It was Shakespeare who wrote, “All the world’s a video game, and all the men and women merely players”. As you play your part in this grand production we call life, you might enjoy a video game or two. After all, “To game, or not to game: that is the question”. But playing video games can bring an interesting challenge: finding games that you love. Unfortunately, your quest for that next great game does not end here. For it was also Shakespeare who said, “War Theatre is a lazy, boring, and ugly piece of work”. Actually, I think I said that.
Developed and published by Arcade Distillery, War Theatre is, in their own words, a game consisting of “turn-based strategy with RPG elements”. I think there is a bit missing from that description. It should say, “…without even the slightest hint of any kind of RPG elements”. If this game has role-playing elements, then they are hidden exceptionally well under all of the ugly menus, muddy visuals, and tedious gameplay.
Your mission in War Theatre, if you mistakenly choose to accept it, is to select one of seven heroes and manoeuvre through a series of battles. Each hero has their own set of battles that form one of seven campaigns, and each also has a special attack to aid their armies in achieving victory. Battles take place on maps of varying sizes and layouts, where said victory is dependent on your ability to capture every single building on the map or to kill the opposing army’s leader.
If you are thinking, “Hmm, that sounds suspiciously similar to 2019’s Wargroove”, then you are absolutely right. The core gameplay, the exact types and functions of soldiers, vehicles, and weapons, the rock-paper-scissors style of weaknesses and strengths between units, and even several elements of the HUD are all exactly like the game Wargroove. However, even if these design choices are more plagiarism than inspiration, it would not be that big of a deal. After all, Wargroove borrows ideas from other strategy games as well. Many of these bits can be considered defining parts of the genre – albeit an incredibly boring genre.
On its own, turn-based gameplay does not offend me too much. It is when you throw in resource management, positioning, probability, and loads of numbers that my eyes begin to glaze over. It does not help when the matches for these kinds of games are longer than most Shakesperian plays. Though it is not dear to my heart, Wargroove is more tolerable than others in this field due to some lovely visuals. The characters are neatly animated to deliver satisfying blows against enemy forces. The HUD and menus are clearly outlined and easy to navigate. The entire game has a pleasing aesthetic due to it feeling like it was designed by an actual artist. Are you taking notes, War Theatre? Because this is all stuff that you struggle with.
When the gameplay is so unengaging and passive, visuals have to pull even more weight than usual. War Theatre’s characters are so awkwardly animated. On the map screen, characters are represented by bland, miniature versions of themselves that bounce up and down like a gangly, newborn deer without the cute factor. When they are attacking, the game transitions briefly to more detailed character models that wiggle mildly, gently move a limb or a weapon to attack, and then go back to wiggling mildly.
Despite the greater detail when characters are attacking, things get a bit too detailed. It can be difficult to distinguish where the environment ends and the character begins. Each character design in this game looks like a giant toddler rolled them around in a pile of glue and random metal and said “Ta-da! See? We don’t need artists”. You can tell the game is going for a steampunk aesthetic because there is too much going on. The exact opposite problem is true for the story and writing.
In each one of the campaigns, your selected hero speaks three or four lines before each battle. Most of the time, these lines are given directly to your troops or against the enemy commander. In most cases, this would be a great opportunity to do some world-building and justify the reason for why your characters are doing what they are doing. In War Theatre, it is a great opportunity for your character to say something that is either stupidly bland or hilariously awkward. My favorite was when an enemy hero character said, “There! Wipe them away like so much dirt!”.
“So what if the visuals stink and there is not much story?”, I hear you say, “I like turn-based strategy games a lot. I would love to try a new o-”, hold that thought. Would you like to try one that offers less challenge than tying your shoes? I played the first few battles of each campaign to get a feel for which hero I liked the most, and after multiple battles I never came close to losing. So long as you attack enemies with the type of unit that they are weak to, you have nothing to fear. Not to mention I never felt like I needed more money than the huge amounts I somehow always had. As you complete battles, you earn special perks that make your armies even more powerful if you equip them, and you had better do it if you want to inflict 2.5% more damage to your foes.
Besides the campaign modes, the other option available to you gameplay-wise is PvP matches. You can do these against a friend on your couch or online. I attempted to get into a match online, but after 20 minutes of waiting for a match that never came, I gave up, which is probably a good thing, because waiting for the AI to make its battle decisions takes long enough. If I had to wait for a human being to think over all of their options, I might have become paralyzed from crippling boredom.
If it sounds like I did not like War Theatre on Xbox One, then I have succeeded. I cannot remember a time that I played a game that made me angry just by looking at it. There may be some potential behind the idea – War Theatre definitely has a place that it wanted to go. Sadly, we will never know what that was since the game is marred by a tiresome excuse for gameplay and hideous visuals. “A plague o’ both your houses!”.