The free-to-play model has been gaining traction across the gaming landscape over the past few years. PC and, more recently, mobile gamers have been growing quite accustomed to tossing developers a few bucks here and there in exchange for a free game up front. Somewhat fashionably late to the party, the Xbox 360 has finally seen the release of its first free-to-play XBLA title, Happy Wars.
Developer Toylogic Inc. has created a light-hearted battle arena game with enough depth to certainly keep players busy, but do some questionable progression and design choices keep it from being a worthwhile experience, even at zero dollars? Read on to find out.
After a brief tutorial, Happy Wars plops players in the pit of multiplayer online battle arena style action as they attempt to build towers and raid the other team’s castle. Choosing between the game’s three classes will help guide how the player approaches each battle and determine whether they will be on the front lines or hanging back in a support role. Those looking to get their hands red will likely go with the Warrior class, while others looking to help the cause by dropping resources, adding enchantments to players and healing the team will likely look at the Mage or Cleric classes.
Each class is varied enough in their role, and the manner in which each plays also feels well distinguished. With each class having their own set of skills and powers, players looking for some depth will feel right at home experimenting with play styles. Add to that the ability to level up and modify a character’s gear, and it becomes clear that despite the deceptively childish title, there is some meat here for hardened veterans.
Indeed, the words “happy” and “wars” aren’t often seen in paired, but that’s exactly what the aesthetic of the game delivers, the most cheerful combat one can find in pixilated form. The game looks to have taken a cue from Double Fine’s body of work and uses charming, if somewhat askew, character design and some rather silly motivations for the wars to be occurring in the first place – to keep the whole affair casual and fun. This is a major plus as the intimidation factor for newcomers is wiped away and should result in attracting a fairly wide audience. There’s no heavy handed backstory to weigh down the proceedings or overall vibe of the game. Unlike other multiplayer games of this type, rather than feeling like each match is a real world life or death situation, when things get intense, the cartoonish look of Happy Wars is there to comfort the player and remind them that it’s just a game.
Unfortunately, despite all the features and design choices that work immensely in the game’s favor, there are a couple major ones that push it right back in the wrong direction. The biggest fault with the game comes in the form of a two-headed monster that actually manages to create a nasty cycle of frustration and the desire to just give up on the game completely.
To understand this problem it needs to be noted that Happy Wars does feature a multi-chapter story campaign. This is a nice addition —especially when some games in this genre don’t bother with one at all — that does add a bit more of the aforementioned charm to the game’s overall presentation through some nonsensical scenarios and goofy dialogue. Or at least it would be nice if the game didn’t actively try to keep the player from playing it. After spending a whole five minutes completing the opening mission, a prompt will let the player know that in order to play the next one, they must rank up to level 6 through the multiplayer portion. While in most games like this, the single player serves as training for getting acclimated to the finer points of the game in order to be well prepared before jumping into multiplayer, here it is basically reversed. While some may be put off by this, it generally, or at least superficially, seems like a harmless design choice.
However, this is quickly proven to be the most fatal mistake that Toylogic Inc. could have made for one simple reason. Getting into a multiplayer game takes four minutes just shy of forever. Excruciatingly long wait times, connection issues and in-game aborts make the task of actually playing the game more difficult than any challenge the game itself has to offer.
But back to the point of the cycle of controller-chucking frustration, the combination of these two things renders the game a giant headache to play. For this review, getting to level 6 in the multiplayer took just over two hours of multiplayer play time. What the stats don’t track is that it took days to achieve that amount of time due to the horrible connectivity the game is plagued with. Those two hours of actual play could easily be combined with another two hours of cumulative time spent just staring at the screen, waiting for player lists to fill. And this was all just to unlock the second story chapter.
If a developer wants to make the campaign dependent on multiplayer leveling, then they had better be darn certain the multiplayer actually works. And if it doesn’t, then the story better be compelling enough to make the wait worthwhile, which unfortunately, Happy Wars doesn’t even come close in that regard either. Although, one would be hard pressed to find any game that would be worth sitting through what amounts to the equivalent of a two hour load screen just to reach the second mission.
Another shortcoming is the confused map design. Some are perfect, and others just do not work at all for the genre. The smaller, head-on charge maps are both large enough for strategic play and also showcase the intensity of the attack and retreat style of action that is often needed for victory. However, a handful of maps are grossly oversized and slow down the pace considerably, thereby dulling the excitement of the battles. Not to mention the fact that some of the larger maps are so winding that it’s easy to lose track of where the enemy’s castle even is. Nothing sucks the urgency out of an encounter like getting lost.
In addition to the game’s overall journey being a mess, in-game battle progression also has a hiccup, and that’s balance. Far too many games end with the clock running out rather than a castle being raided. When this happens, the team with the most towers built is the victor. Team strategy certainly plays a part in this, but another obvious culprit is the fact that castles are simply way too fortified. It feels odd to be able to steamroll a team across the map only to get stuck at the castle gate because the designers decided to line the castle walls with rock traps, ballistas and all other sort of medieval weaponry. While some degree of these elements is expected, and makes complete sense, the severity to which simply being outgunned by environmental aids has an effect on matches’ outcomes is just too much. This quickly diminishes the satisfaction of an otherwise well played round.
Finally, it wouldn’t be a free-to-play game without some sort of revenue stream built in, and Happy Wars is no different. All the standard digital goods are here, from new costumes for character customization to weapon enhancements and upgrades. It’s just a shame the game uses the underhanded “state fair method” to keep the player in a cycle of purchasing the in-game currency since the amounts of currency offered never quite match up with the cost of the items. There’s always leftover money. There are other ways to gain items like a prize wheel and purchasing Happy Cards.
After the dust has settled on the virtual battlefield, it’s hard to call Happy Wars a victor, free or not. Sure, the game has style to spare, but that doesn’t make up for being, at times, nearly unplayable. It’s just a shame that a game that is oozing with so much potential, and comes so close, has its legs cut out from under it by technical shortcomings and some wonky design choices. If a player is willing to sit through the downtime, they will find a few bright spots here. Otherwise, there’s simply not a winning combination of elements to make even getting started in the game a good idea. If only someone had told Toylogic Inc. that it isn’t enough to have all the right pieces, they have to assemble them properly, too. Maybe then this would be a happy war rather than a confused conflict.
Happy Wars is free to play now exclusively on Xbox Live Arcade.