When I first discovered Tiny Metal, my reaction was excitement. Intense excitement that we would finally be treated to a game we’ve asked for over a decade. That excitement cooled into weary nervousness as concern grew that a small, first time developer might not be able to capture what we all expect. Tiny Metal is a turn-based strategy game about building armies. They’re a dime a dozen throughout the gamescape. What’s different about this game is that it’s attempting to model itself after one of the most important players in the history of the strategy genre.
For as long as I can remember, I’ve been captivated by the concept of these “table-top”style strategy games. Going as far back as my childhood, when my nextdoor neighbor Ryan showed me Shining Force on Sega Genesis, I was hooked. Battling for control of the board by raising armies, managing resources and utilizing the best possible strategy is an experience unlike any other in digital media. In my humble opinion, nobody has ever been able to perfect the turn-based strategy genre quite like Nintendo and Intelligent Systems with their Advance Wars series.
After an exclusive run in Japan with games dating back to the Famicom, the Wars series finally landed stateside when Advance Wars released for Game Boy Advance. An instant hit, the turn based strategy game was not only a flawless experience and financial success, it also burned a into our brains the notion that portable systems are where these games thrive.
I bring up all of this because Tiny Metal is very clearly a response to Nintendo’s refusal to continue creating Advance Wars games after the success it has seen with Fire Emblem. People go crazy for Fire Emblem and the deep anime stories and character relationship mechanics it offers to players. I enjoy them well enough, but their over reliance on game systems other than great strategy has always been a down note for me. Unfortunately for those like me in this mindset, Fire Emblem’s success in the states has led to an era of decadence where portable strategy games that just don’t measure up quite like they did when Advance Wars was king.
In comes Tiny Metal, where developer Area 35 attempts to take the throne by emulating what made Advance Wars such a high calibur performer. Unfortunately, it misses the mark by existing as some sort of downer drug induced fever dream. The mechanics feel slightly sluggish, the AI is dopey and easy to manipulate, the animations are choppy and slow. It’s a solid foundation of what makes Advance Wars fantastic, but never allows itself to stretch its wings beyond the confines of immature game development.
What’s good, soldier?
The last paragraph probably has you thinking this game is terrible.
In its own right, this is a solid indie game. For those of you out of the loop with this type of game, here’s the rundown:
In Tiny Metal, you and an opponent build opposing battalions and take turns moving across the board and duking it out to the bitter end. At the beginning of each turn, you’re awarded a salary which can be used to purchase units. Each unit has advantages and disadvantages when placed in battle. For example, Artillery units can fire a greater distance than close range units, but cannot move and fire in the same turn. Heavy Tanks have superior Attack and Defense to light tanks, but suffer from a smaller movement allowance. The idea here is to build the perfect army for the specific battle, gauging the map around you and your opponents weaknesses to leverage the best possible strike. Tiny Metal executes this basic formula with success, and makes for an entertaining enough experience, offering up a 14 mission campaign and a plethora of skirmish maps to give you multiple hours of turn based battles to occupy you. For 25 bucks, you could do a lot worse.
Maybe if this was my first time playing a turn based strategy, or even my first time playing an Advance Wars type, I would be satisfied with what this game offers. In the long run though, any critical thought about the game systems reveal how it trips over itself nearly every step of the way.
The support beam for any strategy game is the AI. How well the computer can think and and act against you. Unfortunately, this is where Tiny Metal most noticeably falls apart. The AI is slow and dull. It never feels like there is much thought or effort put into a turn, rather the game is going through a basic script of “If the player does X, then I guess you should do Y.. Or something, idk just leave me alone.” This becomes obvious early on when you realize the enemy is never anxious to attack or make a major move on the field. It might not be fair to compare Intelligent Systems ability to make great AI to a small first time developer, but AI is the life blood of a strategy game. Also, this game broke my heart so I’m gonna do it anyway.
Advance Wars’ AI is great because Intelligent Systems executed one of the most important factors in war.
Enemies in Advance Wars are constantly attempting to make moves to change the tide of the battle in their favor. They are not afraid to come at you fast and hard, even if it means a sacrifice for the sake of the cause. Though it may not actually be doing this, Advance Wars FEELS like the computer is learning your style and playing against you. In later games, most of the time it feels like the enemy a runaway train barrelling towards a broken bridge; and if that game is a speeding train, then Tiny Metal minecart with only person operating the levers.
The decisions the AI makes in Tiny Metal are predictable. Though not cowardly, they feel relaxed and uneager to engage. This is most boring when you consider one of the main mechanics of the game.
Fog of War
Fog of War is a term for a system which limits your view of the map based on your unit’s placement. Don’t have a unit close enough? You can’t see what’s going on over X spaces away. This is serviced by strategically placing specific units with a wider sight of view throughout the map to penetrate as much of the landscape as possible. In Advance Wars, this plays in its favor because the pressure put on by the AI gives the game a sense of tension, making it feel unpredictable. Because Tiny Metal is so lax in its execution, the enemy often feels like it never gets around to engaging until key moments in the battle, deciding to stay far enough away where you can’t see. Ultimately, this leads to large parts of the battle go on with the player seeing few enemies until they’re on the defensive decline.
Tl;dr nothing happens until you want it to happen; and that’s not good Turn-Based Strategy.
This problem would be serviceable if you could say, play with another human being. After all, some of the pivotal moments of my childhood came from late night Advance Wars against my best friends. Petty childhood alliances in the game sparked by a cocktail of Mountain Dew and Strawberry fruit snacks were some of the key developmental moments of my youth. Honestly, we were huge jerks to each other. Anyway, at the time of this writing, there is still no multiplayer in sight, which is a real bummer because there is nothing else like it on Switch (for now).
Are you tired of me beating the dead horse known as Advance Wars. Sorry, but here comes some more. When a game like this comes out and touts itself as a spiritual successor, you better expect to meet the bar set or else be judged.
Among Tiny Metal’s myriad of problems, few stand out worse than the characters. Or the game’s character as a whole. Heck, I’ll even settle for a single interesting character. Tiny metal has none of these things.
There is a story to be found in the campaign. It’s good enough. To be honest, Advance Wars never had a truly inspiring story until later entries, but at least it had characters to which you could attach your admiration. Tiny Metal offers a cast of drab soldiers who speak between battles and expect us to care like they’re working for anything. The problem is that they just aren’t likable in any fashion. Advance Wars was different because it actively made the characters an integral part of your play style in the form of Commanding Officers. These CO’s appeared throughout the campaign, exchanging dialogue and then tackling the battlefield, They are all unique and colorful, bringing with them a specific skill advantage to set them apart from other CO’s. What Tiny Metal does is give you characters in the form of boosted units which are only seen on the battlefield and have to be purchased in battle for use. I can see what they were trying for, but I couldn’t tell you any of their names because they offer nothing of value other than a slight stat boost.
Last thing of note is the simplicity. Most strategy games contain elements of resource management. Keeping your units equipped and ready for success is part of the fun. Tiny Metal lacks any of that. Units are always fully stacked with ammo and fuel, which honestly takes a large chunk of the necessary strategy out of the game completely. It’s basically on of those high-octane 80’s flicks where our hero never runs out of bullets in his clip. Cool, but not for this type of game.
There are a few novel mechanics to speak of, like the ability to let the enemy shoot first, but you are allowed to force them off of their current space when they’re done. This makes for a great counter measure against cities being captured. Also, units who survive through multiple attacks see a stat boost in the form of a field promotion, adding an incentive to not just throw everything but the kitchen sink at the closest enemy. Unfortunately, a few new shiny things aren’t enough to make up for the full package feeling empty as a whole.
I do wish I had more positive things to say about this game. I really wanted to love it. Unfortunately I put all of my eggs in the only basket out there and it turned out to be sort of a stinker. Is it worth the 25 dollars they’re charging? Probably if you’re a die hard strategy fan who is desperately thirsty for this type of game. I just see too many flaws when comparing it to my darling gem.
It’s worth noting that while we missed the mark with Tiny Metal, we may still see the light in the form of Wargroove, another Turn Based Strategy game by Chuckfish which is slated to come out this year. Just like Tiny Metal, Wargroove *is looking to tackle the same mountain that is the *Advance Wars dynasty, albeit doing it with a much similar style. In the meantime, though, Where did I put my DS? That’s where you’ll find me for this type of game.