For those of you that are old enough to remember, animated animal adventures aren’t all fun and games. Redwall, Animals of Farthing Wood, and Watership down scared more than a few childhoods. Back in 2015, League of Geeks launched a Kickstarter for a visceral, turn-based game full of anthropomorphized animals. Now, the Australian indie team brings Armello to the Nintendo Switch for those of us on the go.
Arriving just a few days ago, Armello is already available on PC, Mac, Linux, PlayStation 4, Xbox One, and mobile platforms. Coming out at $19.99 USD / €19.99 / £14.99 with a host of DLC already available, which brings the complete edition up to £29.99, makes it noticeably more expensive than the iOS free-to-play model. Not content with its own competition, Armello also moves onto a platform that already includes a bunch of great turn-based strategy titles, including the fantastic Mario Rabbids Kingdom Battle. Despite these potential problems, Armello is far from an ordinary turn-based tale.
Dressed up in charming cell shaded animation and a picturesque top-down landscape, Armello opens on local wildlife scurrying around the plains of a mythical realm. Do not be deceived by this serene backdrop. Armello plays host to a savage throne war that feels nearer to Game of Thrones than Mario’s cartoon hijinks. On opening up Armello’s main map, it is entirely evident how much work has gone into the construction of this game. Like so many other versions of Armello, the Nintendo Switch port continues to successfully weave elements of almost infantile animation with a backdrop that would fit right into a traditional high fantasy RPG. Somehow it works tremendously, despite the Switch’s limited resources. Taking clear inspiration from hand-crafted animations, it effortlessly translates this aesthetic into a top-down isometric view. Even when Armello is blown up onto the big screen, colors look vibrant and the animation does not lose any of its detail.
The fantasy world of Armello is divided into a grid format, aping traditional tabletop board games and supporting the game’s turn-based system. Action points allow heroes to move between these areas, while a variety of other currencies provide the option to play game cards. This could mean spending gold to equip up to three pieces of equipment or using spirit to heal an insidious Rot that threatens the kingdom. Each of the six initial characters has their own particular stats, providing them with a tendency towards one or two of the game’s four distinct play styles. Some character’s like Thane the wolf are focused on combat, meaning item cards, weapons, and gold are incredibly important to this hero. Other characters tend to favor deceit and trickery, focusing on different roles, objectives, and subset of game cards. Without losing myself down a rabbit hole describing the warren of choices, this will seem familiar to fans of tabletop gaming and provides sufficient variety to most encounters.
Armello’s quest system neatly ties each character’s proficiencies together, giving each character a set of objectives to strive towards and pushing them towards a particular win state. Players entering the game for the first time get a pretty thorough tutorial surrounding this and are always given the choice to follow a particularly obvious path. It makes the game extremely accessible for newcomers, ensure that there are heroes with very clear characterization and an option to follow that throughout each new scenario.
As quests unfold and players flit between grids, encounters such as combat and trials use a consistent mix of dies rolls and card sacrifice to determine the outcome. This system manages to strike a comfortable balance between complexity and accessibility. While more experienced individuals have the option to play with the nuances of character builds and card decks, the consistent approach to these encounters makes Armello feel entirely accessible.
Where Armello really starts to build complexity is in its flexibility. As time progresses and experience with each of the heroes increases you will tend to find yourself deviating from the prescribed narrative for each character archetype. Character builds can be modified using new equipment, won through the game’s progression system, and card choices can be manipulated to sit a situation rather than character traits. In addition, multiple win states mean that, for example, combat-focused characters might choose to try to cure the king of his Rot rather than fight him for the throne. Characters that are not particularly well suited to crossing swords can, in a pinch, delve into a little subterfuge or choose quests that might provide an unusual road to victory. It all allows for a dynamic feeling that seems to change the game on every play though. This flexibility is coupled with a plethora of custom game rules. Twenty custom game options allow players to jump into an increasingly complex and layered game. Combined, this all makes Armello feel fresh on every dice roll. It is an astonishing achievement for a campaign that starts with just one campaign map and one goal.
Multiplayer, continues to give the game a fresh feel and continued longevity, throwing in even more unpredictable human players, and makes the cost of Nintendo’s Online service feel slightly more palatable. Alongside the Nintendo online subscription, there are some jarring issues that are bundled with the Switch version of Armello. While the control system is very well put together for a console iteration, the game feels like a direct port of other console releases. The Switch’s touchscreen is not used. Even City Skylines disappointing Switch conversion tried to give some haptic feedback via the Joycon controllers.
More than this, however, this Armello’s Switch outing feels like its big screen counterparts, squeezed onto a mobile platform. The UI crams in notes, lore, text, and animation in a screen that makes it difficult not to squint. Blown up on my home TV, this is not an issue but the Switch’s 6.2-inch touchscreen is where owners will do most of their gaming. This makes Armello problematic to get started with and sometimes slows things down. It’s a minor gripe but one I feel happens all too often Switch ports.
The Switch’s mobile limitations also impact Armello’s performance in places. While it runs reasonably well when docked, there are areas of Armello that consistently slow down in handheld mode. This plagues very particular animations. It does not make the game unplayable by any means but does remain a bugbear.
When the dice settle, Armello’s quality shines through. This is a lovingly crafted game that manages to reconstruct the joy of a great board game. It is simple to pick up but has a deceptive degree of complexity under the hood. Multiplayer games, when they are close, are incredibly intense, yet each game can blow over in 15 minutes. There is so much to love about Armello that the odd bad roll it makes on Switch is not enough to beat it. Armello wins this war on the Switch and is out now. Check it out on the Nintendo eShop or find out more on the official website.