Review: Pocket God vs Desert Ashes

By Dave Lane 15 Sep 2015 0
Well it's just been ages since we reviewed a game populated by  awful racist stereotypes. Well it's just been ages since we reviewed a game populated by awful racist stereotypes.

Pocket God is an iOS game released in 2009 -- which makes it old news for a video game and downright methuselan by iOS gaming standards. A kind of Fisher-Price version of Populous, it was one of the app store’s first mega hits, but in spite of regular updates and spin-offs it is largely overshadowed by bigger-budget fare these days. After this long quiet period it has reappeared, in a cross-over with obscure strategy title Desert Ashes.

Pocket God vs. Desert Ashes is taking it’s cues from a game far older and more revered than either of its two licensees, and that game is Advance Wars. Game Boy classic Advance Wars is a series exclusively spoken of in wistful sighs and nostalgia-fuelled ramblings. For gamers of A Certain Age, it was their introduction to the wonderful world of moving tanks and men around a map while muttering numbers to themselves with great intensity. It mixed charm and accessibility with a solid strategic core -- so naturally Nintendo  has let the series lie fallow for many years. Like Kate Bush's acolytes, this absence has seen the series fandom morph into mania, and the internet is spotted with games trying to re-create the old warhorse -- Desert Ashes and its predecessor, Mecho Wars, among them. The elegant simplicity of Advance Wars has made it a hard act to follow, and the copycats always seem to lack the progenitor's charm and craftsmanship. So is this iteration an imitation that flatters or humiliates?

It could be worse. Not much. It could be worse. Not much.

One thing Pocket God And Friends captures is the visual charm of Nintendo’s franchise. Nine Tails are known for their games’ delightful art, and though quite a bit here is re-used from Desert Ashes, it’s lovely stuff all the same. The sprites are bright, goggle-eyed things, and the combat animations show off the striking unit designs. The cheerful Pygmies native to your island battlegrounds bring head-hurling zombies and doo-doo chucking Dodos as well as sharks with (of course) frickin’ laser beams. The mechanical Landians, invading forces from another dimension, are split between weird, spindly monstrosities that resemble the borg as envisioned by Tim Burton and curiously phallic pink robots sporting deranged grins.

The designs of the Pygmies themselves are going to be a sticking point for some [Starting with me --ed.], being, to put it very mildly, of questionable taste, but regardless the bright visuals and hand-wavey plot might be better fit for the casual and fundamentally unserious genre than, say, a half-assed World War I or WWII theme.

You spawn cartoony units are march them across a square grid map to contesting extra spawn points and resource generators, with the goal of capturing the enemy HQ. The zero-randomness combat, gradual attrition of units, rock-paper scissors unit dynamics, split screen combat animations - all familiar and accounted for.

At least there's nothing offensive in this screenshot. At least there's nothing offensive in this screenshot.

Units relate in traditional rock paper scissors fashion, with heavy units beating infantry, air units demolishing heavies and infantry picking off fliers. Sea units pound ground forces but are easy prey for an air assault. There are a couple of wrinkles -- hills grant bonus attack while jungle tiles boost defence -- but the rock paper scissors stars, meaning a variety of units and a cautious commander are needed.

Your force needs to be varied to protect against multiple threats. Fail to check enemy attack ranges as you trundle across the map and your most precious units will have the life expectancy of a Texan atheist. It’s never going to be mistaken for a complex, simulationist wargame, but it scratches an adjacent itch. Constructing a well-ordered assault, troops advancing meticulously to exploit enemy weaknesses without exposing your own, is deeply satisfying.

It’s as solid a foundation as you could ask for. It’s just that, pretty units aside, there seems to be nothing built on it. The only addition to the formula is a thrifty unit cap that increases as you capture buildings -- a smart addition for mobile devices, but not an exciting one. Compared to the distinctive, inventive character designs, the game design itself feels bizarrely bereft of new ideas. The unique powers and creative level designs of Advance Wars have no equivalent here.

Magenta isn't your colour, darling. Magenta isn't your colour, darling.

Whether this conservatism is due to a lack of resources or a fear that too close a facsimile would blaspheme against The Holy Game I can’t say, but it does leave the game feeling samey. It wears thin after a while, and that small annoyances -- such as the need to learn about Landian units by trial and error or the lack of screen rotation -- to weigh more heavily than they should.

The campaign is especially disappointing -- a series of ten missions, bookended by perfunctory cutscenes. All the maps feel like fairly straightforward affairs with similar terrain and the default ‘capture the enemy temples’ goal. There’s no unique aims or restrictions, no memorable maps. It feels less like Nine Tails showing off their skills and more like a fan developing their confidence with the level editor.

There’s async multiplayer on offer as well, which extends the game’s lifespan. It's a stable set-up, though actually finding another player is a pain. Although human opponents will make the game’s defensive bias more obvious, they make for a more unforgiving contest of skill .

Though it’s hard not to pine for the one or two excellent ideas that could have elevated Questionable Caricatures vs. Walking Weiners to the next level, there’s no denying the solid, satisfying nature of the core gameplay or the spark in the art direction. Advance Wars fans looking for a fix could do much worse, as could anyone else looking for a game that balances the simple and the cerebral.

[Editor's Note: Davy wanted to give this game a 3 out of 5 but I find the pygmy art abhorrent.]

Review: Pocket God vs Desert Ashes

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