It’s a Good Year to Love Strategy Games

Ever since I threw my first snowball in Final Fantasy Tactics Advance, I fell in love with the world of strategy games. Moving characters on a grid and fighting bad guys, building your units by choosing their classes and weapons, and stories on the scale of the JRPGs I grew up on drew me to the genre. But while strategy games gel pretty strongly with me, they’re a niche genre with modest followings compared to the fandoms of other series. As a result of the relatively limited appeal of strategy games, there aren’t a ton of them out there, and the genre can for the most part be boiled down to a few core series – excluding of course a robust indie scene of which I personally have barely scratched the surface.

At the time of writing, E3 has just come to an end. And while a lot of folks are considering the event at large to be something of a flop, myself and other enthusiastic fans of the tactical RPG actually have a lot of cool stuff to look forward to. Even just counting games that were explicitly discussed during an E3 showcase or the Summer Games Fest, there were at least four different strategy games either announced or further detailed. When you combine that with other games that we know are releasing by the end of 2022, there’s a lot of tactical battles to be had for those who are eager to dive in. I’m really excited for a number of these titles, so I wanted to take today’s article to discuss each game I’m looking forward to and what it is about it that has me so glad to be a strategy fan in 2021.

In case you’re here and only want to read about the games you are mutually interested in, here’s the order I’ll be covering things:

  • Advance Wars 1+2 Reboot Camp
  • The Firaxis Marvel Rumor
  • Dark Deity
  • Mario + Rabbids: Sparks of Hope
  • Project Triangle Strategy

Some observers may note that other notable upcoming tactical games such as Metal Slug Tactics and Disgaea 6 aren’t included in this list. That’s on purpose! I’m not familiar with either series so I personally wouldn’t have anything to say about them, and this article ultimately is meant to reflect my own excitement for upcoming titles that have caught my eye. If anything, I’m happy that the world of strategy games is big enough that I can’t possibly have my eye on every series or title out there. If my goal is to demonstrate that this is a great year to be a strategy fan, what better way to show it than having more games than I could possibly talk about? With the housekeeping out of the way, let’s jump right in with a series that many had dismissed as being well and truly dead!

ADVANCE WARS 1+2 REBOOT CAMP
Advance Wars is a series that until this week I’ve seen many folks consider to be dead as a doornail. Its name came up alongside other mourned franchises such as Golden Sun, Earthbound, and F-Zero. A few years ago when Wargroove hit, much of the initial positive reception I heard for the game came from its similarities to the Advance Wars games. Lots of players hold this series close to their hearts and for some folks I know, this is what got them into the strategy genre in the first place. To see the series return – even as just a remake of the original two games – is heartwarming, and it’s exciting to think about what Advance Wars could potentially bring to the tactical RPG genre were it to come back properly in the future.

So how does Advance Wars work? You play the commanding officer of an army and command the footsoldiers, the tanks, the helicopters, and all other forms of war machinery as you battle the enemy forces and attempt to take control of a key position or defeat all the enemies on the battlefield. Each single unit on the field has maximum power at their maximum health – as a unit takes damage, they also deal less damage, making them more vulnerable to enemy attacks as the individual soldiers or vehicles within a unit are depleted. Different unit types have advantages over one another, so carefully placing your own soldiers so that they can face off against disadvantaged foes is an important piece of your tactical approach.

An interesting piece of what makes Advance Wars tick is the resource management element. Your units need fresh soldiers and your army as a whole needs money to function, so taking control of cities to provide the bodies and the dollars you need to win is key. Each round is a decision about how to best use the resources available to you. Do you buy a group of footsoldiers right away or save up for an expensive tank or aerial vehicle? Is sacrificing the majority of a unit worth claiming new territory to provide you more money, or should you wait until you can maneuver a better unit into position? Each map in Advance Wars is a puzzle to solve, and victory means unlocking the next piece of the story and more opportunities to show off your skills using new unit types in new circumstances. Now while I have never played Advance Wars itself, my time with Wargroove has taught me that tactical games with disposable units and a greater focus on resource management are not really my speed, but this is an exciting opportunity for a lot of folks to experience this series that brought so many people to the strategy genre for the first time.

THE FIRAXIS MARVEL GAME
I hesitated to include this title in my article because at this point this game is still technically a rumor, but my experience with XCOM demanded that I acknowledge that a Marvel variant may exist and to speculate about what such a game may be like. It’s funny to imagine a world where your favorite Marvel heroes can encounter permadeath at the hands of some Skrulls or something – “Mr. Stark, I don’t feel so good.” Part of me wonders if the Marvel branding will essentially just be recontextualizing the battle against the aliens and your actual characters will be generic Agents of Shield who you can customize similar to the nameless soldiers in XCOM. I think that would be a better fit even if it doesn’t feel like the best utilization of Marvel’s brand recognition.

XCOM has two key parts that make it function: the battles and the base management. In combat, you control a group of guerilla fighters operating from a concealed position and approach a group of enemies to take them out from an ambush. Carefully make use of your units skills and the overwatch mechanic (which allows units to fire on enemies when they start to move on their turn) and an ambush can wipe out a whole squad of foes before they can scratch you. Fail to use your concealment properly and your small band of soldiers can come home wounded, taken out of the action for multiple battles – assuming they survive at all. At your base, you use the resources you’ve earned in battle to build new facilities, recruit more soldiers, upgrade your weapons, and choose which battles to pursue in order to best counteract the alien menace.

The more I think about it, the more I think that a Marvel XCOM can work if the focus is less on the superheroics and more on the lower-scale nameless characters operating in the background of the action. Replacing the completely forgettable XCOM lore with the battles, technology, and magic of the Marvel universe will make a lot of those elements more recognizable and compelling to players. Add new soldier classes based on different unit types from the Marvel world – Wakandan spearmaidens with a skillset inspired by XCOM 2’s rangers, for example – and you’ve got plenty of fuel for ideas that could actually pump some new life into the XCOM formula. There’s a way to do this well – only time will tell if Marvel and Firaxis work together to take that path, or if they make decisions which instead create a tactics game that doesn’t understand what makes XCOM fun.

DARK DEITY
I didn’t see the conference where Dark Deity was announced but once I learned about this online, it became my obsession. Dark Deity is an indie tactical RPG that in both style and substance is meant to evoke Fire Emblem, specifically the GBA era of Fire Emblem. If you’ve played games such as the first FE game to come to the west (just called Fire Emblem here in the States) or Fire Emblem: Sacred Stones, then it seems that you pretty well know what you are in for with Dark Deity. For those who haven’t, let’s talk a bit about the appeal there.

Fire Emblem is a medieval fantasy tactics series that is very much driven by its characters. The cast is generally large (Dark Deity advertises itself as having ~30 playable characters) and each character falls into one of a number of different character classes. Class determines weapon proficiencies as well as what stats the character favors, and as your units fight and gain experience their stats improve randomly based on the flavor of their class. As characters reach their full potential, their classes begin to branch and you can choose specializations for them that expand their weapon selection or lean harder into what they are already good at. Characters can also share conversations with one another that expand their backstories and give them bonuses in battle. When a character dies, they stay dead, meaning that you not only lose everything you’ve invested into that character mechanically but you also lose the opportunity to see all of their relationships through to their conclusions.

This sort of character-focused strategy game is one of my favorite approaches to making a tactical RPG unique, so Dark Deity seems at this point to speak directly to everything I love about the genre. Add that to the nifty sprite art that absolutely evokes the GBA era of Fire Emblem (arguably the best that those games have ever looked) and this game immediately rocketed to the top of my most wanted list. If you missed some of the smaller conferences that took place during E3 time then you may have well missed this game too, so I would recommend checking it out on Steam and seeing if this one might be up your alley. Some of the best design in gaming is happening in the indie space, so I’m excited to see what fresh ideas the team behind Dark Deity brings to the Fire Emblem formula!

MARIO + RABBIDS: SPARKS OF HOPE
I’ve recounted many a time my initial negative reaction to the idea of a Mario and Rabbids crossover and the moment at E3 2017 which turned it around. I went from a vocal detractor of the very idea of this game’s existence to a day one customer, and as soon as I dove into the world of Mario + Rabbids I fell in love. So naturally when rumors of a sequel started to rumble I was very excited. When those rumors turned into leaks and a title was confirmed, I immediately began to speculate about what a MarioRabbids sequel could look like. Now we know a decent amount about what Sparks of Hope is doing to build upon the success of its predecessor, and I’ve got nothing but confidence in the direction that this game appears to be moving.

What’s the magic of Mario + Rabbids? A key element is the movement during combat. Most of the strategy games I have described have pretty standard rules about moving characters around with very little choice or variation involved in that process. Maneuvering characters in MarioRabbids matters because of two aspects of movement: dash attacks and team jumps. Entering an enemy square during your movement allows you dash into them and deal some damage, and depending on the character you may also inflict a status problem or blast some adjacent enemies with your dash. Entering an ally square during your movement enables that ally to toss you to another location, significantly boosting your movement range and expanding the elevation you can reach. Just as with dashes, some characters also have special jumps that may deal damage to enemies or even heal allies. Positioning your units is such a pleasure in combat, and add that to your various weapons and special abilities for each character and there is plenty to keep you busy.

Each character in Mario + Rabbids has a unique combat role that rises from the function of their dashes and jumps, primary and secondary weapons, and their special abilities. What excites me about Sparks of Hope is that they appear to be doubling down on these core concepts and making each character even more unique from one another. The primary weapon of each character shown has its own unique firing method and attributes, which should help each character to feel more distinct while also creating more opportunities for tactical thinking. And if the enemy types we’ve seen in the trailer so far are any indication, finding unique interactions with specific types of foes will even further expand the creative possibilities in Sparks of Hope. I for one am very excited for this follow up to one of the most surprising games of my life thus far.

PROJECT TRIANGLE STRATEGY
And now we come full circle. My tactical RPG journey began with Final Fantasy Tactics Advance, so naturally any game which seems to capture that same spirit is one which seems promising to me. Project Triangle Strategy may be the most generic name I’ve ever heard for a video game, but it brings some pretty interesting elements to the table when it comes to tactical RPG gameplay. I deeply enjoyed my time with the demo earlier this year, but for those who didn’t get to experience it, what about Project Triangle Strategy makes it an exciting development in the world of tactics games?

If you’ve played Final Fantasy Tactics then you will find some familiar elements in this game. Rather than moving in ally or enemy phases like in many strategy games, characters take turns based on speed. You move and take an action (not necessarily in that order) and then determine the facing of your character. Attacks from the front are less damaging and accurate while back attacks are a lot more dangerous. Attacking an enemy with an ally standing opposite you activates a flank where both units will deal damage to the enemy between them. Each character in your party has a class with unique abilities that cost energy you build one at a time each turn. What makes Project Triangle Strategy stand out is that what characters you get and what battles you participate in depend on choices you make upon the Scales of Conviction. This is a mechanic where your most important party members vote on major decisions in the game; you can sway the decisions of your team by investigating matters of import and then debating individual characters to convince them to see your side of things. The winning vote changes not only what characters (and therefore what combat roles and abilities) that you have at your disposal, but also the challenges you face in the upcoming map. While everyone playing the demo experienced the same first map, the second battle changed based on everyone’s decisions with the Scales of Conviction.

The potential of this decision-based system is impressive. While many games tout a tagline about your decisions mattering, I’ve not seen many where this significant a change results from the choices you make. I’m curious to see over time how decisions snowball and create opportunities for other decisions that push the game in very different directions. I’m curious about what sort of allies my chosen path will lead to, and whether or not those allies will be valued members of the team of characters I build. Does every path lead to the same conclusion? How many endings are possible, and how many of the middle points have meaningful impacts worth replaying the game to experience? These questions are what keep me deeply interested in Project Triangle Strategy, and I’m excited to experience what the game has to offer when the full version is finally available.

With so many strategy games on the horizon, I know my gaming hobby will be pretty well covered for the next year. I’m excited to see how all of these games contribute to not only their own series, but to the world of strategy games as a whole. Each new game I play sharpens and refines my preferences and helps me to understand what mechanics I love to see across any games within a shared genre. My hope is that the existence of so many great tactical RPGs will lead to experimentation and innovation that helps the genre to move forward and become even more compelling to play.

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