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It could be said that you can divide the human race into two groups: those who love Advance Wars, and those who have yet to play it. Intelligent Systems’ 2002 original was the first strategy game to really work on a handheld format, and it and its sequel were among the strongest games on the old Game Boy Advance. On the surface, Advance Wars looks like a simplistic turn-based strategy game, where you play a commanding officer who controls air, ground and naval units moving and fighting on a square grid, with the results of combat displayed as eye-catching, animated sequences. This isn’t entirely inaccurate, but it misses out on what makes the game work: quirky charm, a fast pace, streamlined unit manufacturer and resource management, a solid set of units and an intricate balance between the various unit types. Advance Wars is one of the most accessible military strategy games you could ever hope to play, yet it’s also surprisingly deep.
2005’s Dual Strike bought the series to the DS, with touch-screen control and a range of enhancements. Despite a few grumbles about new additions like the CO Powers which could be harnessed by the various commanders and the tagging system, most people in the first group thought this was a good thing. Intelligent Systems, however, seems to have been worried by what was putting off the second group. Judging by Dark Conflict, the answer they have come back with seems to be the overall tone.
You see, Advance Wars has always been the brightest, breeziest, most ludicrous slice of strategy in town. Wars are fought by pugnacious teen heroes and stroppy, drama-queen villains, all so caught up in their own weird story arcs that they seemed oblivious to the lives that hung on their every decision. The whole presentation is deliberately cartoon-like, and the plots are – frankly – baffling. In real life, War might be hell, but in Advance Wars it’s all just good clean fun. For the fans, this was a big part of the appeal, but Dark Conflict makes you think that Intelligent Systems felt it was time that the series grew up. To get the second group, all that lovable silliness had to go clean out of the window.
With Dark Conflict, it has. The graphics have taken a more adult anime direction. The palette has taken a distinct shift towards dark reds, greys and browns. The characters and narrative are more what you might expect from your average Japanese RPG. Youthful hero with odd attire and extravagant hair-do? Check. Maxim-spouting mentor figure? Check. Mysterious heroine with enigmatic past? Why, of course! The villains are a little more inclined to the old-style of oddball melodrama, particularly the resident mad scientist, Stolos, and his offspring, but a lot of the old craziness has been replaced by solemn hand-wringing. The plot is all post-apocalyptic ruin, man’s inhumanity to man and weird floral viruses. War is terrible, the game never refrains from telling you, even if the turn based simulation of it can be quite amusing.