Desert Ashes review for PS Vita

Platform: PS Vita
Also On: PC
Publisher: Nine Tails Digital
Developer: Nine Tails Digital
Medium: Digital
Players: 1-2
Online: Yes
ESRB: E10+

According to people who presumably know these things, Desert Ashes is essentially an Advance Wars clone, filtered through a steampunk-meets-Tim Burton art sensibility. Now, I should confess right off the bat that I don’t know if the first part of that comparison is true, having never played any of the Advance Wars games. The comparison seems to have been made enough that it’s probably appropriate, but I want to mention it with the disclaimer that I can’t vouch for how accurate it is.

That said, I can look at images and gameplay videos of Advance Wars, and — yeah, I can see why people would make the comparison. They’re both turn-based strategy games, and in both you have an array of different ground and air units at your disposal to take out the enemy forces.

Desert Ashes 1

Then again, the same could be said about any number of other turn-based strategy games (and Wikipedia knows there’s no shortage of them), so I’m not sure why there’s necessarily a direct line from Advance Wars straight through to Desert Ashes. It seems to me that in such a relatively narrowly-defined genre, you set yourself apart via story and graphics, not necessarily gameplay.

Of course, even by those standards, there’s still not a lot here. The game is basically one long war between the Winged Crusade and the Landians, and it doesn’t get much deeper than “these two sides are at war with each other.” If you really love that plot, there are two additional episodes to buy for under $2 each on top of the core free-to-play game, plus you can go online and take the battle to multiplayer. On the plus side, you wouldn’t be going into those additional episodes blind, since a big chunk of the first free chapter is a tutorial. The downside is that you also wouldn’t be going in with much narrative momentum, either, but hey, at least you’d know how to play. (And to the game’s credit, its controls are pretty easy to pick up.)

Desert Ashes 2

All of which brings us back to the second part of that initial comparison — to the Tim Burton/steampunk-style graphics. And here, finally, is where Desert Ashes genuinely shines. It’s not a wholly original style, obviously, but it’s still compelling enough that the game is fun to look at. The two sides both look like mutant bugs out of some brightly-coloured nightmare, and that goes whether you’re getting a top-down view or a quick glimpse of the two sides engaging in battle.

Is that enough to make Desert Ashes its own distinct game? Probably not, since — to refer back to the recent likes of htoL#NiQ and The Order 1886 — you need more than just looks to be worthwhile. But that comparison leaves something out, since where those games cost money, Desert Ashes’ first chapter is free. It may not be worth buying the DLC, but, if only to get a glance at the art in action, it’s undoubtedly worth a download.

Grade: B-