There’s a fine line between homage and becoming an out and out facsimile, and it’s a line that Area 35’s Tiny Metal comes incredibly close to crossing. One of Nintendo’s seemingly forgotten franchises, the Advance Wars series is Intelligent System’s army-based strategy sibling to Fire Emblem, but while Fire Emblem has gone from strength to strength in recent years, Advance Wars has shown no signs of making a return.
It’s little surprise then that Area 35 has seen a gap in the market, and Tiny Metal is, to all intents and purposes, Advance Wars for the modern age. The fact that it has released on Nintendo’s Switch alongside PC and PS4 is all the more telling, and in many ways they’ve done a very good job at aping the classic game’s style, but they’ve also missed some of what made it so special.
The game’s strategy action takes place across a range of verdant maps, covered by a grid which you can choose whether or not to see. You take control of your cutely chunky army, with a range of different units at your disposal. Most of these will be instantly familiar to Advance Wars players. You’ve got your infantry men who are able to capture buildings, growing your resources to build further units, as well as a range of tanks that specialise against other armoured units, but have no response to ranged fire from missile launchers, who can in turn attack the enemy indirectly if they haven’t moved during the same turn.
To be honest, Area 35 have nailed the look and feel of your units, making them immediately distinct as you zip about the pseudo 3D map. Playing on Switch it would have been nice to see them at a higher resolution – especially the combat animations when blown up on a 55” TV – but they do the job that is asked of them.
The game’s narrative goes heavy on exposition, which is spouted endlessly between each battle, and while the character’s art style holds up well, the translation work is mediocre at best, with a few unexpected titters at times that presumably aren’t intended to happen. I don’t expect that anyone will come away contemplating the futility of war so much as whether their A button will be worn out from trying to skip through the meaningless dialogue.
While so much of your unit’s performance and interaction is lifted wholesale from Advance Wars, there have been a few changes made that serve to make encounters a little more involved. The main addition is in three different attack types, so that besides the straight forward attack command, you also have Focus Fire which sees multiple units team up against a sole target, and Assault which allows you to knock your opponent off the square they’re occupying, at the cost of allowing them to attack first. It’s a particularly handy move for freeing up cities and factories that you’re keen on capturing yourself, and adds some nuance to how you approach encounters.
You also have to choose the direction that your unit is facing, which in turn opens up the new-found opportunity to cause extra damage by mounting a rear or side assault. It does add a new layer of strategy to how you attack and where you leave your units, but it’s a change that is largely squandered by your ability to brute force your way to nearly any victory.
While any number of strategy games are guilty of the same thing, where military superiority and strength in numbers is a one-size-fits-all key to victory, it’s something that I never felt was much of a problem in Advance Wars, where everything was balanced so that while commanding greater resources enabled you to win, it still didn’t guarantee it. Unfortunately Tiny Metal has none of that balance, and capturing enough bases generally ensures that you’re able to regularly spit out a tide of the most powerful unit types with which you can crush the opposition. The fact that the enemy AI doesn’t seem to have any answer to this approach sees every mission devolve into the same routine. You might be kept on your toes early on, but each endgame simply sees you stalking the few remaining units you’ve managed to miss.
Tiny Metal is a great attempt at reviving the Advance Wars style of approachable military strategy for modern audiences, but while it certainly looks and behaves the part, the poorly balanced campaign and uninspired narrative only serve to emphasise just how special those classic games were.
Version Tested: Nintendo Switch