The rise of digital distribution has lead to an increasing number of Japanese indie/doujin games reaching Western shores, often courtesy of small independent companies who deal with localisation and translation. Case in point: War Of The Human Tanks, a streamlined yet hardcore strategy game casting players as a general in charge of armies of deadly war machines designed - for some reason - to look like adorable girls. As a fan of indie games, quirky Japanese offerings and all things Mecha, this odd little title really pushed my buttons when I first heard about it... but much of its appeal will doubtlessly be lost in translation for many players.
You see, War Of The Human Tanks isn't really a strategy game. It's a visual novel that happens to include short and satisfying matches sandwiched between 30-40 minutes of text dialogue, static character sprites and even separate credit rolls for each mission. Much hinges, therefore, on how well Fruitbat Factory has managed to localise the lengthy diatribes for a Western audience, and whether the turn-based gameplay holds up once you finally manage to click-click-click through to it.
Just in case you're not au fait with the Visual Novel concept, here's a quick rundown. Incredibly popular in Japan, these games are essentially text adventures that tell a lengthy storyline via conversations between two or more characters, typically by displaying a multitude of text panes accompanied by a limited number of detailed character portraits. Though often used for dating sims, the concept has found a home throughout the gaming industry; if you've ever played a Japanese RPG where characters face each other over a text box in cutscenes, that's the general idea.
War Of The Human Tanks hides its tactical nuggets as a minigame halfway through countless swathes of non-interactive dialogue, and on the plus side, the story itself is worth telling. Playing as a faceless slacker general with a dark past who's obsessed with anime and shirking work, brought back onto the front lines by some seriously shady higher-ups, you'll fight to defend the Kingdom of Japon [sic] against a marauding rebel army. Instead of traditional war materiel, both armies field fearsome Human Tanks that superficially resemble pre-teen girls, whose innocent banter is pleasingly reminiscent of Ghost In The Shell's Tachikoma walkers. You'll meet a few support characters along the way (notably an icy second-in-command and an irrepressibly cheerful engineer), and the twists are interesting enough to keep you clicking away.
Seriously, there's a lot of clicking. I lost count at 210 clicks in the first episode alone, which was long before I encountered even the slightest hint of any gameplay.
Click-click-click-click-click-click-get a drink-click-click-click-check your emails-click-click-file your tax returns-click-click-click...
Unfortunately, the localisation isn't really up to much. If you've ever played anything by Level-5, you'll know that the key to translation is to ensure that characters actually speak using Western expressions and turns of phrase; to make the characters chat naturally. Fruitbat Factory, sadly, seems to have decided to directly translate the original Japanese script with only a few concessions to readibility or comfort. Conversations and banter never flows or engages the reader, it's awkward, uncomfortable and frequently leaves many of the frequent jokes as burned-out husks. As an example, I appreciate that the idea of a subordinate hanging their superior upside-down because he's not taking an upcoming battle seriously is inherently amusing, but the reams of near-nonsensical and matter-of-fact text simply neuters the joke. It's a crying shame that Fruitbat Factory didn't completely disassemble the dialogue and refit it to resonate with a Western readership (note: readership), using their own initiative to allow us to fully relate to the characters and their shenanigans.
The 'visual' bit of the visual novel also isn't particularly inspiring. Despite boasting a cheery 'chibi' graphical style that chooses adorably cute super-deformed characters over... erm... unbelievably creepy mis-proportioned girls (see also: any bishōjo game)... War Of The Human Tanks is spectacularly dull in the main. You'll soon tire of the boring low-resolution backgrounds and continually-repeated portraits, and take offense at a complete refusal to mirror the events of the dialogue. Is a battle going on? You'll never know, because all you can see is a blurred photo of a nondescript forest, followed by a cliched pan upwards to the sky and a shaking animation when an explosion occurs. The net effect is more than a little tatty and rushed, though we won't hold a game's humble origins against it.
At the end of the day, fans of quirky Japanese experiences will probably find a lot to like here - and for the record, I definitely enjoyed the overarching storyline in its own right - but I can't help but feel that much of War Of The Human Tanks' unique charm and character have been lost during translation.
Click-click-click-click... wait. What? A customisation screen and mission briefing? Now we're talking! Sooner or later, you'll happen across a battle, which is where War Of The Human Tanks finally starts to flaunt its strategic side. You'll deploy a small army of Human Tanks onto a hex-based grid, using a variety of classes and skills to claim victory in some fast, aggressive and punchy matches.
War Of The Human Tanks charts a fine line between turn-based and real-time strategy. Units can only be moved once their connection timer expires (think the Active Time Battle system or a cooldown bar), at which point they can be relocated or tasked to fire on visible enemy units. Enemies move and engage using the same system, thus providing both the tactical freedom of a turn-based game and the hectic, stressful tension of an all-out territory brawl. Your Human Tanks run the gamut from vulnerable commanders (game over if they expire), versatile riflemen, scouts who can peer into enemy territory and long range bazooka-toting artillery, each of whom have very different combat roles and connection speeds.
Omnipresent fog of war encourages you to carefully deploy long-range scouting units to get the drop on foes or bombard known enemy positions with howitzer fire like a stand-off game of battleship. Critically, all units can be destroyed by a single attack, which makes for quick matches and a cut-throat sense of tension. Clever placement and saving important units for when they're needed most becomes the order of the day, delivering a razor-sharp strategic experience that's all over in a handful of minutes. Advance Wars-style animations and a J-Rock soundtrack lends a unique sense of fun and personality to the party, bolstered by a pleasing variety of mission objectives.
Between missions, commanders are free to buy new units, research more powerful tanks and develop modifications that upgrade existing forces using currency gained from victories. Since deaths are permanent, you'll likely form a strong attachment to your powerful yet fragile troopers, but thrill at creating a strong and well-balanced army out of powerful new recruits.
One-shot-kills do have their drawbacks. Notably, kamikaze Shock Troopers are rendered completely pointless by the fact that other units can take down enemies just as efficiently but don't sacrifice themselves and waste resources in the process. Speaking of resources, this bleeding-edge approach also means that most victories tend to be pyrrhic, often forcing you to spend most of your resources on replacing the troops you lost before even considering researching new upgrades. Thankfully a free mission mode allows you to grind away at randomly-generated matches on unlocked battlefields, though it aggravatingly isn't accessible until after finishing a mission - not before.
These are small gripes in an enjoyable and exciting tactical experience, one that would have worked well on its own. Potentially even as a standalone iPad app. Sadly, though, many players will simply not be prepared to click-click-click their way through the visual novel to get there. Haun!
- Razor sharp hex-based battles with elements of turn-based and real-time strategy
- Punchy, tense matches and addictive customisation
- Strong overarching storyline
- Reams of clunky, awkward and dull dialogue makes characters and humour hard to relate to
- Bland backdrops, continually-repeated character portraits
- It's a visual novel first and foremost. Know this going in.
The Short Version: War Of The Human Tanks presents some intensely addictive, tense and exciting bite-sized strategy battles, but many Western players will balk at having to click through hundreds of screens' worth of text in order to access the tasty tactical core. Be aware that it's a fairly mediocre visual novel that just happens to contain a fun strategy minigame, not a traditional RTS or turn-based title. Though I have no doubt that War Of The Human Tanks will attract a cult following and provide a strong foundation for Fruitbat Factory to build on, its glut of awkwardly-translated dialogue makes the experience less than the sum of its parts.