In an age of social media, crowdfunding, and hype, it’s often hard to separate our impressions of games from their development processes. As individual works, I believe it’s important to take games on their own merit. But it’s hard to talk about Tiny Metal without thinking of the controversy that arose around development. For an extensive primer on the drama surrounding Tiny Metal, I recommend Allegra Frank’s in depth article over at Polygon. For this review, I’m looking at Tiny Metal in a vacuum.
Confession time: I’ve never played any of the Advance Wars games, and I’m aware that Tiny Metal is an attempt to revitalize that series. If this is sticking point for you as far as my opinions go, that’s understandable, but it does give me the advantage of being nostalgia goggle-free. Hypothetically, I suppose you could argue that, having never played the games that influenced Tiny Metal, my opinion is the only valid one on the entire internet. I would never suggest that, of course, but something to keep in mind.
Here’s the basics then; Tiny Metal is a turn-based strategy game that takes place on a grid map. You’re given control of a variety of unit classes with the aim of capturing various building tiles and, eventually, defeating the entire enemy force. Units have a paper-scissors-rock dynamic; basic infantry are weak against tanks, tanks are weak against rocket launchers, and so on. Each turn, you receive income to spend on more units. Infantry can be used to capture neutral buildings, and the more buildings you have, the more income you receive. Sort of like a more violent Monopoly. Less violent. Like a less violent Monopoly.
Units have three offensive options: basic attack, assault, and lock on/focus fire. When initiating an attack move, both units will attack – but whoever attacks first has the advantage, since weakened units are less effective in combat. Assault pushes an enemy unit back a tile – useful for preventing buildings being captured – but leaves the assaulting unit vulnerable. Lock-on commits a unit’s damage, but doesn’t attack immediately. When another unit focuses fire at the locked-on enemy, both units let loose. All considered, there’s enough variety in the units and options to create some interesting decisions. Or at least, there would be, if such decisions were ever really required.
Less Metal Slug, more Metal Snail
There are 14 missions in Tiny Metal‘s campaign, and eleven of those missions feel like tutorials. It seems like, by drip feeding new units, Tiny Metal is trying to make each mission stand out by centering it around newly available tactics. I can understand this as a matter of pacing, but it effectively makes the campaign feel like one long introduction. It doesn’t help that the AI never puts up much of a fight.
There could well be some high-level strategic interplay and clever spatial manipulation that puts Tiny Metal on the same level as chess, but if there is, the low difficulty never incentivises mastery. As long as I prioritized threats and kept pushing forward, I never ran into any problems. There is a New Game+ available upon completion, but I was so relieved to see the credits roll the first time, I can’t see myself jumping back in anytime soon.
A huge, bullet-riddled chunk of the appeal turn-based tactics games have comes from the emotional weight behind each decision. Some of the greatest additions to the genre – XCOM, Valkyria Chronicles, Fire Emblem: Awakening – have all, through various means, succeeded in making the player care deeply about the fates of otherwise generic units. To a friend watching you play XCOM, your squad is just a bunch of slightly funky looking soldier dudettes and dudes. But they don’t know, man. They. Weren’t. There.
Now, there’s no RNG whatsoever, which may have some players breathing a sigh of relief. Because no information is ever obscured, there’s clarity to every tactical decision. Moves can be planned well in advance with certainty. But no randomization means no uncertainty as a source of tension. Unpredictability is at the core of struggles that may not be the central narrative of the game, but become the stories you talk about afterward.
There’s no real spirit to Tiny Metal – no point where the mechanics converge into something as grand or epic as the scale of the narrative suggests. That Tiny Metal lacks this appeal isn’t entirely down to the lack of RNG, but as it is, the mechanics feel so detached from the setting that it’s hard to ever feel truly invested. I never got the sense I was sitting in the commander’s chair, always just sitting behind my monitor.
There are five named ‘hero’ units in Tiny Metal. You capture the required tile, you get to choose a hero unit. Find more of that tile, get more heroes, but only one of each can be in play at any time. Each has a name but no any part in the story whatsoever. If one dies, no problem. Find another tile, and summon them again. Tiny Metal makes a small concession to continuity by allowing these units to retain rank increases throughout the story campaign, but it’s not enough to give these units any sense of character. Every other unit in the game is, of course, completely disposable.
Tiny Metal‘s own website claims that ‘TINY METAL is all about the gameplay’. Which, you know, sounds great, but if so; how did all these massively long cutscenes find their way in?
Tiny Metal‘s characters are either spunky, earnest anime cliches with hearts of gold or cartoonishly overwrought villains. There’s no drama because, honestly, there’s never a reason to care. It’s hard to get a sense of what makes these characters tick because they talk almost entirely in exposition.
Occasionally, you’ll be treated to Tiny Metal philosophizing on war, and it’s as deep as the sort of conversation you might have between huge bong rips after playing Metal Gear Solid. Look, I love Japanese melodrama as much as anyone, but Tiny Metal‘s story never earns the gravitas with which it presents itself. The fast forward animation when you skip cutscenes is pretty nifty though. Small mercys, then.
This seriousness of tone also clashes with Tiny Metal‘s presentation, which is colorful, goofy, and charming. Each unit has its own unique, voiced catchphrases in battle. There are funny, chaotic animations when two units engage. The soundtrack is also generally whimsical and upbeat. When Tiny Metal is fun, it’s very fun, and I can’t help but feel they missed a trick here by not turning the silliness up to eleven. The game would have worked well as a purely light-hearted strategy, and not the grand opera the cutscenes are attempting.
As well as the previously mentioned gameplay modes, there’s also a skirmish mode. It’s a bit more successful, purely by virtue of not forcing any story on you. Many of the maps are also more difficult than the campaign missions. Those looking to explore Tiny Metal’s tactics in depth, there are potentially many more hours of gameplay here. There’s also an option in the menu for online multiplayer, though at the time of writing, this is still unavailable.
The Score – 67
It’s difficult to come to a conclusion about something like Tiny Metal; the overall quality of the game is sound, but it fails to truly engage in almost every area it tries. Nothing here is broken, but nothing is exciting. It’s charming, but never engaging. If the sort of strategy Tiny Metal offers is your favourite genre, there might be some fun to be found here, I just can’t see it ever being anyone’s favourite game.