Time has not been kind to the turn-based strategy genre. What was once a bustling facet of the gaming space quietly, and quickly, fell into darkness and obscurity. Pioneers like Square (now Square-Enix) and Nintendo seemingly abandoned the genre and so it sat mostly dormant. This continued until the past year or so with the triumphant ‘Wargroove’ and the slightly less triumphant ‘Tiny Metal’ appeared. Warborn is the latest in this incredibly small lineup of games looking to resuscitate the genre, and for the most part, it succeeds with only a few niggling missteps.
Right off the bat, Warborn has a story that is so far from interesting, that you can almost feel the developers phoning it in to get it out of the way. Nothing is massively explained, the characters are not expanded upon in any meaningful way and despite numerous campaigns across multiple factions, Warborn never really managed to instill much of anything, for anything. That being said, the story does do what it should do: gracefully point the player in the direction of gameplay on the off chance they accidentally got lost. Each cutscene is short, to the point, and adequately explains what you need to do at any given location and why, at least in the short-term. Only God knows what the long term goal is.
With the story discarded in this review as swiftly as I discarded it during my playthrough, let us move onto the gameplay. You command a small (or possibly large) group of soldiers from a tactically top-down map. You must direct each of your unique units to accomplish various tasks such as scouting, capturing, dying, and even killing. Once you have completed your assigned task, you are good to move onto the next mission. Rinse and repeat until you hit the end credits. A simple premise at its core, with a crusty, bobbling carapace made of pure intrigue to keep things interesting.
Warborn throws multiple, occasionally proverbial, spanners into the works. Firstly, your units. You have a vast selection of units at your disposal, ranging from lowly combat mechs to titanic artillery walkers. Each unit has a unique set of statistics, resistances, movement, and abilities that all factor into your turn-by-turn strategy. For example, your basic Havoc mech may seem a bit on the naff side, with low stats across the board, however, he has a hefty movement stat, multiple ways to engage the enemy, and the ability to capture structures such to generate income or even new units. The slightly more expensive Nomad is packing a few extra layers of defense and a hefty weapon that can put the hurt on most units but he moves noticeably slower making him less effective for scouting and resource gathering. Understanding how each unit operates, and how they will function in your greater war machine is key to victory and is most certainly not set in stone.
This is made even more complex when you start dabbling in a unit’s unique abilities. Looking back at the humble Havoc, this guy can fire from two tiles away with his basic rifle, providing there is a clear line of sight, or launch a grenade which does less damage, but can hit targets behind sight-blocking terrain like mountains. The Nomad can reduce his damage output to massively weaken the defense of an enemy, making even the Havoc deal catastrophic damage to some of the strongest units in the game. Throw in hyper-supports like the Aegis who can not only heal, but buff your units, and once again, your humble Havoc can become an immovable tank, able to fight off multiple units at once and become the anvil of your entire advance. It is engrossing stuff that encourages experimentation.
I have mentioned defense and resistances a few times thus far, and now is probably the best time to talk about it. Each unit in Warborn comes with three distinct defense characteristics. These are ballistic, energy, and explosive. Your basic units typically have low, but balanced stats, however as you dig into the more expensive pot of dudes, you will notice that some of these guys are almost indestructible when attacked by the wrong weapon type. Factor in defense buffing terrain and units with multiple forms of damage, then you start to see the intricate onion that is Warborn, take shape.
A Hexagonal World
The final piece in the onion-shaped, molten cored, weirdly intriguing cake that is Warborn, is the map itself. Firstly, instead of taking place on a traditional square tiled board, you are given a significantly more complex hexagonal board. This makes movement, defense, and assault all the more interesting as you simply have more options for engagement. You could surround a strong unit with six weak units, ensuring his demise, or position yourself in such a way that prevents that. Again, terrain plays a massive role in this, as impassable mountains and movement sapping tiles form natural funnels that you can use to your advantage.
But it doesn’t end there. Warborn’s map design makes you feel like a master strategist by giving you layouts that lead you but don’t outright tell you, how to tackle a map. For example, there could be a mass of mountains blocking a frontal assault, and two side paths. One path is heavily guarded, one less so, but it takes longer to traverse and has an abundance of resources. Take the high road, and you’ll be in for a war of attrition and be starved of vital resources. Take the low road, and you’ll be overwhelmed. The solution? Mount a dual offensive, with just enough units to hold the line, whilst sending a strong enough force to rampage through their backfield. It is satisfying to pull off, and even if it does eventually become obvious as the game does this kind of subtle nudging often, it never really gets old. Additionally, each mission only lasts around 10-20 minutes, which results in quick, tactically satisfying engagements that can be picked up and played whenever.
Not all is fine and dandy in the world of Warborn however, as there are a few niggling issues that really hamper the core experience. The most glaring is the enemy AI. Despite the praise I have just poured into the game mechanics and intuitive map design, the AI is absolutely terrible. They rarely utilize a unit’s unique traits, they often make baffling decisions that have resulted in me winning games in a handful of turns by literally walking to their HQ and capturing it with zero retaliation – the list goes on. It very effectively kicks the legs out of an otherwise fantastic game.
Then we have the quality of life issues. Firstly, you cannot see at a glance how much health a unit has. You must hover over that unit until a box appears that tells you. Secondly, you cannot view an enemy’s movement range or attack range. This forces you to remember every unit’s movement and ability range, and factor them in when moving your own units. It is time-consuming and results in frequent mistakes that frankly shouldn’t have happened. This is made even more infuriating because it is less intuitive to you work all of this out on a hexagonal map.
Graphics and Sound
Graphically Warborn is absolutely gorgeous. It has a distinctly retro-anime vibe that oozes from every oily crevice, that perfectly fits the Gundam-vibe it is going for. Explosion, maps, and mechs all look fantastic. All of this is purely from the map screen. Once you get into an engagement, your camera zooms straight into the action, and you get to see each mech duke it out with surprisingly good animations. Each unit has a unique animation for each of its abilities which is a wonderful touch which probably wouldn’t have been noticed had it been omitted.
All of this is complemented by a super cheesy anime soundtrack. During your turn, you have your typical upbeat protagonist jingle, signifying the power of friendship is about to prevail. On the flip side, things get a bit spookier on the enemies turn, implying that the armor that is your all-powerful bonds of comradery is starting to chink. It fits right into the world of Warborn, and I love it.
Multiplayer and Maps
Aside from the main campaign, Warborn comes with a few additional modes. The map editor allows you to build a map from the ground up, giving you a fair amount of replay value should you delve into it. The main issue, however, is you cannot share your creations, which makes the whole process feel a tad pointless. It would have been great if you were able to download essentially endless content to experience and enjoy, and it is a feature that has been provided by Warborn’s competitors. You also have a multiplayer suite. This lets you take your warmongering online and show the world how awesome you really are. Considering how poor the AI is, this is a welcome addition that can greatly expand your playtime should you decide to duke it out with fellow humans.
Overall, Warborn is a great game stuck in the body of a good game. What it does right is outstanding and makes real, substantial changes to a genre that hasn’t massively evolved over the decades. Quality of life issues and painful AI managed to pull all of this down a fair few pegs and left me feeling mostly sad at what could have been. Hopefully, the developers will continue to work on Warborn, until then, I can only say this:
WARBORN IS KIND OF RECOMMENDED
Many thanks to PQube for the review code.
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Forged in the rainy wilds of northern England, I carved a path of mediocrity through generations and genres. My play style is often described as: “optimistically awful”.