Brawl Chess sounds like it should be an aggressive take on the everlasting strategy classic, maybe filled with interactive cutscenes where a Bishop smashes the Queen to bits with his sceptre like it’s the end of a Harry Potter film. Sadly, that’s not the case. No offence to chess, but this is just chess and nothing more.
I think the main issue here is the marketing. The game is marketed as a kid friendly introduction into the world of chess, but the first thing I noticed was the complete lack of tutorials. For people that know how to play, this is obviously going to be fine. For newcomers, not so much. Imagine, an eight years old browsing the Switch store and coming across the cute cartoony graphics of Brawl Chess, or perhaps a parent seeing the same thing and figure it’s a perfect introduction to game for their kid, only for them to get into it and be very confused as to how the game works.
You could argue that it’s an opportunity for a parent to engage with their child over learning the game, but it remains a really strange omission when something like 51 Worldwide Games manages to include introductory videos and rules explanations for, well… 51 games, and has tutorials to explain chess in particular.
One thing that is handy is that when you select a piece, markers will appear telling you where you can move to. Despite being a solid inclusion, this doesn’t make up for a lack of a proper tutorial for a game you really need to understand to be good at. If you already know chess, there’s nothing new to learn in Brawl Chess, which is one saving grace, I suppose.
That said, there are some annoying restrictions in place that will hamper some of the veteran players out there. One example is managing to get a Pawn to the other side of the battlefield, seeing that Pawn automatically transformed into a Queen. This is fine in theory, because who doesn’t want to do that? But certain specific scenarios can only be won with other promotions, so it would just be nice to have the option to turn it into a Knight, Rook or Bishop instead. The lack of advanced options here is an oversight.
The AI is at least consistent. There are five difficulty levels to choose from with 1 being the recommended level for beginners, and 5 for those who fancy a bit of The Queen’s Gambit action.
If the AI is too much for you, there’s the option for local multiplayer, which I’m always a champion of. Even better is the fact that it’s simply done by detaching the Joy-Con, and away you go. There are different characters you can choose from, however, all but two are locked behind microtransactions, which is one of the most bizarre thing about Brawl Chess. Choosing a different character has no effect on the game whatsoever, they literally just serve as avatars that sit there while you play, and they don’t come with any additional chess piece designs or unique mechanics. Sure, it would be controversial to fiddle with the rules of chess, but at the same time, it’s poor form to charge for something that would be an unlockable in the vast majority of games.
The game is lacking in content as it is. Aside from just playing a game of chess there is nothing else which is really frustrating. A puzzle mode featuring a number of brain-teasing scenarios is fairly standard for chess video games, and can be found in rivals like Chess Ultra. There’s also no online multiplayer option.
Really, the main selling point for Brawl Chess comes down to its cartoon aesthetic. Each piece has a quirky design which is fun to look at, and will help newcomers tell the difference between pieces, some light animation and cartoon fight clouds as one piece takes another. At the same time I can’t help but feel this is sending mixed messages, once again, trying to appeal to a younger audience, but doing nothing to help them truly understand the game. If you want a more ‘standard’ chess experience, you can switch over to a classic look for your pieces, but then there’s better options out there if that’s what you want.