Because “Simple Skimishes” wouldn’t have the same ring to it
When you think of a series screaming for a mobile edition, Creative Assembly’s Total War probably isn’t the first name that jumps to mind. While the critically acclaimed tactical strategy series might be SEGA’s strongest Western brand, it’s everything that mobile gaming isn’t: deep, involved gameplay, with a dry, historically-accurate presentation. How could Creative Assembly possibly make this work for the average Android gamer?
We’ll never find out, because Total War Battles: SHOGUN isn’t so much an adaptation as it is a complete reinvention. Like the PC games, it attempts to blend turn-based strategy and real-time tactics, but the particulars couldn’t be more different. Instead of alternating between the strategy of world conquest and commanding troops in battle, this is a game of small-scale skirmishes on a hexagonal grid. The result lies somewhere between Command and Conquer and Plants vs. Zombies.
Each match takes place on a narrow horizontal strip of land, with opposing factions on either end. All placement and movement is limited to a hexagonal grid – a simplification that makes the game very touch-friendly. Beyond these basic limitations, you’ll find many of the core fundamentals of the real-time strategy genre, like base-building, resource harvesting, and tech trees. The limited real-estate, and strict rules about which structures must connect adds a puzzle-like layer of strategy to building placement, as well.
The grid also makes a lot of conventional RTS strategies obsolete. You won’t be holing up and building massive armies to steamroll your opponents, because there just isn’t room on screen. Instead the combat takes on a more tactical bent. Each unit is strong against certain kinds of units, weak against others, and has their own unique characteristics, and success is about putting the right units in the right places more than it is any skillful manipulation thereof. Movement is very limited, in fact, as units can only march or attack forward or diagonally.
The presentation has also been rethought quite a bit. The realism of the PC counterpart has been replaced with a more colorful, cartoony style of illustration. It manages to avoid being childish, though, and a score of traditional Japanese folk music keeps the tone serious.
A great deal of effort has been put into the excellent single-player campaign mode. This is a full-fledged story mode with varied and thoughtful mission goals that add as much variety as can be facilitated with the game’s limited mechanics. Missions range from having to simply fit base units on the terrain, to mining resources within a time limit, to besting an enemy with only a fixed set of units. With 23 main story missions, and 17 optional side missions, this will easily take as much time as an average console game.
The symmetrical design seems like the perfect invitation to some rewarding multiplayer, but sadly this is where TWB falters. There is no online component, only a local game where two players hold opposite sides of the same phone. This limits the game to very small single-screen play fields, and the base-building has been streamlined out to accommodate. This mode could still be reasonably amusing on a tablet, but phone players will probably find it too uncomfortable to be worth bothering. Creative has missed a real opportunity to capitalize on a potentially great multiplayer experience by omitting any online component.
Total War Battles may not overcome the limitations of its platform, but it does have some fun with them. It’s a unique take on the genre, with slow, methodical gameplay that seems to have as much in common with Fire Emblem as it does StarCraft, let alone the series that birthed it. That isn’t to say Battles is casual fluff, though. This is a smart game that will tax the mind of an experienced player, but it does so through thoughtful mission design rather than with complex game mechanics. Having a human opponent could have added some real long-term value to the package, but the challenging solo campaign alone should keep players busy for quite a while.