differences in troop types -- for example, you?ll have to look twice to tell the difference between Rockets and Missiles -- squinting, despite the tiny screen, is kept to a minimum.

Days of Ruin?s early levels are relatively breezy, giving those who are new to the series a chance to contend with one of the steepest learning curves in portable gaming history. (The original game features a tutorial that is lengthier than most GBA games are in their entirety.) Despite having played through the previous three Advance Wars carts, and having endured the aforementioned tutorial, I'm still not comfortable with any battle that involves planes or boats. I?m more at home on land. Yes, even after investing literally hundreds of hours in these games, there?s still plenty to learn, which is a testament to the near-infinite amount of depth you?ll find here.

As for the new troop types, I?m partial to the speedy (but weak) Bike (they capture cities like nobody?s business), and I have no love for the overpowered War Tank. Unless you have your own War Tank with which to confront it, this behemoth will literally chew through almost everything you put in front of it. Bringing the War Tank down should be thrilling, yet it winds up being a frustrating, tedious exercise.

Speaking of frustrating and tedious, at their absolute worst, a portion of the battles in Days of Ruin will frustrate you to the point of wanting to smash your DS into a great many pieces. I less-than-affectionately refer to these battles ?Advance Wars Stalemates.? If you?ve played Advance Wars before, then you know exactly of what I speak. It?s Day 20. Or 30. Or 40. Fog of War (the annoying gray mist that obscures the locations of enemy troops) hangs above the battlefield. You have a factory. They have a factory. You mount a carefully orchestrated attack ONLY TO HAVE ROCKETS SHIT-STORM DOWN ON YOU FROM SOME GOD-ONLY-KNOWS-WHERE LOCATION SINCE YOU CAN?T SEE A FRIGGING THING THANKS TO THE FRIGGING FOG OF WAR.

Ahem.

Sorry, briefly lost my gentlemanly decorum there. Allow me a moment to put my monocle back in place before I continue.

There.

Days of Ruin sports what is clearly the most sophisticated alternative intelligence to date in the series. Your computer-controlled opponents simply make far fewer boneheaded moves this time around, and every hole, every weakness, every boneheaded mistake on your part, will be thoroughly and completely exploited. Trust me, the game?s AI can be downright sadistic at times.

But when you?ve got a good, juicy battle going -- and I got a good one cooking (to which I?m quite anxious to return) just before I had to tap out my review -- the Advance Wars series provides an experience that is utterly incomparable to anything found on any portable system, or for that matter, anything found on the higher-octane next-gen consoles.

While Days of Ruin does indeed seem far more in touch with its inherently morbid subject matter -- at one point an enemy escapes by hiding in a pile of corpses, a truly shocking detail to find in a Nintendo-published product -- I wouldn't necessarily call the game as a whole "mature." There's a marked distinction between being mature and showing signs of maturity, and Days of Ruin, for me, quite clearly falls into that latter category.

In the end, even if you don?t collect vintage WWII helmets, religiously watch reruns of ?Hogan?s Heroes,? or consider yourself a warmonger -- and that?s ?no? on all fronts for me (except for ?Hogan?s Heroes? on occasion) -- you?re still likely to enjoy the chess-like nature of the game.

This review was based on a retail copy of the game provided by the publisher.