The fourth of the Advance Wars games takes us out of cutesy, colorful Wars World for the first time. We're instead deposited into an unexpectedly grimdark dystopia. It's still accompanied by the DJ scratching
the soundtracks have become known for, just paired with soaring butt rock this time out instead of European dance music.
You can tell it's the exact same team behind all this, though. Aside from identical gameplay, with just a few tweaks to units for the most part, it's also full of the same sort of corny Young Adult Fiction animu tropes that the DS library is notorious for. We're in a world ravaged by meteors, and the game initially makes some noise about how things are so awful for the ragtag survivors and there's corpses everywhere (though never actually shown, because Nintendo). The game pulls all the exact punches you'd expect a Nintendo game to pull, though, and by midgame we're back to colorful environments with COs "challenging" each other to collect "battle data" and all that silly animu shitto. Not to mention there's an absolutely astounding amount of military units, resources and advanced intact facilities lying around for a world that's supposed to be devastated and sparsely populated.
They were clearly trying to shake the series up a bit with a tonal shift, and it just didn't come off thanks to a poor choice not suited either to their target audience or to Nintendo's brand. So though the shift to "OMG dystopia" really doesn't end up amounting to much other than soaking the color palette in drab grays and browns, that's not why I docked it the extra star that all the other games in the series got. Instead, it's too many little disappointments in the gameplay, chiefly one major irritating mission decision in the single-player campaign.
So you come to Advance Wars for the chess-like strategy of carefully considering unit capabilities and placement as you develop a long-term plan, and in that respect the game still delivers quite adeptly. At least until you get to the "escort missions" in the middle stages of the single player campaign, where you have to protect some derpy computer AI unit from an overwhelming wave of oncoming enemies until they make it across a map. You can pull off an escort mission in which you have to protect a unit under your own control within the Advance Wars framework, but not one where the escortee is the idiot computer. Sorry, but I don't do "restart the map a dozen times until the computer ally decides to NOT act stupid" map design.
But that still leaves the War Room ... oh wait. Yeah, that's gone too. To be fair to the game, it does include about a hundred stand-alone single player maps in addition to the campaign. You don't get to choose COs, however, and scores/rankings aren't saved. And that's still a much lower total map count than immediate prequel Dual Strike.
Aside from the aforementioned color palette issues, individual fights between units look much worse, now featuring barely animated and poorly-detailed clip art basically. To be fair here as well, after a point you generally just start mushing the button to skip the battle animations, so this isn't a huge thing. But Advance Wars had developed a certain unique look and charm for itself which was largely based on the battle animations, and that's completely in the toilet as of this installment.
This is all the more of a shame because the core gameplay is actually among the best of the series. CO superpowers have been removed in favor of a new system where you can place a CO in a unit to give that unit and everything within a certain radius of it a stat boost. I was never really against the CO superpowers and they were a useful tool to break logjams where the computer was clearly defeated but could use its ridiculous income from its dozens of starting cities to keep throwing shitty units at you to draw the battle out forever, which becomes a major issue once again here on the odd campaign map. But on the whole I feel like this game has more of the "speed chess" sort of feel I came to enjoy in the original GBA installments, which was muted a bit by Dual Strike's over-the-top unbalanced CO powers.
Days of Ruin has all the hallmarks of a series that was floundering financially and making desperate moves to stay alive while working within an increasingly shrunken budget. To the designers credit, they did rebalance the core gameplay in response to fan complaints about the previous game (and with an eye toward a much better multiplayer experience as well). Sadly, that had to come at the expense of the War Room and several other beloved features it seems, and the tonal shift was handled poorly. Thus, this was the final entry for the series and we haven't heard a peep about any future developments for it in almost a decade now. It might be too late at this point, but it would be nice to somehow see a series revival/reboot with a proper budget and development time, as it seems like the team at Intelligent was really on the right track with the gameplay in this one, aside from the inexplicable escort missions that shit up an otherwise excellent single-player campaign.