Review: Tree Wars

By Sean Clancy 27 Jan 2014 0
"Two roads diverged in a--OH HELL DO THOSE SQUIRRELS HAVE KNIVES?" "Two roads diverged in a--OH HELL DO THOSE SQUIRRELS HAVE KNIVES?"

What Tree Wars most readily accomplishes is making one realize just how strangely logical a war between squirrels and beavers would be. You know, because the former live in trees and the latter, like, knock 'em down. Quaint and curious war is, and all that. *cough*

The second-greatest thing Tree Wars accomplishes is making sure the player stays completely absorbed in its sundry, semi on-rails battles between those nutty freedom fighters and the presumably angry beavers trying to gnaw their trees away. In the moment, regardless of what that moment entails--always. Question is: should you want to be so transfixed? (And, also: whatever happened to Nick Bakay?)

The first thing you'll "get" in Tree Wars is timers. The next thing, as well, and maybe the last. You have your starting fortress (which is vaguely acorn-shaped, a weird trope when it comes to anthropomorphized fantasy societies—do you live in a giant pizzas skyscraper or hamburger-styled ranch?), out of which your Conker-esque warriors tumble out, on the regular. Watch the timer for a particular unit fill... fill... continue to fill and... ding! Tap on the appropriate box and your guy jumps out and heads down the conveniently placed roadway towards one of the beaver's fortresses, fixin' to bring 'er down. And you bet your ass those bark-chompers are doing the exact same.

You only have three options when it comes to troops: melee sword squirrel, archer squirrel, and suicide bomber hang-glider squirrel, with the first two functioning exactly as you'd expect and the latter functioning as a bit of high-risk, high-reward direct damage to the opposing base (or also “exactly as you'd expect” if you're into the more esoteric end of extreme sports). Flyers are easily brought down by archers, immune to melee fellas, and hit for big points if they drop their payload on an enemy dam.

Ah, aha, ah yes. Damn/dam. Yes, yes indeed. Fine day today. Ah, aha, ah yes. Damn/dam. Yes, yes indeed. Fine day today.

The rest is spells, handled under the same timer system. You've got your fireball (which is exactly as enjoyable to nail little dudes with as it is in any of the other odd games which give you a fireball spell), a buff which makes your troops hit harder for a few seconds, a healing aura, an immobilizing freeze spell and... that's it.

Any one level starts you off with one to three of these abilities unlocked—though you won't know which until you're stuck in the first time. As your squirrels kill beavers and knock down the barriers standing between you and their base, you'll acquire golden acorns, which you can spend to either unlock another skill in your repertoire or to upgrade a skill you've already earned, increasing its timer's speed and, in turn, affording you more frequent troop deployments and magical artillery strikes.

Tree Wars is an unabashedly simple game but, unfortunately, it's not the sort whose simplicity lends greater weight to any one decision, throwing the defining features of a strategy into sharper relief. There's no strategy to it. Beyond the fact that there isn't much in the way of troops or spells, there's also not much to do with those limited assets. Later stages do let you "aim" your soldiers down multiple paths, but this is only a near-exception. Presumably the choice of X route over Y is meant to have something to do with assessing where the enemy beavers are attacking from and where they appear vulnerable to a rush-down, but in practice it's more a combination of A) memorizing a level's beats and B) stubbornness.

One assumes they taste like green apple and aren't recommended by your dentist. One assumes they taste like green apple and aren't recommended by your dentist.

Team Beaver employs the exact same troops and spells as you (barring their special, slow-moving, beefy tank mob—like one of those wasn't going to show up at some point), though often in greater numbers. To make up for it, each completed level gives you an emerald nut (possibly a jade pinecone) you can spend on permanent upgrades for your troops or fort—exciting stuff like “more health” and “better hurts” and “faster move-ness” and oh hell forget it. It's unerringly basic and safe and, yeah, boring. Retrying levels on harder difficulties (with “harder” seeming to mean that enemies do more damage, or have more health, or simply appear more frequently) grants you even more upgrade gems, but you won't need them.

Tree Wars even manages to accidentally shows you what it could be, but isn't. In an early level, I noticed that my warriors would bunch up together when blocked by an enemy barricade. Rather than a detriment, this actually made them more effective combatants when it came to engaging beavers floating hodge-podge, one at a time, out of the opposing fortress. Would that you could cause something—anything—like that on purpose, simple as that basic non-mechanic is.

Redwall by way of Apocalypse Now. Redwall by way of Apocalypse Now.

I'm being harsh here. Tree Wars isn't terrible, but it's far more staid and uninspired than a game about goddamn warrior squirrels has any right to be. I'll admit, I was “in it” while playing some of the later levels, desperately hammering on my available deployments, slinging spells off cool-down, picking up acorns, slamming upgrades home as quickly as possible while beaver tide crept closer to my base. There's a rodent-like frenzy to the whole thing, which is to say it's a panicked, near-mindless affair. More than half the time you're staring at your hotbar, waiting, then frantically tapping the moment a unit lights up. You have these powers, but all Tree Wars asks you to do—all it allows you to do—is use them the only way they can be used. No more thought need go into any action other than “Can I do that right now?” “Can I get that upgrade right now? Yes? Then I should get that upgrade right now.” “Can I deploy that soldier right now? No? Then I should wait until it is the 'now' where I can deploy that soldier right now, and then I should deploy that soldier right now.”

Where is the player expected to leave their mark here, between the tightly packed timers and non-decisions? You can't. Even as a cartoony wargame it's bankrupt in terms of depth, and as a twitchy test of reaction-time it engages—in the most literal sense—but never really challenges. Tree Wars is competent, but also, quite seriously, wooden.

Tree Wars was played on a 3rd-gen iPad for this review.

Review: Tree Wars

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