Given its seriousness in tone and in gameplay, Advance Wars: Days of Ruin might be seen by some as excessively dry, but in the end this characteristic is more of a feature than a flaw: the game does not sink because of it; quite on the contrary, it emerges as an installment that is unique because it is consistently solemn
When it came out in 2005, Advance Wars: Dual Strike – the predecessor to Days of Ruin – had a pretty big challenge in its hands. After all, during the previous four years, the strategy franchise handled by Intelligent Systems had gained two installments, which were both published on the Game Boy Advance. And given the saga operates within a very tight gameplay scope that is a bit hard to get away from, the second one of those titles – Black Hole Rising – had already raised questions among the gaming press as to whether it was more of a simple fresh pack of missions and levels than an actual new game. Consequently, Dual Strike had to find a way to not just maintain the series’ stellar design standards, but also prove that Advance Wars still had fuel to burn.
Against all odds, it did precisely that. Sure, Dual Strike was neither revolutionary nor did it push the Advance Wars gameplay in significant ways. However, it knew how to use what it had within reach to create some separation from its predecessors. By taking advantage of the Nintendo DS’ unique capabilities, it explored war scenarios featuring more than one battlefront, often creating clever interactions between them; it used Wi-Fi to greatly facilitate multiplayer matches; and it employed the tapping commands made possible by the touch screen to considerably smooth the process of moving troops around the maps. Away from hardware-supported improvements, the opportunity to bring two commanding officers into each front opened up new strategic possibilities and put a big focus on players’ capacity to choose the army leaders whose traits were better suited for each mission.
Since much of the new ground Dual Strike broke into had to do with what the Nintendo DS offered, then it is safe to say the challenge faced by its successor, Days of Ruin, was even larger given it came out for the very same system. Although the three-year interval between those two games was somewhat considerable, Days of Ruin could not rely on small technical improvements: touch controls were expected; Wi-Fi features were commonplace; showing information about selected units on the top screen was a practical feature Dual Strike had already implemented; and relying on gameplay twists emerging out of the existence of two screens would leave it open to the same criticisms that hit the incredible Black Hole Rising, as many would likely say it felt like an expansion pack. Finding a way out of that situation was pretty hard.
Days of Ruin, then, chooses to define itself via a major visual overhaul. Ever since the Wars property had been resurrected via Advance Wars, the saga had taken on a rather cartoonish coat of paint. It might sound like a strange choice for a franchise bent on portraying the tactical battlefield decisions involved in the widespread conflict between various nations, but it clicked. Advance Wars was pure strategic goodness covered in colorful art, and besides making it rather charming, that visual approach certainly drew many young players to the series. Days of Ruin, however, abandons that lightness completely.
There are still some elements here that recall the franchise’s not-so-distant past. The hand-drawn art is excellent, one character has a knack for cracking ridiculous jokes, and one of the villains has the kind of purely devilish aura only seen in the types of scripts that pit sheer evil against complete goodness. Yet, Days of Ruin is as grim in presentation as a game about war is expected to be: there are no bright colors, there are no jolly songs, and there are far more solemn moments than playful occasions.
That shift in tone goes far beyond presentation. In fact, nowhere is the contribution of that change to the franchise more blatant than in the storyline department. Days of Ruin takes place in a future when a meteor shower has ravaged the planet, killing ninety percent of the entire human population, destroying cities, and creating a massive dust cloud that has completely blocked the sun, hence making the lives of the few who have survived a constant struggle. Throughout the main campaign, players will follow the journey of the 12th Battalion of the Rubinelle Army; a group of soldiers that, under the leadership of an honorable commander, tries to locate as many survivors as possible.
Conflict in Days of Ruin occurs because, to nobody’s surprise, an apocalyptic reality is the perfect place for multiple horrors to unfold. With a global shortage of resources, many groups of survivors resort to killing others for any amount of food. With people despairing for salvation, authoritarian leaders with their own agenda and insane cults flourish. With no government or law, those who have a thirst for blood feel there is more room than ever for them to let their instincts take hold. To top it all off, a mysterious silent disease with a perfect killing rate is spreading wildly, and finding a cure can be quite an ordeal when research facilities and materials are scarce. In the middle of that chaos, the 12th Battalion of the Rubinelle Army seems to be the sole source of decency, hope, and goodness still standing in the entire world.
In previous Advance Wars titles, the plot existed for the sole purpose of giving meaning to the battles. As a consequence, none of the storylines were ever all that interesting, as they often degenerated into good guys chasing bad people around the continent and destroying the weapons they created; additionally, even though there was plenty of charm in the characters’ design and personalities, they never really got the chance to shine.
Days of Ruin successfully breaks that pattern: its portrayal of how twisted humans can be when their survival is on the line generates believable villains, even when they are slightly exaggerated; and the internal dynamics and conflicts that emerge inside the starring battalion are pretty engaging. Therefore, it is likely most will want to clear the missions not just because they are great strategic challenges, but also due to how it is almost inevitable to be curious about how the plot will advance. Aware of that strength, the game amplifies the presentation of its story via both a volume of dialogues that is considerably bigger than that of its predecessors, and even many standalone scenes in which fully-drawn character models talk against various backdrops.
When stepping into the battlefield, there is not much about Days of Ruin that sets it apart from previous entries of the saga. As expected, the essence of the gameplay is the same. Taking turns, gamers will face off against CPUs or other players moving units around the map with the goal of either totally obliterating enemy forces or finding a way to capture their base. Underlining that basic setup, of course, is a thick layer of moving parts that bring forth a strong strategic component.
In total, Days of Ruin has more than thirty types of units that can move on the ground, in the air, or on the sea, and all of those have their own strengths and weaknesses, which can be observed on the top screen whenever one of them is selected. Different terrain types affect not just the defense of the unit that is standing on them, but also their movement. Most maps are filled with strategic locations that, when captured by an army, can be used to produce new unities (factory, port, and airport), attack (missile silo), or serve as a healing and resupplying station (city). Vehicles have a limited amount of ammo and fuel, requiring them to be restored every once in a while either by certain support units or by resting on a friendly facility for a turn. Injured units can be joined so that their health is combined. A few maps are hit by fog of war, meaning visibility of enemy forces is limited according to the position and sight range of one’s units. And the list goes on.
It is a lot to take in, but Days of Ruin – similarly to its predecessors – does a good job introducing players to these mechanics little by little. In general, it feels like, here, developers were a bit more hands-off when it comes to teaching, because missions that come off as tutorials are fewer and there is less expository text. To veterans, that is great news because they can jump into the action quickly and without excessive guidance; to newcomers, it might sound worrying, but even though this is indeed an entry that goes lighter on the explanation department, the fact remains it succeeds quite well in broadcasting its inner workings to a new audience.
Following the traditions of the saga, Days of Ruin is notable in two aspects. The first is difficulty. The initial stretch of half a dozen missions of the campaign is quite a breeze, but soon enough the challenge will ramp up, and when that happens players will begin to have to go through multiple attempts until they tune their strategy to a point that is good enough to beat the enemy. Getting to the end of the twenty-six war scenarios that make up the campaign is certainly a daunting task, and many will not be able to climb to the top of that hill; yet, Days of Ruin is never unfair. The game is challenging because a good portion of its missions simply demand a full understanding of the map, of the units that are available, and of how the AI will behave; and sometimes, grasping all of that, especially when there are so many variables on the table, is hard. Days of Ruin is, by all means, a fantastic brain-teasing test, because wrong moves will very likely lead to punishment given the CPU rarely misses a chance to take advantage of slip-ups.
Meanwhile, the second area in which the title visibly excels is design. When putting together an Advance Wars map, developers really do not have many tools at their disposal, only a handful of terrain options as well as the positioning of facilities and initial units. However, working inside those tight boundaries, the variety of scenarios that the game uncovers is fascinating. It never feels like any of the campaign’s missions are treading water or stepping on the same ground. The game is constantly moving forward and finding new ways to test players’ skills.
In a way, in Days of Ruin that achievement in design feels even bigger, because – on what is a very curious gameplay decision – the title opts to cut down a lot of the unique mechanics that Dual Strike introduced: battles that take advantage of the Nintendo DS’ two screens are gone; pairing up commanding officers and switching between them according to the situation is no longer an option; and building the CO Power meter in order to unleash a special power – a twist that added a bit of an arcade wildness to what is otherwise a very pure strategy game – has been wiped out as well. It is as if the solemn nature seen in the story and presentation of Days of Ruin inspired Intelligent Systems to remove whatever wackiness there was in the battles. It is a decision that can be divisive. On one hand, this basic and serious nature definitely sets Days of Ruin apart in terms of gameplay, even if slightly; contrarily, some may perceive this trait as dull.
However, this cold front does not stop the game from adding a couple of small pieces to the board. The first is the removal of seven units (including the Stealth Fighter and the Neotank) and the inclusion of another seven (such as the bike, the gunboat, the seaplane, the antitank, and the flare, which has the capacity of revealing areas covered by fog of war); with all of these moves, Days of Ruin is the game of the series that implements the biggest change as far as unit types are concerned.
The second is the way commanding officers are used. In single-player, mostly, they cannot be freely picked before battle; the person who will lead the army is already set in stone according to the level. Yet, each still has their own CO Power, with the difference being that, in order to activate it, the commanding officer needs to board a unit, and only those standing within a certain range of the character will be given the bonus; a change that requires a lot of strategic adaptations from players used to the system of previous games.
Days of Ruin is a mighty package for anyone who is looking for good strategic challenge. The twenty-six missions of its campaign can easily surpass twenty hours. In addition, the game has thirty-eight Trial Maps, which are secondary missions with no storyline that branch out from the main path. As if all of that was not enough, there is also a Free Battle option, with one hundred maps available, in which gamers can set up their own war scenarios and play them against CPUs or friends (either by using Wi-Fi or by sharing a single Nintendo DS); and a Map Design mode.
By giving the franchise a somber visual overhaul, Advance Wars: Days of Ruin could have easily been accused of not only diminishing the property’s cartoonish charm, but also of falling into a thematic pit where hundreds of games containing a grim and serious portrayal of war can be found. Yet, even if those accusations do hold some value, they are ultimately undone because here, for the first time ever, the excellent battles of the saga are met with a storyline that is much more than an excuse for conflict and characters who are far more than lovable avatars. Therefore, players will keep on going not solely due to alluring gameplay; they will face the ordeals of the title because they want to see how the plot will unfold too.
Given such seriousness in tone happens to overflow into gameplay, which is far more stripped down than that of its predecessor, Dual Strike, Advance Wars: Days of Ruin might be seen by some as excessively dry. But in the end, this characteristic is more of a feature than a flaw: the game does not sink because of it; quite on the contrary, it emerges as an installment that is unique because it is consistently solemn. And it is exactly in this manner that the title does what seemed to be impossible or at least very unlikely: producing yet another Advance Wars game that operates in restrict strategic traditions, but that finds a niche to call its own.