We’re not so partisan about the Xbox that we don’t own a Switch. Of the games coming out for the system, Advance Wars 1+2 Re-Boot Camp is the one we’re most eager for, but it’s also the most delayed: once for polish, another for the war in Ukraine. It’s all very understandable of course, but we have a growing appetite for simple, top-down tactics.
We weren’t expecting it to address our particular itch, but Floppy Knights is absolutely holding an Advance Wars back-scratcher. If you have any love for the Game Boy Advance classic, Floppy Knights should probably get a place on your backlog.
Don’t expect troops and tanks, though. The units in Floppy Knights are plants, monsters, robots, ghosts and more besides. This is a fantastical world where science and magic co-exist, and the main character – Phoebe – is splicing them to create tiny creatures controlled by an AI attached to her wrist: the Floppy Knights of the title (‘floppy’ because of floppy disks, so get your mind out of the gutter).
She’s heading to a science competition, which is more like Robot Wars than models of volcanoes. Some high-school rivals are there to defeat her, which – of course – take the form of some top-down, turn-based combat a la Advance Wars. And the story slowly gets more and more apocalyptic, as it moves from science competitions to AI taking over the world.
The story is not Floppy Knights’ strong point. While it’s lovingly rendered with simple cartoons that are reminiscent of Steven Universe, it’s missing a strong thread running through it. It has a habit of letting Phoebe wander through its world before tossing a new friend or foe in her path, rather than giving her a good reason to be there in the first place. And the dialogue’s passable: it’s pleasant enough, but can’t find a chuckle, threat or sense of adventure.
Luckily, the gameplay is much better. It takes place on maps that aren’t sprawling, rarely much bigger than the game screen. You start by placing your commander, a super-powered unit that you have to protect at all costs. They might dominate the battlefield, but if they die then you’re done for. They also come with a card: something you get in your hand every turn (we should have mentioned, Floppy Knights incorporates the game mechanic du jour, the card game).
You start your turn with a certain amount of energy, and a new hand of cards to spend it on. Those cards might be creatures, which can only be dumped in certain areas of the map (some of these areas need to be ‘won’ by capturing them), or they might be the two dominant card types: a move and an attack. A move pushes a unit around the game board equal to the speed stat on them, while an attack will whack an enemy equal to their attack stat.
There are some neat twists on a reasonably familiar formula here. Each creature comes packaged with a card. Play the creature and the card appears in your hand, and gets shuffled into the deck once it’s used. It’s a lovely twist on the traditional deckbuilder: you can play a creature, not for the sake of having another body on the battlefield, but because their card is so useful. It feels counter-intuitive, but it can turn the tide of battle, and means that situations where a creature just isn’t useful – you are dominating with your commander, for example – are still helped by playing creatures. They don’t become dead cards in the hand.
There’s also some nice protection against bad luck. Each creature, including your commander, comes with a free attack each turn, so getting a handful of ‘Move’ cards isn’t the end of the world. Equally, the guaranteed commander card each turn means that you’re getting something decent.
Spend your energy and it’s the enemy’s turn, so they will wander close to you (or not, if you’ve read the game’s helpful ‘attack range’ indicator right) and attack themselves. You might have prepped for this eventuality by adding some armour to the character, making them invisible, or attaching some ‘Payback’ which acts as a counter. If your commander dies, it’s game over.
Each match has an objective, and there’s some neat variety here. There are capture-the-flag scenarios, king-of-the-hill and protect-the-unit, whipping out all of the hyphens. There are bosses too, with unique methods of attack and defence (note that one robotic boss has two phases: there’s nothing worse than spending all your cards and health, only to find out you have to do it twice over). Best of all, most missions have a sub-objective that isn’t mandatory, but bags you some extra cash or cards if you manage to satisfy them. These are things like ‘complete the level in 10 turns’ or ‘keep all your units alive’.
That cash gets spent between levels on new cards, and there’s a refreshing welcomeness to Floppy Knight’s deckbuilding. You can mix and match from multiple card ‘families’, with plant cards working fine with hooligan cards, and so on. There are more synergies within a given family, but there are some absolutely killer cards that almost every deck should have, and you’re not denied from using them.
There is an oddness in the finite amount of gold and cards in the game. There’s no farming of gold: you have a set number of levels, and a set number of challenges and sub-objectives that will hand you cash. It created one moment where we needed a very specific card from the shop to complete a level, but had run out of cash to buy it. We squeaked through by completing challenges – optional versions of the levels – but we could easily have reached a state where there was no opportunity to purchase it.
There are seven worlds here, totaling twenty-seven levels. To our tastes, it’s slightly on the lean side – some of those early levels are a swift breeze – but the challenges, with fixed decks and a more puzzle-like feel, do alleviate the problem. You’re probably getting to the end after six hours, which – being a Game Pass game at launch – might be precisely enough.
Floppy Knights dallies with a lower overall score (we kept adding and taking away a half mark) because it’s not overly new or innovative, and it has a habit of tossing in some awkward usability exactly when we didn’t want it.
Take away the novel approach to creatures and the guaranteed card in the hand, and everything has been done umpteen times before. Advance Wars rears its head again. It doesn’t have the benefit of an expansive campaign or interesting story to soften that blow. But it’s also a formula that works, and – as a fan of the genre – it felt like being welcomed home.
The usability is slightly harder to excuse. A series of patches are planned for launch, so it’s hard to judge what will be fixed or not, but we encountered more roadbumps than we’d like. Levels with lots of enemies experienced slowdown on our console, which was a particular problem because turns – and particularly enemy turns – take an age anyway. Die, and you have to romp through cutscene dialogue (the skipping function is too slow), as well as the rules of the level (unskippable), which you should know by now. And we found that cards didn’t quite do what they were meant to, thanks to hidden caveats. Cards that say ‘Deal one damage to a unit to draw two cards’, for example, won’t draw you cards if that unit dies. We often failed a mission because rules felt hazy.
But we’re in a forgiving mood because a 3.5/5 game wouldn’t compel us to play like Floppy Knights does. Floppy Knights has the same nagging demand to play that Advance Wars has: to satisfy a sub-objective, to progress the campaign, to unlock a particular unit. Even as we write now, we have the urge to get floppy with Floppy Knights. If you’ve got a turn-based bone in your body, we’d encourage you to do the same.
You can buy Floppy Knights from the Xbox Store