A lightweight tactical-action game with plenty of personality but lacking significant challenge.
It’s always a great feeling when I can jump into a turn-based tactical wargame like Tiny Metal and feel like I’m winning battles by analyzing the scenario and making the best use of my tools. That feeling deflates, however, when I realize the AI can’t put up a good fight to (literally) save its life. Where this anime-inspired strategy excursion succeeds in personality and unit diversity, it misses the mark in trying to present interesting challenges, and again when trying to frame them with a meaningful story.
Billed as a successor to the Nintendo 3DS’ highly rated Advance Wars franchise, Tiny Metal follows that formula faithfully while avoiding some of its pitfalls like “puzzle missions” that had only one really valid way to win. You move a versatile toolbox of infantry, tanks, and aircraft with varying speeds and combat stats around a grid with the ultimate objective of capturing the enemy’s HQ building or destroying all of their forces. All the while, you vie for control of resource-generating cities and unit-producing factories on the map which can only be captured by infantry, keeping weaker, early-game units interesting and essential to protect throughout a match.
The fundamentals are well put-together, with each unit having clear strengths, weaknesses, and counters that make you consider how best to use them in any given scenario. Helicopter gunships are great at taking out ground targets but get shot right out of the sky by fighters. In turn, those fighters can’t attack ground units and are very vulnerable to mobile artillery. Meanwhile, artillery doesn’t take damage when attacking but is cumbersome to set up and can’t move and fire on the same turn. Many of the most powerful units have a very limited vision range and can be effectively neutralized by taking out the squishier spotters that accompany them. There’s tons of potential for diverse, tactical play and counterplay baked in because of this.
Unfortunately, the AI bungles it most of the time.
Unfortunately, the AI bungles it most of the time. Across 14 main campaign missions and a handful of unlockable secret ones, which took me about as many hours to complete, I only had to restart once due to failing. Even in scenarios where the enemy was given more resources and all kinds of overpowered super units to use against me, it was almost trivial to fight them to a standstill, turn the tide, and win an overwhelming victory by sacrificing cheap units and setting traps I came to realize they would fall for every time. Using an infantry squad to lure a much more expensive tank into an artillery ambush was a reliable bet to neutralize powerful enemy units, and the AI never really managed to pull off the same ruse against me.
There was never any sense of urgency or danger unless I got really sloppy, partly because the objectives were always the same: defeat all enemy units or capture their HQ. Some different victory conditions, modified game modes (like restricting which units I could use or increasing or decreasing vision range), or even turn timers could have helped a lot to diversify the mission design.
A New Game + mode adds to the challenge.
There is a New Game+ mode that becomes available when you’ve beaten the campaign once, which adds to the challenge, but I didn’t find that enticing considering I’d have to sit through the same linear, unimpactful story again. The campaign story is a seemingly self-aware rendition of the lighthearted “modern warfare anime” genre, with all the tropes you’d expect. There’s the young lieutenant trying to prove himself, the cold-hearted mercenary leader, and some sort of crazy clown guy who either wants to bring about the apocalypse or maybe communism – I couldn’t really figure out which. There are a couple mildly interesting twists that elevate the plot above the relatively simplistic “Not America vs Not Japan” thread that kicks things off, but I never became emotionally invested in any of the characters or their struggles – with the exception of one of the supposed bad guys. The pacing is also dragged down by way too much talking between missions. There’s too much tell and not enough show.
I could also be more forgiving of subpar AI if I had the option to play against other humans, which is where I think Tiny Metal could end up being a real blast. Unfortunately, the multiplayer mode is not yet enabled, so that simpleton AI is all we have to work with until developer Area 35 switches it on. There is a Skirmish vs AI option with up to three opponents, but since you can’t set them to predefined teams they’re just as likely to waste time and resources fighting each other as they are to gang up on you and create some significant challenge for once.